Dorothy Day House meets homelessness and the need for a living wage in Memphis

Daria Meeks, 26, has worked in the fast food industry since she was 18. In those years, she's had two children and accrued exponential living expenses, but her hourly wage has not budged from below $8 an hour.


In 2013, the pressure became too much. Crushed under mounting bills, she turned to the Dorothy Day House, a nonprofit that provides housing and counseling for families in crisis.


"I'm hopeful," said Dorothy Meeks about her job at Lucy J.'s Bakery, which will pay $15 an hour.
During the six months Meeks lived in the two-story home with her two children, she gained stability and enough breathing room to get a hold on a situation that seemed hopeless.


But a six-month reprieve cannot repair a system where many Memphians, like Meeks, feel they are bound to wages that keep families in a cycle of poverty.


"I make just enough for just bills," said Daria, who now makes $7.95 at Krystal's.


In November, she'll make nearly double that rate in her new position at Lucy J.'s Bakery, a nonprofit bakery founded by Dorothy Day House supporters. Three of the bakery's six employees will be curent or former residents of the Dorothy Day House.


The shop will also have a pay-what-you-can coffee bar with proceeds cycling back to Dorothy Day House operations.


And all workers will be paid a living wage of $15 an hour.


"We would not have opened the bakery if we weren't able to pay a fair wage," said Tracy Burgess, director of development and communications for the Dorothy Day House and founder of Lucy J.’s.


"I would hope that we would be an example at the bakery of how a small business could show others how they could do it."


The first year of the bakery's operations will be funded by a local philanthropy. Burgess said that investors were leery of supporting a local bakery with a higher-than-expected payroll.


"They were convinced that it wouldn't be a successful project," said Burgess.


After the first year of operation, she hopes that attitude could change as investors see how a living wage strengthens families and the economy.


In Memphis, jobs in food preparation and service take up 8.3 percent of the total market, according to May 2016 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Food service jobs have a mean hourly wage of $9.42 in Memphis, which is below the U.S. mean wage of $11.47. The minimum wage in Tennessee is $7.25.


Meeks said that living with minimum wage limits opportunities for her and her family.


“I've been doing fast food since I was 18, and I have just basically been back and forth, job to job to job, because I've been looking for better pay. And it was like the more I look, the worse it got,” she said.


Part-time hours are not guaranteed, Meeks said. If shifts are cut, she has to make difficult decisions about the expenses she can afford.


A suitable living wage for an adult with two children in Memphis would be around $17.83 an hour, according to a 2010 report “What is a Living Wage for Memphis?”


A living wage works with a bare-bones budget apart from any government assistance or significant savings.

Up to three families who are experiencing homelessness cohabitate at the Dorothy Day House. An upcoming expansion will make room for 12 families total.


“The whole purpose of the economy is provisioning – providing a living for those who work in it. The economy – and, in particular, the Memphis economy, is currently failing in this primary task,” stated David Ciscel, Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Memphis, in the report.


Private citizens need to step up where the government and faith-based community may fall short, according to Sister Maureen Griner, executive director of the Dorothy Day House.


“People just need to help people,” she said.


Part of that effort is a $5 million capital improvement that will quadruple the local presence of the Dorothy Day House. So far, the nonprofit has raised $1.5 million.


Located just east of the Memphis Medical District, the Dorothy Day House is a single-family home where up to three families cohabitate to recover from homelessness. The families cook meals, engage in recreation and seek resources from Dorothy Day House staff as needed. The average stay is six months.


“We try to stay out of their day-to-day lives as much as possible,” Griner said.


The organization was founded 10 years ago, and in that time 51 homeless families have benefitted from low-cost housing.


Most people who seek the Dorothy Day House’s services come from three experiences, Griner said. Either they’ve suffered trauma that has upset the family’s stability or they need some assistance under the yoke of generational poverty. Similar to Meeks’s situation, many people are underemployed or unemployed; they lack the education to get a decent job and are unable to live on minimum wage.


Griner said that her organization fields nearly a dozen calls every week. Lacking capacity, she has to turn away those families. The need in Memphis is great as limited options are present for families with teenage boys and pregnant mothers who seek shelter.


According to the Community Alliance for the Homeless, there are approximately 160 families sleeping in shelters or in uninhabitable places every night in Memphis. Griner expects the actual figure is much higher.

Tracy Burgess poses with a rendering of one of the properties Dorothy Day House will acquire.


“We are filling a unique niche because many shelters won't allow families to stay together, and they won't take families without the proper documentation,” she said, adding that missing birth certificates or drivers’ licenses can be barriers to families that seek shelter among Memphis’ main providers.


To meet that growing need, Dorothy Day House plans to purchase three properties just a mile and a half away from the organization’s current location at 1429 Poplar Avenue. The buildings at 321 South Bellevue Boulevard, 1161 Peabody Avenue and 1178 Peabody Avenue will be converted to homes, each to house three families. The properties previously housed operations for Church Health, which has relocated to a 150,000-square-foot space at Crosstown Concourse.


In the fall, Lucy J.’s Bakery will join Church Health as a tenant in the mixed-use building. Meeks said she is “always smiling” when thinking about the opportunity to serve up treats at the bakery.


“They gave me an opportunity to get another job that's paying a better pay rate than what I’m getting. I'll be able to save money and do more things with my children and take them out of town,” she said. “I’m hopeful.”

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Read more articles by Madeline Faber.

Madeline Faber is an editor and award-winning reporter. Her experience as a development reporter complements High Ground's mission to write about what's next for Memphis.