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For UNT student, new hotline means more hope for people with mental illness — and a more urgent response when crises erupt
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Reagan Kremer, a senior studying social work at the University of North Texas, still remembers when her brother Brady’s mental health crisis went sideways.

Until that day, Kremer said her brother had been a sweet, good-natured young man. But suddenly, he seemed to be speaking in code. He was acting very paranoid.

Her older brother had undiagnosed bipolar disorder, and when he had what she describes as “a severe manic episode,” her family was surprised and unprepared to help him.

They did what countless families have done before: They dialed 911.

“It was just, kind of — we were lost,” Kremer said. “And so we ended up calling 911 to try to get him to the hospital.”

What happened next was what has happened for many Americans — especially men and people of color experiencing a mental health crisis. Police responded, and because they weren’t mental health specialists, Kremer said they acted out of their police training and tried to physically subdue her brother.

“Several police officers came, which just completely freaked him out because, in his mind, he already thought people were coming after him and our family. And that just added to that. And they didn’t know how to handle it, and they got super aggressive with him and ended up like throwing him on the ground and arresting him.

“They charged him with a felony because when they threw him down, he accidentally elbowed one of the officers. It was just a mess,” Kremer said.

Her brother ended up in solitary confinement, which can cause psychological damage even to people who don’t have a mental illness. Kremer said the family had no access to him, and he received no medical care while in jail. Kremer said the impact of the arrest made it that much harder for her brother to rebound from the episode.

Today, Kremer’s family could dial 988, an emergency telephone number that replaced the National Suicide Hotline on July 16. The federally funded response system allows a dispatcher to collect information and hail local mental and behavioral health first responders.

“I think 988 is a really good start to what we’ve needed for a while, which is having local access to support services for people who are in a mental health crisis,” Kremer said. “I’m not a fan of calling 911 if a person needs mental health care. Just due to personal stories, and after doing lots of research, it seems to be kind of a common theme of [crises] not being handled well. So I think it’s really cool that 988 can connect to mobile crisis centers within your community. And I think that that is going to be a huge progress for the mental health, honestly.”

Everyone interviewed by the Denton Record-Chronicle about the newly launched helpline explained that, generally, they don’t think police officers are bad actors in responding to mental health crises. Instead, police have had to take on public services they aren’t trained to respond to on behalf of communities that rely on them to resolve an ever-growing list of human needs.

When police try to meet these needs in Texas, sources said, they do the best with mental health resource budgets state legislators have slashed. Last April, according to published reports, Gov. Greg Abbott cut $211 million from the Texas Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees mental health programs across the state. Abbott endured criticism for the fiscal decision immediately after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, which he said was caused by a mentally ill gunman.

While the public often fears people with mental illnesses as dangerous and violent — especially men and people of color with mental illnesses — data says the opposite is true. If you are like Brady Kremer and have a behavioral episode that stems from an undiagnosed mental illness? You are 16 times more likely to be killed in a police encounter than a civilian without a mental illness.

According to the 2022 State of Mental Health in America report from Mental Health America, Texas ranks last out of all 50 states and the District of Columbia in overall access to mental health care.

Michael Clements/UNT 

University of North Texas social work undergraduate  Reagan Kremer gives a talk titled "The Criminalization of the Mentally Ill" during TEDxUNT in the 314 Suite in the UNT Union in September 2021.

A family illness

You’ve heard the well-worn jokes about mental illness running in families. “They say it skips a generation,” goes the quip.

For Reagan Kremer, it’s no joke. Kremer said she began dealing with her own mental health condition between ages 14 and 15. She’s one of nine children.

“I hid it for about two years, and then I turned 17,” Kremer said. “And I knew I needed help. I didn’t tell my friends. I didn’t tell my parents. I didn’t tell anyone.”

Kremer grew up in church, and looking back, she said she thinks her parents hoped for a religious intervention.

“And that just wasn’t going to happen,” she said. “And so it took a little bit of convincing that, yes, I need therapy. Yes, I needed medication. And I just think I realized, ‘I’m pretty sure there are other people struggling with this.’ And so once I did finally open up about it, I had a lot of people kind of come to me and just say, ‘I didn’t know we can talk about things like this,’ or ‘I never would have guessed you were someone going through this.’ That makes me feel more normal or better about myself, I guess.”

Kremer’s diagnosis: bipolar disorder. While the illness is an umbrella that includes a number of symptoms, it is best known for stretches of high, manic energy and behavior punctuated by debilitating depression. Some people with bipolar disorder can experience hearing voices and sounds that don’t exist.

While Kremer has struggled with depressive episodes and self-harm, she hasn’t had an encounter with police while trying to get help. Today, more families might be able to avoid having police be the first responders.

