Even with high oil field wages, finding shelter can be one of the biggest challenges for newcomers. In Live Oak and McMullen counties, some have opted out of planting roots and living on a solid foundation, or have given up trying entirely. These camps of RVs, sheds and tents can be found throughout the Eagle Ford Shale and are home to new or temporary residents who live among the elements like modern-day pioneers. For them, life in a boomtown can be a bumpy ride.
Tips Park in Three Rivers is filled with dozens of RVs and tents year-round, but unlike most government-owned parks, there isn’t a lot of changeover. For many, this is where they call home as they try to live as cheaply as they can in an area where rent has increased 300 percent in recent years.
At $5 a night, it doesn’t get much cheaper than living at Tips Park. But it takes some creativity to keep cool; tents covered in tarps are connected in a web of drop-cables powering their air conditioners and fans as they spread across the park lawn and RVs fill the back half of the park.
On the east end of Tips Park, near the basketball court, is a one-person tent where Lupe Ramos lives. Ramos used to commute from San Antonio when he got hired in the area for $20 per hour. He said he drives slowly, so the commute took him two hours one-way and cost him about $120 per week.
Ramos said he came to the area when he found his current job as a sandblaster online and was hired on the spot at a job fair.
“The first week it was rough because I only had a little bit of money, and my money went like quick in the gas money and buying water and all kinds of stuff,” Ramos said. “We are struggling to make ends meet.”
Although he has a small tent with a tarp cover to disperse some heat, he sleeps in the covered bed of his Ford Ranger with a fan blowing on him all night.
“My family is kind of sad because I sacrifice, but I don’t like waking up early and driving two hours; I could fall asleep on the road,” Ramos said. “People want to be with their families, but work late and then get there and go to bed at midnight and the next thing you know it is 4 a.m. But now my money isn’t going into gas and that kind of stuff. I feel safer not driving to and from (San Antonio) real early.”
Staying off the roads is important for commuters like Ramos because crashes increased by 295.5 percent in McMullen County and by 11.1 percent in Live Oak County from 2008 to 2011, according to the Texas Department of Transportation.
Ramos said he and his coworkers drink cold water and Gatorade all day while working outside, but they don’t have a fridge so they use a cooler of ice. He said they buy two bags of ice every day and take turns buying drinks.
“I do sandblasting during the day, and we pace ourselves; you can’t do much when it’s real hot,” Ramos said. “Even in the mornings you run out of breath.”
Texans are more likely to die of temperature-related causes during July and August than any other time of the year, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. With temperatures hovering at about 100 degrees in the daytime, seeking refuge from the heat is easier said than done for those living in tents at Tips Park.
And for those working in the oil fields by day and at Tips Park at night, there is no escape.
“Everyone is oil field here, it’s called oil field trash, and we are trying to make it day-to-day,” Adelia Niebauer said. “Fans don’t do much; they just circulate the heat; it’s like an automatic heat, hot air blowing from the fan.”
Niebauer has been living in a three-room tent west of the basketball court at Tips Park since late November where she, her boyfriend, and dog, Lola, a Great Dane/Labrador mix, used to keep cool with a window air conditioning unit. But it broke, and she said they can’t afford a new one right now. She said she wrote a letter to the governor addressing the challenges she and others in similar situations face each day.
With no air conditioner, she keeps herself and her dog cool during the day by staying wet and drinking iced drinks. She said they also find relief in their car, a 2007 Ford Escape. Then at night, she said she will get up and take showers to cool off too.
Niebauer said she’s been living in a tent at the park since November because housing is too expensive in the area for her and her boyfriend to afford, even though he makes $1,800 every two weeks. She credited their budget being tight to the living expenses they accrue between groceries, gas, laundry and others.
“You have to be oil field to find a house here,” Niebauer said. “They think ‘oil field, OK, we will take all their money.’”
She said it costs $1,300 per month to rent a RV, or $400 for a spot to park one that’s already owned. She said they looked at renting a room, but it was $500 per month per person. In last week’s classifieds section, a bedroom could be rented locally for $150 per person per week, or $600 per month. A three-bedroom house in Three Rivers was advertised for $1,200 per month, and an RV was available for $130 per week for one person or $170 per week for two people.
“I came here to make money and save as much as I can. It’s not about how much you make; it’s how much you get to keep,” Tips Park tent resident Jesse Davis said. “Us transients are going to leave someday, and they might remember some of this.”
Davis uses a window air conditioning unit sealed onto the side of his tent with duct tape and propped up on a milk crate and some wood. He said during the night it gets cool enough inside that he occasionally has to turn it off for a while.
“But at day it is a losing battle. It’s kind of hillbilly, but it works,” Davis said. “I started out with the air conditioner because I knew it was going to be hot. The tarps reflect the heat and it really does help. Even with my air conditioner going, you can’t stay in the tent during midday.”
Davis came to Three Rivers from Florida; he said finding a job was difficult to do there. He also said his brother lived at Tips Park for five or six months, so he knew what he was getting into. This includes the scorpions and tarantulas, both of which he has encountered while living in the park.
“You can’t walk away from your tent unzipped because things will crawl in and move in with you,” Davis said. “You can’t keep them away, but I keep them out.”
Davis described the heat in Three Rivers as more of a dry heat than in Florida. He said the first three or four weeks were difficult until he realized the importance of staying hydrated.
“If you wait until you’re thirsty, you will never catch up, you will be thirsty all day,” Davis said.
Davis said he is usually at work during the daytime and spends his Sundays doing laundry and grocery shopping. A typical day for him involves waking up at 4 a.m., going to the gym at 5 a.m. and showering there, then working a 12-13-hour long shift; so his time at the park is limited.
Although the temperature and stress run equally high for those roughing it to get by, the Texas traditions of hospitality, kindness and neighborly customs are no different at Tips Park than a regular neighborhood as Ramos, Niebauer and Davis each said they’ve met a lot of nice people while living there.