The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

2 NE teachers share passion for helping homeless

By Mario Montalvo/ne news editor
Every day, homeless people are ignored and unnoticed by the general population, but two NE teachers are going out of their way to offer hope and help to those in need.

NE psychology adjunct Karen Fisler is passionate about the homeless. When she’s not teaching, she does outreach for Mental Health and Mental Retardation of Tarrant County’s Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness, or PATH.
NE sociology professor Murray Fortner became involved after the psychology and sociology department organized a clothing drive and a series of lectures on homelessness, he said.

Throughout the semester, Fisler gets many questions from students, she said. The most common question is whether to give money to homeless people on the street.

“If you’ve got a couple of bucks and want to spare them, that’s fine,” she said. “Could be that person really is hungry and is going to go to McDonald’s and get a Happy Meal, or it could be that they’re going to go to the Valero and get a 40, but it’s fine to do that.”

Former NE student Chris Cassell said Fisler was always willing to talk about her involvement with the homeless.

“She’ll tell us stories about the kind of stuff she sees at the MHMR volunteering,” Cassell said. “It’s pretty interesting. Some are funny. Some are just informational.”

Fisler carries business cards and bus passes and will pull over and talk to people she sees on the streets, she said.

She‘ll say: “I don’t have any cash, but I will give you my business card and a bus pass, and you can come see me if you have some services that you need that I can help you with. But if not, take the bus pass and ride on a warm bus during the winter or a cool bus in the summer just to get off the street.”

As part of PATH’s outreach program, Fisler and her team go to campsites, under bridges, to the woods and to the outskirts of town taking Lunchables, daily bus passes, hygiene kits and pillows to individuals in need. Their goal is to establish a relationship with the people they meet to get them into the city to take full advantage of the services they have to offer.

Every other year, they go out with the Arlington and Fort Worth police departments to count how many people are living on the streets. Any given night, about 2,200 people in Tarrant County are on the streets or in emergency shelters, she said.

Fisler got involved with the homeless completely by accident, she said. She applied for three positions with MHMR Tarrant County and was given a job as a case manager at a homeless clinic.

“I didn’t know anything about homeless people,” she said. “I locked my doors when I drove past them. I bought into the whole stereotype, just like we all do.”

As she began working for MHMR, her entire belief system changed. She learned to appreciate the culture of homelessness and who they were, she said.

“I fell in love with this population, and I can’t imagine doing anything else, other than teaching,” she said.

Through her job, Fisler has met extraordinary individuals with interesting stories, she said.

One case that particularly inspired her was that of a man living under a bridge in Arlington. The man, Willy, had waist-long hair and a beard down to his chest. He was an alcoholic and flying a sign, or begging on corners for money, she said. He had been arrested 104 times by Arlington police for public intoxication and criminal trespass. He knew most of the police and jailers by name and even a few judges, she said. She worked closely with the police to get Willy back on his feet, she said.

Willy had been a welder and worked for years with a bad welder’s shield causing him to go legally blind. He could no longer work and turned to alcohol, which caused his life to spiral out of control, Fisler said.

Willy wanted to get sober, Fisler said. On Dec. 28, 2010, she went out with an Arlington police officer and collected Willy. She had arranged to have a bed waiting for him at a local rehabilitation clinic.

Willy went into rehabilitation and then moved into a men’s shelter program before moving out on his own. On Dec. 28, 2011, he celebrated one year sober and shaved his head and beard. He didn’t want to shave his hair until he was sober in case he went back onto the street.
“The scruffier and more pathetic you look, the more money you make,” Fisler quoted Willy as saying.

In another case, she and her team encountered a woman who wasn’t feeling well and took her to the hospital. Doctors discovered the woman had Stage Four cancer, which had spread throughout her body. She wanted to go back to her camp to die, but Fisler didn’t let her. They got in contact with the woman’s family and bought her a plane ticket home, but the woman had no identification and could not board a plane. Fisler worked closely with the woman’s mother to get a copy of her birth certificate, and they got her an ID at the last minute. The woman went home and spent the last two weeks with her family before dying. Despite her death, Fisler considers the woman’s story a success because she died with her family and not alone on a campsite, she said.

