Mission: Impossible?

SEARCH's mobile outreach team tries to help Houston's homeless off the streets

Don Hall usually wears a T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, and after he's been out a few sweaty hours in August, he looks a lot like his homeless clients. He has a shaggy mountain-man beard, and when he looks you in the eye, his nose points toward your right ear. You know, without being told, that something bad happened to that nose. You know, without being told, that Don has seen some serious shit.

He's the leader of SEARCH's mobile outreach unit, which means he drives a white Econoline van to places where he expects to find homeless people. Once he has found them, he and his team try to find out who they are and what they need, and to help them escape the street. "We're on a mission," Don likes to say.

But like Don, that mission often doesn't look all that official. Outside the van, he smokes almost constantly, and if a client asks, Don will hand him a cigarette and give him a light. Then the two of them will stand together conspiratorially, brothers in nicotine, and Don's questions -- how long you been on the streets? where you sleeping? you using crack? -- will seem less like social-worker nosiness than a smoker-to-smoker attempt at normal conversation. The client relaxes. Don is okay.

The van man: Don Hall (left) looks a lot like his clients.
Deron Neblett
The van man: Don Hall (left) looks a lot like his clients.
Wayne: Maybe, he jokes, his friend Lefty got into a hospital giving free liver transplants to old alcoholics.
Deron Neblett
Wayne: Maybe, he jokes, his friend Lefty got into a hospital giving free liver transplants to old alcoholics.

The van stops at a charred, boarded-up bungalow on the east side. Two men and a barefoot woman are sitting on the porch, which is covered in the usual detritus of homelessness: shopping carts, a plastic bucket turned upside down, for use as a chair, and a heap of empty tallboys still sheathed in convenience-store bags.

"How are you?" someone asks the barefoot woman.

"Blessed," she says. "I'm blessed."

Don and the rest of the team hand out bottles of water and brown-bag lunches with SEARCH's address and phone number stamped on the sack. Don knows this place, and knows the couple has camped here a long time, back even before the house burned. For months he has tried to nudge the group off the porch and into services, but they're too proud, he says. The couple, and most of the other people who drift on and off this porch, work maybe four days a week in a nearby labor hall; they think they can save enough money to get off the street by themselves.

Don hates labor halls, hates the way they exploit people, hates the way that a worker can put in long, hard days without earning enough money to sleep somewhere better than a burned-out porch. Of course, these people drink and use crack, says Don, an ironic edge in his voice. "They can't get ahead. Might as well get high."

The team fans out, each talking to a different person. More homeless men appear, one by one, out of nowhere, drawn by the sight of the SEARCH van and its promise of food. No one expresses particular interest in drug treatment or job training, and Don doesn't push; it's better to wait for the right moment. In counseling jargon, that strategy is called motivational enhancement; to Don, it seems obvious. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink. Or stop drinking.

A shiny blue sedan pulls up to the curb, and an athletic man with a shaved head flows out. "Hey, man, I know your face," he says to Don. And: "I'm looking for somebody." He doesn't see that somebody and drives away.

Don figures that Shaved Head was looking for a drug deal. The team members finish handing out lunches and water, and make sure that everyone knows how to contact SEARCH. Having done what they can, they drive away.

The van team varies from day to day, but besides Don, it also usually includes Jasque Taylor, another SEARCH counselor. You're not surprised to hear that Jasque (pronounced "Jock") played college football; he's big, for one thing, and he looks tough, and he keeps his eye on the goal. While the van is rolling, Jasque spends a lot of time on his cell phone, calling treatment center after treatment center, trying to find someone willing to accept a homeless addict in the ugly throes of detox.

In July the van team placed an amazing 44 addicts in treatment centers, a number so impressive that Don is keeping his records extra carefully, lest someone accuse him of exaggerating. As Don sees it, detox is often an opportunity to get someone off the street, maybe for good. He calls withdrawal "the alcoholic's first prayer." Between hallucinations and dry heaves and bouts of the D.T.'s, the drunk swears, "Lord, I'll never drink again." His motivation has been enhanced. If the van team members can swoop him into treatment then, they stand a decent chance of taking him off the streets for good.

Mary Cortez, the third member of the "base team," is a SEARCH specialist who counsels homeless women and children. She's quiet and soothing, and looks as comforting as Jasque looks tough. Often there are other people along for the ride: medical professionals from outside programs, or volunteers or interns. This summer there's been Michelle Bading-Smith, a graduate-student intern from the University of Houston. Michelle's red lipstick matches her nail polish, which matches her shirt; her jeans are a stylish capri cut. You would never mistake her for a client.

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