“I see it as like a softer alternative to 911 that may even be a safer alternative,” said Cassidy Baker, UNT’s interim chair of social work.

Baker’s background is in family violence, an issue fraught with compounding problems such as addiction and mental illness. Before coming to UNT, Baker worked with the Denton County District Attorney’s Office for three years after working for Child Protective Services for eight years. She often saw families pulled into the criminal justice system when they really wanted help during an emergency.

Baker said there are times when people need police. Other times, though, people need a mental health specialist and a social worker to deescalate a situation, get medical help and help with community-based resources.

“Working in that intersection of families that are interacting with the criminal justice system, you saw them struggle with calling 911,” Baker said. “So many family members and women that I talked to, they said, ‘I called 911 because I wanted help. I wanted help for me, I wanted help for my partner.’ And sometimes that help came in the way they anticipated, but a lot of times it didn’t. It was different than what they thought would happen. I see this as a different kind of entry point into connecting people with the services that really fit their needs.”

A broader base of support

The 988 hotline replaced the National Suicide Hotline, and Baker said she sees the new number as a way for people to get help before they are in danger of hurting themselves.

“Now they’ve kind of expanded it to this emotional distress,” she said. “You know, somebody may think, ‘OK, I’m not experiencing suicidal thoughts, but I’m certainly experiencing emotional distress.’ So maybe this is a number that can help, you know what I mean? I think it broadens the accessibility to what mental health intervention really looks like.”

In its first month, dispatchers at 988 fielded more than 10,000 calls from Texas residents. In mobilizing local first responders where the caller lives, mental health workers said the new hotline might bring some people to care earlier than they’d gotten it before.

“We have certainly seen a gap in accessibility for mental health services,” she said. “And right now, I think that this may be a stepping stone to kind of doing something more broad. But even as a social worker in the field, a lot of what we do is figuring out how to access resources. So we may be interacting with somebody in Denton County, because they visited their grandma here, but they actually live in Collin County and they don’t qualify for services here. So as a person whose professional job is to access resources, we have a challenge doing it. If somebody’s in a mental health crisis, trying to access those resources, to find what they’re eligible for, it’s just very overwhelming.”

Rachita Sharma, the interim UNT chair of rehabilitation and health services, said 988 is a boon for mental health specialists.

“This was reason to celebrate, have this federally supported funding that comes to the state to provide these resources to individuals who are experiencing a mental health crisis,” she said. “So I would say in that capacity, this was a great change to see come forward.”

Sharma said the funding is probably a result of “voices trickling upward.”

She hopes the new hotline will ease the stigma of reaching out, especially for people who don’t have the money to get into therapy or even afford a primary care doctor who can prescribe some mental health medication.

“I can definitely speak anecdotally,” she said. “With the clients that I’ve worked with, it’s not uncommon for them to be very reluctant about calling 911. If you’re actively suicidal and you call 911, the cops show up at your door. Your neighbors think you’re up to some shenanigans, and then you get carted off — to a 72-hour forced, involuntary imprisonment is what a lot of people call it who have been through it. It might not be imprisonment, but you’re involuntarily put in a mental health facility and reviewed without even being able to contact your own relatives, or friends, or people that would naturally give you support.”

Clinicians are also reluctant to call 911 for clients having suicidal thoughts.

“We would rather call the mobile crisis units, because mobile crisis units are the ones that are better equipped to come into the facility,” Sharma said. “They have trained clinicians who know how to do crisis evaluations. They can work with the individual a lot better than a police officer can.”

A cause for hope

“I am in the trade of hope,” Sharma said. “I’m a counselor, so I always say hope is a good philosophy. And just based on the reaction I’ve seen within the mental health community, I think this is something that will become well known.”

Sharma said the hotline number is simple enough to remember, and easy to fit on a wallet-size card.

“I hope it spreads far and wide, like the 911 number,” she said. “I’m hopeful that in the very least, it’ll spread far and wide for the population that could benefit from it. Or we can easily offer it to somebody else to say, hey, why don’t you call this number?”

Hope is one thing. For Kremer, education is another. Local governments have gotten the message that people having mental health crises need expertise, compassion and action.

What they don’t benefit from, Kremer said, is jail and nothing else.

In a TEDxUNT talk about her brother’s experience with a mental health crisis, Kremer told the audience her brother had just one plea for people.

“He said, ‘Reagan, I just want them all to know how scared and how alone I felt,’” Kremer told the audience. “He thought he was going to die there.”

