Mission: Impossible?

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

A divorce left him depressed, and he started numbing himself with cocaine and whiskey, which eventually cost him his job. "Men don't usually have a social support system," he says. "The bottle was my social support system."

For a while, he was only borderline homeless, scamming places to sleep, staying with friends until they kicked him out. He's fuzzy on the dates, but it was around '87 and '88 that he was truly homeless. He slept under bridges only a couple of times, he says; he didn't like the streets. More often, he'd work as a night watchman at a car lot or some other fleabag business. Those jobs provided him a place to stay, paid around $10 a night and gave him the privilege of waving a shotgun at anyone who looked threatening.

He stopped boozing and drugging after a friend took him to 12-step meetings. He got sober on the streets, and did it, surprisingly, without any major withdrawal symptoms. "I was strung out enough that I should have detoxed," he says. "Miracles do happen."

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.

Still, it took a while to get his life back together. He's been working for SEARCH for six years, and driving the van since last summer. He understands his clients on a gut level. "After you've been in a homeless or addict lifestyle for a while, any other life doesn't make sense," he says. "You're on a mission, all the time, just to get what you need."

Don has traded one mission for another. He's still focused, all the time, on getting what he wants: one more addict in detox, one more family off the street. But he has a home and a paycheck now, and a social system to help him deal with the horrors he sees on the job. When Don and the van team make jokes about their gruesome day, they're reminding each other that they're all on this mission together, that there's nothing they can't discuss with each other, that they're all still human. It's bleak foxhole humor. But the jokes do help.


Back in the van, near the end of the day's run, Michelle's pager buzzes, and she checks the message. She recognizes the number for Jasque's cell phone -- and Jasque is sitting right beside her on the van's bench seat, grinning at his trick.

He continues the joke, mimicking the call she might have received: flirty, vodka-swilling, tragic and beshitted Jim Groves, asking Michelle for a date.

Michelle laughs and rolls her eyes. "I'm gonna kill you!" she says.

"I guess I need sensitivity training," Jasque says. Another joke.

"Insensitivity training," says Don. "What we need is insensitivity training."

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