Tara McCartney’s path toward her associate’s degree has included, in no particular order, weekends in county jail, a now-defunct donut shop and a fervor for true crime. 

At 30, she’s just senior to the average community college student, who’s 28. Her attendance before she graduated in May echoed that of many others: When she enrolled at Tarrant County College in spring 2018, she took only a couple classes at a time. She spent her mornings managing Kneady Doughnuts in the River East District, a small business she built because she’d “never seen a donut shop close.” 

“I thought the service industry was fail proof,” she said. “I think a lot of people did.”

Three months shy of the pandemic, her confidence was so strong she let her lease go on the donut shop so she could open a more comprehensive bakery dubbed Scratch City elsewhere. Then, as the virus spread and restaurants closed around her, she realized her plan wouldn’t materialize. 

To make ends meet after her income crumbled, McCartney learned “to hustle.” She embraced multi-apping: swiping between DoorDash, Instacart, Postmates and other delivery services while pet-sitting, house-sitting, selling baked goods she made at home and navigating online classes. 

After moving through the court system as a young woman only to, later, receive clemency, she needed the money to pursue her next steps: bachelor’s and law degrees at Georgia State, so she can help people who can’t afford “adequate representation.” Her efforts paid off — McCartney starts in August. But she also had an ecosystem of support not shared by all her peers: a room at her parents’ house and a car.

For community college students, many of whom work full time in addition to taking classes, balancing school, work and basic needs is already a massive undertaking. But in a hardscrabble year like this one, even a steady roof overhead and healthy food on the table can be harder to come by. 

“It’s Maslow’s need hierarchy,” said Lisa Benedetti, dean of humanities at Tarrant County College’s Northwest campus. “If they’re worrying about where they’re going to spend that evening, or what’s going to be the next thing they can put into their bodies for nourishment, how are they going to get to the higher levels of, ‘We’re in a class trying to get our education?’”

Nearly 3 in 5 community college students said they struggled with basic needs like housing and food this past year, according to a recent survey by TimelyMD, a Fort Worth-based telehealth organization that focuses on higher education. The responses came from nearly 900 community college students nationwide, and the findings echo a more robust dataset from The Hope Center, a research project out of Temple University in Philadelphia. 

While the majority of college students experienced some form of this basic needs insecurity in 2020, a higher portion of community college students struggled: 61% compared to 53% of four-year students. In Texas, the situation was worse for community college students, with 64% experiencing basic needs insecurity last year.

Unlike four-year universities, Tarrant County College doesn’t offer a residential program or meal plan, Benedetti said, so students must secure housing and food elsewhere. The college helps by collaborating with local organizations like Tarrant Area Food Bank and Community Link to provide aid.

That aid has, in part, helped Shae Neal stay afloat this year. 

Like McCartney, Neal’s journey toward community college has been punctuated by life events. She graduated from high school in 1973. She tried community college in Los Angeles, but said she wasn’t prepared. She quit after a year, and decades passed. 

“Life happened, children happened, husband happened, divorce happened, children grow up, you know,” Neal, who’s 65, said. “And so I’m sitting one day, and I’m like, you know what, I really want to go back to school.”

Shae Neal enrolled in Tarrant County College in spring 2019. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

In spring 2019, she enrolled in Tarrant County College to study her basics and, once she graduates next year, pursue a bachelor’s in social work. A community health worker at Tarrant County Public Health by day, Neal said she is the “link between the clinic and the community.” 

She works with people who have HIV; with her own positive diagnosis, she’s a resource person for herself and others. Her transparency about her HIV journey creates space for patients to trust her suggestions.

“I’m not just talking just to be talking,” she tells them. “I’m telling you stuff that I’m going to try. When I tell you to do this, it’s because I’ve done it, it works, just do it. 

When the pandemic began, Neal was exposed to COVID-19 four different times at her job. Each exposure meant a 10-day quarantine, which meant she couldn’t come into work. As a freshly hired employee, she hadn’t accrued enough paid time off, so the quarantines crippled her income. There were months she couldn’t pay for gas or rent. Once, her car broke down, so she used her rent money to pay for repairs. 

“I had to ask for help,” she said. Through a partnership between Tarrant County College and Catholic Charities Fort Worth, she applied for and received two payments of $500. She also received rent assistance through the Texas Rent Relief Program and the Salvation Army, a resource she found simply through Googling.

“I’m a researcher, so I just look up stuff,” she said. “And that’s what I’ve been trying to get my clients to do. You know, research, research. You never know what you’re going to stumble on.”

She said she’s worried people in Tarrant County don’t know about the many resources available to them. They need to sharpen their “resource tactics,” as she calls them.

