Mission: Impossible?

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

Sixteen hours a week the team includes Cordelia Martin, a nurse-practitioner from Healthcare for the Homeless. Cordy, Don says, is "awesome." Out in the field, she checks blood pressure and blood sugar and makes follow-up appointments in clinics. She figures that only a third of those clients show up, usually the ones in severe pain. Whenever possible, she addresses a problem on the spot. Once, she removed a sock from a drunk suffering pain, and calmly picked the maggots off his festering foot.

Don likes to tell the maggot story, and he uses it in different ways. Sometimes it's to show how tough Cordy is; sometimes it's to show how the van team has to be prepared for everything, absolutely everything. And sometimes he uses the story to show how his people cope with the appalling stuff they see. In the field, Cordy was, as always, soothing, calm and professional; picking maggots from flesh was just another medical procedure, like taking a temperature or giving a shot. But back in the van, ten minutes after leaving the scene, she became human again. Ooooh, she moaned, I can't believe how gross that was.

The mobile medic: At a burned-out bungalow, Cordy Martin talks to a barefoot woman.
Deron Neblett
The mobile medic: At a burned-out bungalow, Cordy Martin talks to a barefoot woman.

Part of what the van does, says Don, is "mobile hospice care." It's a cold fact that people die on the streets. When Cordy can't prolong their lives, she does what she can to ease their pain.

Don is driving slowly under an overpass, looking for one of the dying, an alcoholic we'll call Lefty. Lefty usually hangs out here with a nondrinking friend; we'll call him Wayne. But lately the van has cruised this spot without finding anyone. Once, Cordy was worried enough that she called the medical examiner's office to see if she needed to identify Lefty's body.

Lefty and Wayne aren't under the bridge, so Don drives to one of their other haunts, a weedy lot stuffed with junked vehicles. He lets himself in through a gate whose chain has been cut, and finds Wayne and a red dog sitting in a derelict dump truck.

Lefty has been gone for a few days, and Wayne looks glad to have company. He's wearing a short-sleeved western shirt and a pair of running shorts that show his skinny legs. His gray stubble hasn't quite matured into a beard. He talks like someone out of practice but eager to make up for lost time.

Lefty was in bad pain, Wayne explains, and somebody called an ambulance. Wayne isn't sure which hospital Lefty went to. Maybe, he says, it's someplace doing research, giving free liver transplants to old alcoholics. It's a dark joke. Nothing that good will happen to Lefty, and everyone, including Wayne and Lefty, knows it.

Lefty's liver had swelled, in that painful, characteristic way that indicates cirrhosis. While Lefty was still at the corner, Wayne had joked that he was going to put Lefty on display, call him the world's first pregnant man, and charge admission. They'd get rich.

Back in the van, Don says that he's been looking for a hospice -- a real, nonmobile hospice -- where guys like Lefty can die. The sticking point is that guys like Lefty usually don't want to meet a regular hospice's conditions. They want to keep drinking, and they want to see their smelly homeless friends. They don't want to suffer through detox during their last weeks. They don't want to die alone. Lefty would want to hear Wayne's jokes. Jokes help.

Jim Groves -- we'll call him that, anyway -- is another old alcoholic, with another pregnant-belly swollen liver. The van team had visited him the previous week, and promised to return today. Don spots him standing at a feeder-road stoplight, holding a sign that says, "PLEASE HELP. HOMELESS. GOD BLESS."

Jim lumbers over to meet the van team and throws his sign on the ground. In the shade of the overpass, he and Cordy sit on the ledge of a little landscaping wall. Cordy takes his vitals. The whites of his eyes are more red than white, and he looks as if sitting down is hard work. He smiles and flirts anyway, but sometimes suddenly stops talking and breathes through his mouth, like a woman in labor. "Heart problem," he says. His teeth hurt, too. He sips vodka from a black squirt bottle that he hangs from his belt, but a half-gallon a day isn't enough anymore to kill the pain.

Jim agrees to enter a detox program, but not until the next day, after he has seen a dentist; he's waited a long time for the charity-clinic appointment. Cordy proposes a plan: The van will pick Jim up at the dentist's office and take him to a hospital, probably LBJ. Jim agrees.

As the SEARCH team drifts back to the van, another wave of pain washes over him. He sits, rooted to the ledge, panting. Finally, as Don cranks the van, Jim hauls himself upright. He bends down to pick up his sign, and from the van, you can see that he's just shit his pants.

Don knows, better than most people, the indignities of being homeless. For a while, he lived on the streets himself.
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