Downtown resident Geoffrey Smith is not a social worker. He has lived in a high rise condominium for three years, and this spring, he tried to help a homeless man in his neighborhood get off the streets. But Smith encountered some of the same road blocks that have been frustrating homeless advocates for years. Here is the story, from a letter he wrote:
The man is a chronic alcoholic with a history of more than 10 years on the streets of Austin. He approached me one day, and he was shaking. I noticed he had been beaten up. He was completely shattered.
I asked him what happened. He explained and I listened to him. At the end of his account, he looked at me and said he did not want to live like this anymore. I believed him, so I spent all day on March 31st attempting to help him.
We headed towards a center in Austin that was recommended to take the man, whom I will call Mike. Upon arrival, we filled out paperwork and began the process. At first, Mike did not qualify and we were sent to another facility.
We made our way there where we again talked over the phone, this time to a coordinator. Mike did not qualify at this facility, but we were given the name of yet another facility.
I used my cell phone and talked with an intake coordinator who told me the necessary requirements. We were given a list of needed papers, such as ID, and letters stating mental stability and health history.
Mike had recently been beaten and he had no form of ID on him, so we started the day to obtain the required list of needed papers.
We headed off to the Texas Department of Public Safety and found out that the only way a person can obtain an ID without any papers is by being given a letter from a state-qualified worker who can authorize the release of his birth certificate.
We ended up at the Salvation Army. Then we were told to head over to the Trinity Center, and we found willing, qualified individuals who were very ready to assist.
By this time, we were well into the day. Mike still had not had a drink or anything to eat, and he was beginning to shake and suffer mild DTs (delirium tremens).
We were told that our best option was a back door approach through a system in place. An appointment was made for Mike to present himself at 8:30 am the next morning for possible placement, because there was no possible way of getting him into a program that late in the day.
We were told that a hospital room visit was a good idea, as Mike was showing signs of withdrawal, and it could turn into a possible life threatening situation.
I had seen Mike laying on a bench in a park the day before in his own urine covered clothing, so I, a trained Bronze Medallion Surf Life Saver, knew he was at a point of losing his bodily functions.
We made it to the ER were Mike was quickly taken into an available bed and given treatment immediately. I explained the whole story to the attending ER doctor, what the journey had been, and my willingness to stay with this man to give him the best possible chance of making it into a professionally monitored situation for a detox off of long term alcohol abuse.
Mike did not qualify for admission into the hospital that day. I did try my hardest to show that Mike had an appointment the next day for possible placement into a program, and that a professionally monitored night of observation would give him an opportunity to get there without a window of potential relapse. I have worked in a hospital in Australia that had a high dependency unit and I was familiar with the process of medicating to help with the process.
Mike was discharged and we were sent to the sick bay at the Salvation Army where Mike had two days. He was given a bed but did have the opportunity to go out at night and have a cigarette.
My concern for Mike was the chance of relapse and the fact that he would be around others like himself. I ended up leaving Mike there over night and told him that I would meet him in the morning to go to the arranged appointment through the back door for placement.
I showed up the next morning at 8 am and Mike was there as promised. On the walk down to the appointment, I could tell Mike had changed his mind to continue his process for entry into rehab. The time had given him a widow to change.
We did go to the appointment and Mike was given the opportunity to start the process into rehab. Mike at this point had access to photo copies of IDs in files at this facility. He took these copies and walked away from us. The two of us told Mike in the most sincere way we could that he was in need of help and should take it. He did not he decided to attempt to go to the bank to try to get money out.
I have told you all of this because the window of opportunity to help someone with this level of disease is very small. Mike had a night to think about his situation and he decided to take a different avenue. He told me right from the beginning that he would not be accepted today, and I found out that that was true. He fell through my fingers and, as far as I know, back onto the streets of Austin.
He will most likely get picked up again by EMS at cost to the taxpayers, I was told, between $600 to $1000. Then he'll be taken to the ER and given the band-aid approach, another cost to the taxpayers, and released back onto the streets with nowhere to go.
The statistics show that substance abuse prevention programs are far less expensive in the long run than the band aid approach of last minute intervention. But from my experience, Mike did not have a chance to access those services when he told me he was ready to try.
I am asking you all to start to review the way we are treating this problem. We need to have a net, if that means grabbing them when they hit an emergency room when someone is telling them, "Hey this guy may have a chance over here. Let’s give him the best possible opportunity to get help."
Mike is a resident of Texas, was born in the State of Texas and if anyone deserves to be helped with everything there is to offer, it is a person who was born in the state. I know everyone has the same right to care, but what I am getting at is Mike fell through the net. He didn't get the placement. The obstacles were against him.
I was told Mike had a long history of repeat relapse, but that should never diminish his chance for the best possible chance of recovery. Who knows, maybe this would have been the time that the light bulb went off inside himself and he got to get better.
For reaction to the story, we called Texas Homeless Network's executive director Ken Martin, who has been working in homelessness programs since the mid-90s.
"My initial reaction was, 'Wow, this is somebody outside the homeless arena that gets it,'" Martin told KUT News. "We have to have to the funds to provide the services that are needed to get people off the street, housing and services."
"When people want help, it's not available to them," Martin said.
Caritas of Austin has some ways you can help fight homelessness. You can also get involved with Caritas or other local advocates including Front Steps, the Trinity Center, the Salvation Army, Foundation for the Homeless, the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), and many others.