It’s a similar message Benedetti wants to share. 

“There’s absolutely nothing wrong to say, ‘I need help, and this is what I need help for,” she said. She said if a student goes to a faculty or staff member on campus, they’ll be able to connect that student to resources and services through TCC or in the community. As a college, their focus is “the entire student,” she said.

“It’s not just about them being in the class, it’s about them as a human being.”

The TimelyMD survey identified the top five most pressing basic needs of its respondents: medical care, mental health care, access to healthy food, clothing and rental assistance. In response, the company has piloted a basic needs feature within its app for community college students at partner schools. The app works like an apartment locator, but for resources. 

According to Laura Kennemer, patient care advisor at TimelyMD, students ask for what they need through the app and TimelyMD’s team addresses the needs directly — through one-on-ones with team medical providers, for example, or by connecting them to local services.

Tarrant County College doesn’t currently partner with TimelyMD, so here’s a slate of local resources to help fill the gap:

Medical care

  1. Tarrant County College
    1. Services: Health services, including consultations and health education.
    2. Eligibility: People enrolled or employed at Tarrant County College.
    3. For more information and to schedule an appointment, visit their website here
  2. North Texas Area Community Health Centers
    1. Services: Primary and preventive health care, including women’s health, children’s health, counseling and pharmacy.
    2. Eligibility: Anyone!
    3. For more information and to schedule an appointment, visit their website here or call 817-625-4254. 
  3. Mercy Clinic 
    1. Services: Free health care, including wellness checks, dental care such as root canals and extractions, limited laboratory and pharmacy.
    2. Eligibility: People who are 18 and over, live in the 76110 or 76104 zip codes, don’t have health insurance and earn an income less than 200% of the national poverty level.
    3. For more information and to schedule an appointment, visit their website here
  4. ​​Cornerstone Charitable Clinic
    1. Services: Free health care, including women’s health, skin and eye health and chronic disease treatment. 
    2. Eligibility: People who are 18 and over, don’t have health insurance and earn an income less than 250% of the national poverty level.
    3. For more information and to schedule an appointment, visit their website here

(Also, Tarrant County College has a list of local health services here.)

Mental health care

  1. Tarrant County College 
    1. Services: Mental health care, including free short-term counseling (six to eight sessions).
    2. Eligibility: People enrolled at Tarrant County College.  
    3. For more information and to schedule an appointment, visit their website here
  2. My Health My Resources
    1. Services: Mental health care, including counseling and addiction services.
    2. Eligibility: People who live in Tarrant County.
    3. For more information and to schedule an appointment, visit their website here.
  3. Lena Pope 
    1. Services: Mental health care, including counseling and addiction services. 
    2. Eligibility: Anyone!
    3. For more information and to schedule an appointment, visit their website here.

Food

  1. Tarrant County College Community Food Market
    1. Services: Free food, including meats and produce, farmer’s market-style, once per month.
    2. Eligibility: Anyone!
    3. For more information, visit Tarrant County College’s food pantries page here
  2. Community Link 
    1. Services: Free groceries and personal care items.
    2. Eligibility: Anyone!
    3. For more information and to schedule a pantry appointment, visit their website here

(For more options, Tarrant Area Food Bank’s website lets you search for food pantries near you. Also, Tarrant County College has a list of local food assistance resources.)

Clothing

  1. Northside Inter-Community Agency, Inc.
    1. Services: Basic needs assistance, including free clothing, among other services like computer literacy courses.
    2. Eligibility: Call for details.
    3. For more information, visit their website here or call 817-626-1102. 
  2. Beautiful Feet 
    1. Services: Basic needs assistance, including clothing, medical and dental care. 
    2. Eligibility: Call for details.
    3. For more information, visit their website here or call 817-536-0505. 

Housing

  1. Salvation Army 
    1. Services: Basic needs assistance, including emergency night shelter. 
    2. Eligibility: Anyone with children under 18 and single women can stay at the emergency night shelter. 
    3. For more information, visit their website here.
  2. Presbyterian Night Shelter 
    1. Services: Housing assistance, including free emergency shelter without length-of-stay restrictions.
    2. Eligibility: Anyone!
    3. For more information, visit their website here

(For more options, Tarrant County College has a list of local housing assistance resources.)

For a larger compendium of options, the HOPE directory, a project from UNT’s Health Science Center, is like Google for local health resources: people can search by service, city or zip code to find health-related organizations, programs and events. The county, too, has its own searchable public health directory and community resources directory. Also, the Network of Care for Tarrant County offers its own searchable directories, broken down by category. Finally, Benedetti recommends people dial 211, a state hotline that helps connect people to food, housing, healthcare and other basic needs. 

Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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