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, they had been on medications for much of their latter teenage years.

They were acing their computer engineering courses at the University of Houston, but by their sophomore year, they started to notice how sedated they felt in life. Their physician agreed to scale back their 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, their illness began to get worse, manifesting in vague ways that were hard for Gautam to notice. Their paranoia reached a new level when Hurricane Harvey crashed into Houston, leaving Gautam alone for days inside their Moody Towers dorm room. That semester, they failed their first class and ultimately had to leave college. And by January 2018, Gautam was hospitalized after returning home to North Texas.

“I can’t really say anything about the situation was fortunate,” they say, “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 them to The Bridge homeless shelter in Dallas. They 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 ended up in the throes of mental illness and homelessness following Hurricane Harvey. | David Downs

Their situation was far from ideal. The stigma their parents placed on their mental health ultimately led to Gautam being estranged from their family. As a member of the LGBT community, they were 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 their mental health and homelessness threatening to compound each other, Gautam had to navigate more than a year between group homes.

During that time, they 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 them to Prelude Clubhouse meetings in downtown McKinney, the town where they grew up for most of their life.

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

Sumeet Gautam

They did not immediately dive into the program. Without a vehicle of their own, Gautam had to rely on public transportation to get from southern Dallas to McKinney, an order DART could not fill because its bus and train lines do not reach McKinney. They could not afford to rideshare across the metroplex, so they 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 them to Plano.

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

They’d wake up before the sun came up every day so they 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,” they say, “I think I set my alarm for 4:30 a.m.”

They’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.

According to Robinson, after that first day that Gautam came back, they became one of their most active members.

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

Tech savvy and with a mathematician’s mind, Gautam worked on 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 other metrics to measure efficiency.

Come July 2020, Gautam became a Clubhouse board member, making them a leader within the organization that they say changed their life.

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

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.”


Update: 6/23/22, 12:35 P.M. – Since the original publication of the article, Gautam began using gender-neutral pronouns. The article has been updated to reflect this.

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...