Speakers at the United Way of Denton County’s annual kickoff breakfast Friday morning said the COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on mental health and housing in the community.

United Way partners with local entities to provide assistance for housing, employment and other needs. The event kicks off its annual fundraising campaign.

Friday’s event at the University of North Texas Gateway Center, attended by local business leaders and community members, included county leaders speaking about areas such as education, nonprofits and government. Gary Henderson, CEO and president of United Way of Denton County, hosted two panels — on housing and unemployment, and mental health.

“Every time you donated, every time your co-worker donated, every raffle ticket you sold … you moved us one step closer to our, not crazy idea, [but] idea that we know will change lives in Denton County,” Henderson said.

The first panel discussed the struggle of finding housing and employment. Henderson said the United Way is actively trying to help Denton County residents overcome challenges — specifically those who are considered Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed. ALICE is used to describe people who are employed but can’t afford basic necessities such as housing, food, child care, health care and transportation.

COVID-19 has revealed that there are limited resources for families who are already struggling financially. Dani Shaw, the director of community services for the city of Denton, said 16,000 Denton residents alone were spending more money on rent than they were bringing home with their income before the pandemic.

“I will say that our investment in our housing system prior to COVID was instrumental in building an infrastructure and a system that allowed us to keep 7,000 households housed during COVID,” Shaw said. “That’s 7,000 households that would’ve become homeless had that funding and that infrastructure that we built not been there.”

Michael Tally, who serves on the Denton County Workforce Success Leadership Team, discussed the importance of employment and the workforce.

“Yes, we could give money directly to a person, but what happens after COVID?” Tally said. “Do they have a job to get back to?”

Henderson stressed that of the thousands of Denton County households who need assistance in staying in their home, 50% are looking for jobs but not getting them.

“It’s a real challenge,” he said. “ALICE households don’t have all the work skills that are needed to hire them for jobs.”

City of Denton staff led a housing study that will show that data over a large geographic area. The first part of the study was completed in January and revealed that the majority of renter households and homeowner households cannot find affordable places to live in Denton.

“Affordable housing has a direct impact on economic development,” Shaw said. “When employers can’t attract or maintain employees from the community because there isn’t housing available to them, they aren’t going to come here and work here. That’s key to what we’re doing in affordable housing.”

The city’s housing assessment first focused on that aspect, she said, and the next is to look for tools to build infrastructure and make sure the private and nonprofit sectors can fill the needs for affordable housing.

Friday’s second panel focused on the mental health of children and adults, and solutions that are being used to increase mental health resources.

“I’ll try to get through this part without tearing up. … I have been with Cook Children’s going on 28 years, and I have never ever seen the severity of what we’ve dealt with in the last year and a half to two years,” said Lisa Elliott, a psychologist and clinic manager at Cook Children’s Health Care System. “In 2020, suicide was the No. 1 cause of traumatic death in our children.”

In April and May of 2020, Elliott said she had 11 young patients who needed in-patient hospitalization to stay alive and safe.

“There were no beds anywhere,” she said. “We have no pediatric beds in Denton County and limited adolescent beds.”

Elliott said the most common factors for children’s distress is lack of structure, socialization, isolation and hopelessness. She said Texas is second to last nationally in access to mental health services for children, adolescents and adults.

“We really should not be one of the lowest-funded counties,” Henderson said. “The local mental health authority really should be the largest provider of mental health services, not our jails.”

One solution the United Way is looking into, if it can obtain funding, is Mental Health Navigators, an evidence-based program. The program would match up with a family or individual struggling with mental illness and help facilitate their recovery.

This year, Denton Police Department launched its new collaborative program, the Crisis Intervention Response Team, known as CIRT, to respond to calls relating to mental health.

“In between May, when they launched, to August, we had about 176 calls for mental services in the city of Denton,” Denton Police Chief Frank Dixon said.

The program allows a police officer and a paramedic who is an officer and trained in mental health to partner up and deal with a mental health crisis together.

“In a perfect world, police would not be involved in these calls at all, but that’s not the case,” Lewisville Police Chief Kevin Deaver said. “This is the real world.”

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