North Texas homeless groups increasingly provide mental health care

Organizations serving the homeless in North Texas are increasingly providing mental health care services in addition to traditional assistance such as food and shelters.

Dallas-based groups Our Calling and Austin Street Center have more mental health care providers in their facilities every day.

Theresa Thomas, a spokeswoman for Austin Street, said many individuals who visit the center are struggling emotionally, although they are not necessarily dealing with severe mental illness.

“Everyone in downtown Austin Street is grieving the loss of something.” So, losing a job, losing a home, losing a loved one,” Thomas said. “Then they unfortunately just can’t handle it.”

Both Thomas and Wayne Walker, executive director and pastor of Our Calling in Dallas, emphasized that people experiencing homelessness go through a lot of trauma while living on the streets. They say that months and years of not feeling safe and having no rest creates a fragile mental state.

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“Many of them are abused or assaulted weekly, some even daily,” Walker said. “These are traumas that people face in their lives that cause significant emotional, spiritual, physical and mental health crises that are far beyond what most people would think of as the homeless experience.”

The staff at Our Calling are trained by mental health care providers to be better prepared for the scenarios they face.

The city of Denton, which recently opened a new community shelter, is also determined to address the mental health concerns of its homeless population.

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Wendy McGee, executive director of Our Daily Bread, which operates the shelter, said the new facility will have on-site medical services — something they didn’t offer at their previous locations.

The new shelter also includes classrooms, workstations, a communication center and semi-private rooms where people can have a virtual doctor visit or job interview.

McGee said her staff knows how well-being can affect a person’s ability to ensure and maintain independence.

“We hope to continue to grow that wellness program and help connect people with a primary care provider” to address acute and chronic conditions, McGee said.

Despite the increased emphasis on mental health services at homeless centers, Walker with Our Calling said that mental health is not the number one predictor of homelessness, but the lack of a supportive community to fall back on when a crisis strikes.

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“There are more people with mental health problems living in homes than will ever be on the streets,” he said. “There are more people with addiction problems living in homes in Dallas than will ever be on the streets.”

Got a tip? Email Mya Nicholson at [email protected]

Mia Nicholson reports for KERA’s Government Accountability Team. She is studying broadcast journalism at the University of North Texas.

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