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KERA's One Crisis Away project focuses on North Texans living on the financial edge.

A Rolling Community Center In Tarrant County Brings Help To Those Who Need It

Courtney Collins
KERA news
The mobile community parked at an apartment complex is west Fort Worth.

A North Texas nonprofit wants to bring services like food stamps and job assistance right to people's front doors.

In March, the United Way of Tarrant County launched its mobile community center. Originally venturing out once a week, deployments were doubled in August.  

It's a giant, air-conditioned bus — 45 feet long and splashed with #LVTRise. That's the slogan of the Las Vegas Trail Revitalization project, an effort to improve the Las Vegas Trail neighborhood, on the west side of Fort Worth. A steady stream of people climb on, and off the bus. Some want to see a counselor, others claim a bag of food. Roy Papajohn is on the hunt for a job.

"I've got social security coming in and I really have been doing OK, but after a while you start busting into all the other stuff, and I've got to find some kind of work, some kind of part time work," he said.

A tough time to job search

At 67, the job search hasn't been easy. He's been unemployed for six months now. Papajohn says he was a chef for 30 years but has foot problems and can't stand in a kitchen for 10 hours anymore. He's hoping to get a job cooking and handing out food samples inside a big box store. He got that lead from Workforce Solutions of Tarrant County inside the mobile community center.

"This is amazing, this is great," he said. "Coming to the people is kind of cool, that they're bringing these services to folks, and some can't get out to these services because they just don't have the means."

Close to home

Papajohn lives in the very apartment complex where the mobile community center is parked today. He leaves the bus with job contacts to call and a bag of produce.

The mobile community center is a partnership with Catholic Charities Fort Worth, and it used to park somewhere every week, offering different services each time it set up shop. In August, that switched to twice a week, because so many people were showing up — more than 500 since the program started.

One day, the bus might have staffers on hand to dispense food, sign people up for SNAP benefits and provide mental health counseling. The next day, it might offer medical case management, pregnancy testing and job search assistance. TD Smyers, President and CEO of the United Way of Tarrant County, says results come quickly.

"The very first time that I went out to visit it, it was the second day that it deployed, and I saw a veteran, a homeless veteran that entered the vehicle," Smyers said. "Probably 15 minutes later, he was on his way to temporary shelter, and he had been set up with job placement services the following day." 

Getting started, now

As of part of the improvement effort in this neighborhood, the United Way had several meetings with residents. At the top of their wishlist was a community center that could be a hub for children and adults alike. Smyers didn't want to make them wait.

"Brick and mortar takes a long time to buy, build, design, you know, that whole process," he said. "We wanted to field something immediately, and we wanted to use this field to gather information about how we should design the ultimate permanent structure."

Which will be built in the Las Vegas Trail community. But until that grand opening ribbon is cut, the 45-foot bus will continue to make the rounds. Smyers says, its services will continue to expand.

"There's growth potential that's almost unlimited in this thing," he said. "We're looking at English as a Second Language, ESL classes, being taught in the mobile community center, brought to the community, that kind of thing."

And even though what's offered might change day to day, the model will stay the same. Bringing support services right to the front doors of those who need them. That's good enough for Roy Papajohn.

"This has been a godsend actually. I appreciate them coming out and doing this," he said.

That's how the service providers feel too, everytime a person gets a job, or a homeless North Texan finds shelter, or someone carries away a bag full of food to feed their family.

Courtney Collins has been working as a broadcast journalist since graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2004. Before coming to KERA in 2011, Courtney worked as a reporter for NPR member station WAMU in Washington D.C. While there she covered daily news and reported for the station’s weekly news magazine, Metro Connection.