Fortner went to Houston and spent the night in a homeless shelter to gain a better understanding of the homeless. He then went undercover armed with a pen-sized camera and a Flip camera and posed as a homeless man in Austin and Fort Worth. Some of them would run when he told them what he was doing, but some just wanted to talk.

One woman Fortner met was diagnosed with liver cancer and told him that she was just on the street waiting to die because she knew nobody was going to save her, he said. At first, she was hesitant to talk, but once he told her what he was doing, she opened up to him.

He put together a short film and shows it to his classes. He titled the film Stray Manimals because people treat homeless people like animals, he said.

“To see a stray cat is one thing, but seeing people on the street and seeing past these people and through these people is not the way we should be operating in a country as affluent as this country,” he said.

The most touching thing he discovered during his research was running into homeless families with children, he said.

“It was really touching with the kids because I always say they don’t get to pick their parents,” he said.

While in Austin, Fortner met a group of homeless men who would collect aluminum cans, sell them and split the money. Some would buy beer with their share, but most would just buy essentials.

One man said he just needed batteries for his radio.

After talking with the man for several hours, Fortner offered him $20, which the man refused.

Fortner said the man didn’t want his people to see him taking money from anyone because he didn’t want to perpetuate the stereotype that they were beggars.

It was a great experience, but Fortner said if he could change something about that day, he would have shaken the man‘s hand. Instead, he gave him a fist bump because the man had a runny nose and had been wiping it with his hand all day, he said.

“It was almost like a mental reflex,” he said. “Here was a guy who thought he had a friend, and I pounded him. It affected him, but it affected me more. It was nothing that soap and water wouldn’t have gotten off my hands.”

Fortner said he initially went into the experience with ideas of stereotypes but found himself proved wrong.

“I got a whole new perspective because now I am so aware of what’s going on out there,” he said.

Between 20 and 30 percent of the general homeless population have mental health issues, Fisler said. Depression is high among the homeless because the culture tends to suck them in, she said.

For some, the bureaucracy keeps them from getting on their feet. She gave the example of someone losing a driver’s license because of a substance issue.

“You have to have a driver’s license to go to work,” she said. “You can’t get a driver’s license if you have surcharges for DWI that can run into the thousands of dollars, and those surcharges follow you for three years. And if you don’t pay them, they keep accumulating and accumulating so that debt gets out of control.”

More families are becoming homeless, Fisler said. The count last year showed an increase of women with children becoming homeless. Shelters are designated for women with children, but they are becoming crowded because domestic violence and divorce are on the rise as well, she said.

Even middle class and upper middle class people have become homeless as a result of the economy.

“You don’t see them on the streets because they usually have support from friends and family or savings to hold them over for a while, but it eventually runs out,” she said.

Most people are two or three paychecks away from being homeless, Fortner said. Unemployment is lasting longer and their resources are running out.

“It’s not just the bum with the brown bag anymore,” Fisler said.

She told the story of a former CEO who lost everything to a cocaine addiction and ended up on the street.

“The only thing he had from his past life are a pair of $200 loafers that he wears,” she said. “You just never know when you walk up to a homeless person what their story is.”

Fisler and Fortner both said people need to get more involved. They’ve already seen a great response from the student body.

Several students took part in a recent student ambassador’s drive for the homeless, Fisler said. One of her students donated a tent, she said. Another donated some unused pillows and hygiene items. They filled a van with items they collected, and they were still handing them out more than a year later, she said.

“I think people want to do something,” Fisler said. “They just don’t know what to do or where to start. I’ve had some students really get involved in things. I’m very proud of them for that.”

Fortner said people need to be socially responsible, and students often ask what that means. Students can donate old clothes or a blanket during the winter, he said.

“You didn’t cause that homelessness. You don’t know those people, but there is still something you can do,” he said. “Don’t just talk about it, do something.“

Fortner said his job is to spread awareness. In college, that’s what you’re paying for as part of your education, he said.

“I’m never here to tell you what to think, but I am here to tell you what to think about,” he said. “You can help these people by bringing them some hope. It’s like a seed, and they can pull themselves up.”

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