Hotels, motels have become Denton’s new affordable housing

The motel near Interstate 35 doesn’t look like a place where a family would want to raise its children. A base-colored building falling into disrepair, the upstairs walkway leans from the weight of the number of families who have called this place home since long before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is our first time having to deal with this situation. We’ve always been able to find affordable housing,” one family who wished to remain anonymous because of safety concerns told the Denton Record-Chronicle. “The area where we are is not a good area for our kids. We can’t let them go outside. We have to go to a park because the people who come around here are far-gone drug addicts.”

Crystal “Shorty” Gutierrez’s family has been in survival mode for about five months now since she and her boyfriend split up. A single mother of three children, she had only about $100 to her name and struggled to find an affordable apartment or house because of the lack of availability and the landlords’ requirement for tenants to make three times the rent. Now she’s pouring everything she has financially into keeping a roughly 350-square-foot room at the Studio 6 for $400 a week. She picked this hotel because of the proximity of nearby fast-food restaurants but almost lost her room after a pay dispute and other issues led to her firing at one of the restaurants.

But she was lucky because she landed a job at Sonic a week later and was able to catch up on her motel room bill after taking several extra shifts.

“That is why I came to this hotel. It’s just up under the bridge, and everywhere I go, I walk,” Shorty said. “There are a lot of families here in this hotel.”

Jacob McCready/For the DRC 

Many Denton residents, including families with children, are having to use hotels and motels, such as the Studio 6 off Interstate 35, for long-term housing because of the lack of apartments and houses they can afford.

Jacob McCready/For the DRC 

Crystal "Shorty" Gutierrez uses the mirror in her room at the Studio 6 in Denton as a pseudo-organizer and message board for her and her three children.

In a state once known as “a place where families can live well for less,” the state comptroller pointed out that Texas home prices have been outpacing the nation since 2011. This fact, along with others — explosive population growth, rise in building costs and property taxes, for example — has turned motels and hotels into the new face of affordable housing in Texas, as several news outlets have reported.

It reaffirms United Way’s 2022 Denton County Community Needs Assessment, which found 45% of households in Denton no longer can afford to live here. Some of that number can be found at motel rooms across the area. Gary Henderson, president and CEO of United Way, called it the “front door” to homelessness, just another step on the downward spiral.

Shorty and other families at the motel off Interstate 35 are one step away from joining the homeless, whose numbers have increased 43% from July 2021 to July 2022 in Denton County, according to a new Homeless Point in Time report by the United Way.

“We’ve seen this before, but we have never seen this many households,” Henderson said.

A lack of urgencyA year had passed since the Nunez family moved into its 350-square-foot hotel room. It was a step up the homeless ladder for the family of five, from living out of their Envoy SUV in a Walmart parking lot where they depended on the kindness of strangers to help them scrape together enough money to climb out of it.

They had shared their story with the Record-Chronicle in November 2018 in a report about families who were forced to live in motel rooms due, in part, to the lack of affordable housing in the area. A lack of data made it difficult for agencies to track the number of families living in motel rooms, according to the Nov. 25, 2018, Record-Chronicle report.

“I couldn’t say definitively how many families are living in motels,” Courtney Cross, the then-director of homeless initiatives for United Way, told the Record-Chronicle. “I wouldn’t even want to attempt.”

News outlets have been attempting it. In May 2020, The Texas Tribune dropped a story about students living in cramped hotel rooms, which reporters Aliyya Swaby and Juan Pablo Garnham called the “last resort for struggling families, even more so during the coronavirus pandemic.”

“Officials with the small school district in the northwest corner of Tarrant County estimate that dozens of their students — like hundreds in other districts — live with their families long term in this hotel, so many that when the coronavirus pandemic shut down schools, it set up a regular service handing out free meals and books in the hotel parking lot,” they wrote in the May 2020 Tribune report. “Otherwise, students faced crossing two highways to reach the school for breakfast or lunch, according to Ally Surface, a parent volunteer who distributes meals weekly.”

The Nunez children were part of the 7% of more than 114,000 students who were considered homeless and living in motel and hotel rooms, according to the Tribune report.

Four years after the Record-Chronicle’s report, more and more families like the Nunezes are living in hotel and motel rooms, not only in Denton but across North Texas, because of the lack of affordable housing and increasing rent costs that in several Texas cities “have increased by double digits,” the Tribune reported in February.

“Across the state and country, a combination of social, economic and political forces are driving more people to look for rental housing but limiting the construction of units,” Timia Cobb reported for the Tribune in February. “That imbalance between supply and demand pushes rents upward, putting tenants in financial binds. And in Texas — where laws favor landlords, and rent control is virtually nonexistent — tenants are left to either take on additional jobs, cut other household costs or move out of the communities they prefer.”

