Kenny McAfee wasn’t in Denton very long.
The 42-year-old left Gainesville in late March 2012 after his mother, Marcie Guess, told him that he couldn’t visit her apartment anymore. The way McAfee got when he drank, he scared other people.
Guess was afraid that if enough neighbors complained, she would get evicted. Guess was unable to work herself and running out of ways to help her son.
Now, his alcoholism was threatening her ability to keep a roof over her own head.
The family thought McAfee could get help in Denton.
“There’s nothing in Gainesville,” Guess says.
After McAfee came to Denton, Guess tried to keep in touch. She knew her son was still drinking and living on the streets, but he would tell her not to worry; friends were showing him the ropes.
She was his mother. She worried.
In June, he called and asked her to meet him near a chicken restaurant on McKinney Street. She saw that he had a black eye. He told her he’d been scratched up after a raccoon got into his tent. They had lunch. She bought him some clothes and she took him to the flea market to get a new pair of shoes.
A little before noon on July 22, Denton police came upon McAfee where his friend had found him earlier, wrapped in a blanket, lying in a spot midway under the shadows of the bridge at Bradshaw and McKinney streets. He had died in his sleep, his new shoes set neatly beside him.
As a team of volunteers prepared last week’s count of area residents who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, they were mindful of stereotypes that could keep them from thinking about how to reach everyone they possibly could.
Carl Seiler, project coordinator for Denton Homeless Management Information System, told members of the steering committee in December that he wanted photos on the flyers promoting the count to reflect the community. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has one definition for homeless. Texas schools use another definition to identify students who are homeless.
In Thursday’s count, known as “point in time,” volunteers asked people about their current living situation, Seiler said. That way, the volunteers can cast the widest possible net and better help the community understand who is homeless and who is at risk.
It will be several months before the city knows the results of this week’s count. In past years, estimates and actual counts have varied widely. In 2011, officials estimated that 576 people were homeless in Denton County, with 98 of them in the city. That year, point-in-time volunteers were able to count 201 people homeless in the city.
This year, according to Seiler, volunteers were able to reach more camps than in years past and were able to persuade people to come in and be counted.
The count started at “the hangar” — the Monsignor King Emergency Outreach Center on Nottingham Drive near Denton Bible Church — after volunteers from Immaculate Conception Church opened it up to help with the effort.
“The hangar” is one of two overnight shelters in the city. The Salvation Army runs a small shelter at 1508 E. McKinney St. that offers both emergency and transitional housing.
Betty Kay, a community volunteer from Immaculate Conception that works with the homeless, said Denton needs another shelter. “The hangar” is open only for extreme weather and The Salvation Army’s shelter has safety rules, including sobriety, which some people can’t meet.
In 2010, Kay met a young couple, both out of work and living in a tent, who came to the shelter in the Immaculate Conception lobby during that winter’s dangerously cold nights. The woman was pregnant. Kay and others were racing against time to help the couple get on their feet, including finding permanent housing before the baby was born. Otherwise, the couple could lose custody.
Kay said she followed up a few months ago and learned that the couple, no longer homeless, are living in another city and the father is employed. But they did surrender custody of their son in an open adoption brokered by Child Protective Services.
“They just couldn’t make it,” Kay says.
In addition to distributing small amounts of money available to help people pay electricity bills, Hope Inc. has two programs to help keep people in their homes. The short-term program helps people get through a crisis with case management services that last from one to four months.
Some of the budgeting help may seem like common-sense measures; for example, negotiating a new cellphone plan or discontinuing cable service, according to Alonzo Peterson, the group’s new executive director.
“But when people are in crisis, they don’t always think clearly,” Peterson says.
Helping people stay in their homes costs less than finding resources after they have become homeless, he said.
Hope Inc.’s long-term program pays for two years of transitional housing.
Peterson came to Denton after working at The Bridge, which serves the 6,000 people who are homeless in Dallas “in the more traditional way — on the street,” he says.
“But in Denton there are a lot of people in their homes just hanging on by their fingernails,” Peterson says.
Hope Inc. cannot meet the needs of about 30 percent of the people who call for help each year. That translates to about 10 to 12 calls per day, Peterson says.
Only a little is known about Kenny McAfee’s last days, and that comes from the police and the medical examiner’s reports.
One of McAfee’s brothers had called Denton police on May 21, reporting a call that came from McAfee’s phone, but it wasn’t his brother on the line. Instead, someone suggested that McAfee was in trouble, saying “if you know him, you’d better come get him.”
Police took the missing person’s report, putting the word out through some of the encampments until they were able to track down McAfee the next day.
About a week before he died, McAfee had fallen, intoxicated, giving himself two black eyes. He looked bad. Someone called police on July 16 thinking that McAfee had been assaulted.
The paramedics saw that McAfee was dehydrated and weak. McAfee was a small man, 4 feet 8 inches tall, and his weight had dropped to close to 100 pounds. The paramedics tried to get him to go to the hospital, but he refused. A friend poured the wine out of McAfee’s cup, and a business owner at a convenience store nearby gave him a sandwich and a sport drink, police said.
The next day, an officer went by to check on McAfee. According to the officer’s report, he gave McAfee a ride to Our Daily Bread, the soup kitchen at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church, for lunch. McAfee was grateful. He told the officer he didn’t have the strength to walk there.
The medical examiner ruled McAfee’s death one of natural causes, brought on by protein-calorie malnutrition caused by alcoholism — something the police department has seen many times before, according to Richard Godoy, the family services coordinator for the Denton Police Department.
“Life on the streets, what it was about for him, that’s something we’ll never know,” Godoy says.
At Solutions of North Texas, the staff is poised to work with the tougher cases, like Kenny McAfee’s.
In the 2011 point-in-time survey, only 1 percent of respondents claim addiction caused their homelessness. More than half said unemployment and being unable to pay the rent or mortgage led to homelessness. Another 40 percent said domestic violence, divorce or other family issues caused their homelessness.
Solutions sends a liaison each week to Our Daily Bread, ready to help when someone says they want help, says Leslie Wisenbaker of Solutions. Sometimes people don’t reach out because they think they can’t afford rehab or, by being homeless, their situation is too far gone.
Wisenbaker says that window of willingness is open only a short time.
“Addicts are telling the truth when they tell you they want to be sober,” she says. “They just can’t manage that decision for very long. It’s very fleeting.”
Solutions isn’t a rehab center. Since 2006, the faith-based group has built a large network through intake and referrals, so when the person is ready to transition back, Solutions is there, usually at the door of the rehab center or jail.
“We like to pick them up and drive them back here,” Wisenbaker says of residents who make a minimum 90-day commitment to stay and participate in their programs.
But people have walked in from off the street, too.
Currently, about 30 people are living at Solutions, and “another 15 cases are coming towards us,” Wisenbaker says.
Guess says even though it’s been six months since her son died, she still thinks about him all the time.
“I visualize a lot what it must have been like for him to be homeless,” she says.
She isn’t sure she’ll ever stop wondering what else she could have done, knowing that her son wasn’t able to take care of himself.
“I had a dream the other night, and I got to hug him and tell him how much I loved him,” Guess says. “I believe it was a dream from God to allow a visitation to me.”
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.