By the time Hurricane Harvey made landfall in August 2017, Sumeet Gautam, then 20, was starting to sink. As a survivor of childhood trauma and someone living with diagnosed mental illness, he had been on medications for much of his latter teenage years.

He was acing his computer engineering courses at the University of Houston, but by his sophomore year, he started to notice how sedated he felt in life. His physician agreed to scale back his dosages, which sent Gautam into 2017 feeling better and with enough energy to tackle 19 hours that spring semester.

As the year went on, however, his illness began to get worse, manifesting in vague ways that were hard for Gautam to notice. His paranoia reached a new level when Hurricane Harvey crashed into Houston, leaving Gautam alone for days inside his Moody Towers dorm room. That semester, he failed his first class and ultimately had to leave college. And by January 2018, Gautam found himself hospitalized after returning home to North Texas.

“I can’t really say anything about the situation was fortunate,” he says, “but it is fortunate that the circumstances led me to going to the hospital, even though at the time I hated it.”

After leaving the hospital, an EMT drove him to The Bridge homeless shelter in Dallas. He bounced around from family members’ homes and eventually to a group home in southern Dallas called Soul For Christ Ministry. Struggling with mental illness, Gautam was also, almost suddenly, homeless.

Sumeet Gautam found himself in the throes of mental illness and homelessness following Hurricane Harvey. | David Downs

His situation was far from ideal. The stigma his parents placed on his mental health ultimately led to Gautam being estranged from his family. As a gay man, he was also among a community of young people who are twice as likely as non-gay people to become homeless, according to the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law. With his mental health and homelessness threatening to compound each other, Gautam had to navigate more than a year between group homes.

During that time, he found Prelude Clubhouse, a program dedicated to psychiatric rehabilitation for adults who live with mental health issues. It is not a ward or a soup kitchen, and is not clinical in nature.

People don’t enter the program to receive treatment or sit down with doctors. The goal is for participants to increase their confidence in finding a path in life. People learn job skills and other skills like money management. One of Gautam’s sisters took him to Prelude Clubhouse meetings in downtown McKinney, the town where he grew up for most of his life.

“It’s a place where I don’t feel I am being judged for my differences.”

Sumeet Gautam

He did not immediately dive into the program. Without a vehicle of his own, Gautam had to rely on public transportation to get him from southern Dallas to McKinney, an order DART could not fill because its bus and train lines do not reach McKinney. He could not afford to rideshare across the metroplex, so he did not attend Clubhouse meetings, events or work opportunities.

But in June 2019, Gautam received what felt like the most random message. Chelsea Robinson, the executive director of the branch of Prelude Clubhouse, was reaching out to past members to let them know the organization had moved locations and was starting up again. Clubhouse had moved across Collin County to Plano. And that meant Gautam could start to take advantage of the program because DART could connect him to Plano.

“I was touched because I only had a few, fleeting encounters with her,” he says of Robinson. “So I went.”

He’d wake up before the sun came up every day so he could hop on the northbound blue line train to make it to Plano on time for the day’s events and assignments.

“I would wake up as early as I could,” he says, “I think I set my alarm for 4:30 a.m.”

He’d get back to Dallas around 10 p.m., and do it all over the next day. Prelude Clubhouse was worth every second of the commute.

“After that first day that he came back, I don’t think he missed a day,” Robinson says. “He’s one of our most active members.”

Sumeet Gautam and Chelsea Robinson from Prelude Clubhouse. | David Downs

Tech savvy and with a mathematician’s mind, Gautam found himself working on a software the nationwide PreLude organization was developing to manage various programs and track data for grant writing and other purposes.

Gautam helped the organization integrate the database software into the Plano Clubhouse’s new transportation program, which helps members who live in areas without public transit attend Clubhouse activities and get around to other destinations, allowing the organization to track fuel usage and the other metrics to measure efficiency.

Come July 2020, Gautam became a Clubhouse board member, making him a leader within the organization that he says changed his life.

“It’s a place where I don’t feel I am being judged for my differences,” he says.

Gautam is back in school, taking online courses, this time pursuing a degree in mathematics.

“It’s a very bold and almost cliche thing to say, but it really did, it saved me.”

Dalton LaFerney

Dalton LaFerney is a freelance journalist based in the Dallas area. His work has appeared in the Dallas Morning News, Dallas Observer, Denton Record-Chronicle, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and the Las Vegas...