The van man: Don Hall (left) looks a lot like his clients.
The van man: Don Hall (left) looks a lot like his clients.
Deron Neblett

Mission: Impossible?

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 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.

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.

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.

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."

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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