Or, as agencies are seeing in Denton County and elsewhere, they’re moving into hotel and motel rooms. They’ve been dubbed the “hidden homeless” by the Center for Transforming Lives, as the Fort Worth Report first reported in a May 23 article.

According to a new report by the Center for Transforming Lives, “A significant proportion of children experiencing homelessness live in motels. What further limits our ability to assess the needs of families living in motels is knowing how many families this represents in our community. Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) does not consider families living in motels as ‘homeless’ and, as a result, these families are largely ineligible for most housing programs. But because of the detrimental impacts of unstable housing on child outcomes, the U.S. Department of Education considers children living in motels to be homeless based on the McKinney-Vento Act.”

But even if HUD did consider families living in motels and hotels as homeless, trying to qualify for a housing voucher in Denton won’t help them get out of their situation anytime soon.

Denton Housing Authority is closing the housing choice voucher waiting list on Sept. 30 because of HUD’s guidelines regarding the length of waiting lists. The closure won’t affect applicants who get their names on the waiting list before Sept. 30. However, according to a DHA flyer, “current applicants can expect a wait of 5 years or longer.”

New hope goneAll day and all night, the refrigerator in Sparkle’s motel room makes a clunking noise as if the fan is going out. She has had several issues with the motel room, but the manager, she said, hasn’t been addressing them.

A mother of three daughters, “Sparkle,” who is disabled and declined to give her full name out of concern for her safety, and her husband have been living at the motel off Interstate 35 since September, paying $420 per week on a single income.

Like other families living at the motel, they struggle to find affordable housing or to meet the three-times income marker to qualify if they did find one they could afford.

“I don’t understand why in Texas we need to make three times more than what our rent is,” Sparkle said. “I’ve never heard of that before. The person taking my application doesn’t make that much. Why is it so high? We barely make enough to get the rent paid and get food and still have things like personal hygiene items and school projects. It is a struggle.”

Last year, they moved to Texas from the Memphis area to lay a foundation and offer stability for their children. The motel room was a short-term plan that has turned into a long-term one, as it has for many families. Just last week, she said, a family of seven was forced out of their motel room because they could no longer afford to pay the weekly bill. Their 3-month-old infant was still in a Fort Worth hospital.

Sparkle has two beds in her motel room and has two inflatable mattresses for her daughters — between the ages of 11 and 15 — to sleep on. Her children don’t attend public school since she chooses to homeschool them, so they don’t receive free and reduced lunches like the increased number of children at Denton ISD, which saw a 3.24% increase from January 2020 until January 2021, according to a Jan. 31, 2021, Record-Chronicle report.

“I have never experienced anything like this,” Sparkle said. “It seems like it is worse than it was during the pandemic.”

And there’s little relief in sight. A few projects are currently in development, and in February, the Denton City Council approved resolutions for seven more affordable housing projects that were seeking a 9% housing tax credit from the federal government. All would charge rent on a scale depending on income, the Record-Chronicle reported in a Feb. 4 report.

The city hasn’t had that many developers seeking the 9% housing tax credit to be able to offer the affordable housing in several years because of the competitiveness of other North Texas cities seeking the limited housing credit, said Danielle Shaw, the director of community services for Denton.

But only two so far have been approved for the housing credit, and it will probably take a couple of years before their affordable housing projects become available for people like Sparkle, Shorty and the others.

Shaw said the way developers achieve affordability is by bringing down the cost of development and referred to it like playing a game of chess.

“A lot of chess pieces,” she said. “They need the right financing mix and right land costs and tax credits.”

Sparkle, who also claimed many families were living at the motel, could contact the Denton Affordable Housing Corporation, a community housing development nonprofit, for help. To qualify, she would need to make a certain percentage — between 30% and 80% depending on a number of factors — under the median area income, which for Denton County is $90,354, according to July 2021 estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau.

DAHC Executive Director Jacob Moses said they manage 91 properties in Denton but have only one vacancy currently available.

“It’s because our rent homeowners usually stay there,” Moses said.

In the meantime, Sparkle and others will have to continue their juggling act to make their weekly rent or end up on the street.

Yet the economy’s expected impact on their family income isn’t bright. According to the 2022 National Community Survey of Denton, residents’ scores have all significantly declined for Denton as a place to work, its economic health of the city and the cost of living. Residents felt much less optimistic about the economy’s expected impact on their family income, from only 15% in 2022 compared with 36% in 2018.

In other words, Texas no longer has the reputation as “a place where families can live well for less,” as the state comptroller pointed out.

“It is getting hard,” Sparkle said. “I feel like it is being a bit too much. It’s been a year. We’ve been surviving, not living — just surviving.”