Some of Austin's homeless are dying of treatable illnesses.  A group is working to bridge the disparity.

Some of Austin’s homeless are dying of treatable illnesses. A group is working to bridge the disparity.

It’s pouring rain as a medical team pulls into the parking lot of a fast food restaurant in East Austin to meet Denzil Wooten, 58, for a regular checkup.

The team, known as M3 for Mobile, Medical and Mental Health Care Team, has been stalking Wooten about twice a week for three years.

“We meet people where they are and say, ‘Hey, where are we going today? said Tony Nunez, M3’s team leader.

Wooten has lived on the streets for 15 years. He says his mother’s death threw him into a deep depression and he became addicted to drugs and alcohol. He was unable to hold a job, which led him to beg and sleep under bridges.

A gloved hand holds another hand with a finger inside an oximeter

The M3 team meets homeless people wherever they are to provide them with care.

It is only since M3’s intervention that he receives regular treatment for bipolar disorder and substance abuse.

“They became like a family,” says Wooten. “Even when I don’t want them, they still help me. Even when I’m fed up and angry and don’t want to talk to anyone, they’re still there.

Nunez opens her laptop and begins checking Wooten’s prescriptions and upcoming doctor’s appointments for a host of chronic conditions. He says that this population cannot be expected to go to a clinic without help.

“Example: today it’s raining,” he says. “So for some of the people we serve, they might not come to a doctor’s appointment because they’ll be like, ‘Hey, my camp just fell down, so I have to dry all my stuff.'”

Ashley Sharma, a registered nurse on the team, explains that since M3 patients don’t have an address, they have to follow up creatively.

“Sometimes it’ll be like, ‘Oh, we meet by this tree,'” she says. “It’s funny because questions like, where do you go when you go for a soda in the middle of the day? Which gas station would you go to? These become health care issues.”

Take medicine to the street

Dr. Tim Mercer, a professor at Dell Medical School and a primary care physician at CommUnity Care, started M3 in 2019. He said there needed to be a more coordinated way to reach people experiencing homelessness, noting that their average lifespan is 53 years.

“The healthcare system is difficult for anyone to navigate,” he says. “So for people who are homeless, the hurdles pile up and compete with their day-to-day survival needs, where they go to put their things or leave their pets or can they make their medical appointments or go to lunch. somewhere.”

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Dr. Tim Mercer, a professor at Dell Medical School and primary care physician at Community Care, launched M3 in 2019.

M3 was created through a partnership between Dell Medical School, Integral Care and CommUnityCare Health Centers to provide this population with comprehensive care including mental health treatment and specialist care.

A grant from the Federal Addiction and Mental Health Services Administration helps fund a current staff of 12, which includes nurses and case managers dedicated to bringing medicine to the streets and coordinating care for each patient.

Patients are enrolled in Medicare or Medicaid disability coverage if they qualify. Care is also subsidized by Travis County taxpayers through safety net programs already in place for indigent care. Some services are offered free of charge.

Although there are approximately 4,000 homeless people in Austin, M3 is currently able to enroll only 50 patients in its program. To become an M3 patient, candidates must meet four criteria.

“We target people with chronic homelessness, severe mental illness, substance use disorder and chronic medical conditions,” Mercer explains.

He says there has already been a reduction in emergency room visits among M3 patients.

No time limit for treatments

Wooten’s progress was not linear, but he made significant progress. As Sharma checks her blood pressure under an awning near the parking lot, Wooten proudly announces, “I have 69 days clean and sober today.”

Constant care seems to change his life trajectory.

Two people kissing with two people standing in the background

Sharma hugs Wooten after his exam.

“My life is completely turned upside down,” he says. “I have a job now; I start tonight. I’ll be on concierge duty.

Before Nunez closes his laptop, they discuss an apartment that should be available before the end of the year.

Despite the progress, Sharma says, Wooten has not “graduated” from the program. The team wants to ensure that the success of the patients will be sustainable, and for that, there is no time limit.

“We have the luxury of time, of constant, gentle pressure over months and years to just support them and they get there,” she says.

“I can look in the mirror and love myself today,” Wooten says.

He thanks M3 for helping him envision a different life.

“I still have something to give to the world.”


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