An Afternoon with SEARCH Leads a Writer to Recall His Own Homeless Mother

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As a guest of local homelessness advocates SEARCH, I spent last Friday afternoon pretending to be homeless. Sort of...At any rate, it was a strange afternoon for me as my experience of homelessness is far more up close and personal than that of most people.

The afternoon began at the SEARCH facility on Fannin in Midtown. There I was met by Thao Costis, SEARCH's president and CEO. A smiling early-forties Vietnamese-American woman, Costis took me on a tour of the premises.

On the ground floor, there's a laundry and a computer center, where residents and other users of the facility can job-search and get e-mail. (Signs warn against illegally downloading movies, music and viewing porn.) There are classes on site offering every level of education from basic literacy through GED training.

SEARCH also offers dental services -- many homeless people are aided greatly by getting their teeth fixed. Not only is it a boost to their self-esteem, Costis says, but it also helps them find work. Employers look more favorably on job candidates with nice teeth, but Costis adds that people with bad teeth are ashamed and seldom smile. That makes them seem surly, she says.

SEARCH also provides the homeless with a mailing address -- the baseline for anyone to turn their lives around. She says that many arrive without papers of any kind -- no license, no birth certificate, no social security card. Having the address allows them to file to get replacements. You can't get those credentials listing "streets of Houston" as your abode.

In the elevator, Costis introduces me to a SEARCH success story -- Reggie, a 59-year-old man who's been living there for several years. In another life, he'd been a janitor in New York City, keeping some of the Big Apple's most prominent edifices spic and span -- places like CBS HQ, the United Nations and the main office of the Girl Scouts of America.

After moving to Houston he fell into some bad habits -- drugs and booze both. He sobered up, but not in time to save his marriage, which crumbled under the strain of his old transgressions. Around the same time, he was sidelined at work by a bulging disk in his back, but he couldn't get workers comp. After his family chipped in to pay his rent on an apartment, he decided that he was too much of a burden and got a room at SEARCH.

And now he's gone back to school by taking advantage of a SEARCH partnership with HCC. He says he's got 51 hours of course credit, and his eyes light up when he talks about his anthropology projects -- he's studying the phenomenon of black people "passing" as white. He's also thrilled that one of his classes will be ending early as he did so well on his earlier exams that he won't be needing to take the final.

These successes are giving him confidence, but he worries that if he gets a good job and moves back to his old Fifth Ward stomping grounds, he might succumb to some old temptations. That's why he wants to stay a little while longer at SEARCH, in spite of his quibbles with some of the house rules, like the ban on overnight guests.

Costis and I take leave of SEARCH and board the homeless-only Project Access bus with tall, sleepy-eyed, dreadlocked Jasque Taylor, an outreach worker. Basically, Taylor walks the streets encouraging people he meets on his rounds to avail themselves of SEARCH's services. He's been at it for 11 years and by now he can find the underpasses, forests and neglected patches of the urban tapestry the way River Oaks matrons can spot a bargain bottle of Pinot Grigio at Central Market.

On the bus, I abruptly shared my own story with Costis, who was sitting across the aisle from me. There's no real way to sugarcoat this, but my mom died homeless in the streets of Nashville, sometime around Thanksgiving of 1998. She was run over by a car as she attempted to run across Interstate 65 -- she needed one more bottle of malt liquor to get her through one more long, dark and cold Tennessee night.

She'd come from a respectable home. She'd grown up in Riverside and what is now called the Museum District, and gone to good Catholic schools. But she also struggled with addictions to heroin, codeine, methadone and alcohol through her adult life. She believed she'd been hard-wired for these maladies as a toddler, when she was horrendously burned in a Port Arthur backyard barbecue accident. She believed that the relief that the morphine brought her singed little body as a child in the John Sealy burns unit in Galveston rewired her circuitry, that her pleasure centers were irrevocably altered.

My dad divorced her in 1975, but in those days you had to be Squeaky Fromme to lose custody of your child, so she and my dad shared custody, five days at a time. She remarried and had my half-brother in late 1976, but continued on a downward spiral, despite my stepfather's best efforts. It seemed like every three months, she'd be living in a worse apartment, until at last the three of them were living in a barely refurbished garage-like structure off a Nashville back-alley. Chip, my stepfather, was working hard, but mama's needs were frittering away all his cash. How's that old song go? "There's a hole in daddy's arm where all the money goes.."

To help make ends meet, she started shoplifting, mostly meat from local grocery stores, which she would sell to friends. And then she started taking me with her. We called it "techniquing." To help buy my silence, she and I would also jack toys. (Our biggest heists in that vein: a Green Machine, and a Star Wars Death Star playset.)

It was shortly after that that my dad finally got complete custody. Mama vanished without so much as a fare-you-well to me. She took off for Chip's hometown of San Antonio and I heard from her maybe three times in the next ten years. She had two more kids -- my sisters Peggy and Libby -- and kind of turned her life around on methadone, to which she was completely addicted. At least she wasn't stealing anymore, even if the financial burden on the family remained crushing.

Around 1990 she moved back to Nashville -- Chip was an old running buddy of Steve Earle's, and Earle wanted him to be his guitar roadie. Earle helped them buy a house in a gentrifying soon-to-be-former ghetto area of Nashville. That was when I got to know her some, and there were some happy times in that house.

Rock and roll and methadone would eventually kill that marriage. My stepfather admitted to some indiscretions while on a nine-month world tour, and at the same time, the state of Georgia started offering more methadone than Tennessee would give.

Those two factors sent her spiraling to the streets. She fell in with a rough crowd of Nashvillians who rented a van every week to drive to Georgia and score enough dope to both quench their own needs and fund their other habits. At some point while I was living overseas in 1992 or 1993, mama started drinking again, and within two years, she'd taken up with an alcoholic guitar player and moved out on Chip and the other kids.

And then the drunk guitar man threw her out too, and she had nowhere else to go. Her parents had been burned by her too many times back in the '70s. Chip tried and failed to take her in. I tried and failed to take her in and turn her around. She would pass out on the porch of my condo, steal my car to go buy booze, drink everything in the house on the sly....It was awful.

And then I moved to Texas in 1997. By then, Chip's life had started to crumble too. My sisters wound up in foster care. I heard mama was at times a star resident of some Nashville shelters, and at others, her demons would take over and she would be expelled out onto the streets. And then I got word that she was dead. She'd been run over a few days before Thanksgiving, and her body had lain unclaimed in the Nashville morgue until her next of kin -- me -- could be found.

A few days later, the Davidson County medical examiner mailed me a cardboard box containing her cremated remains. There was no account of her death in any Nashville media.

This was a woman who read great literature, was a close personal friend of Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle, one who could play the piano, paint, and sing like a whip-poor-will. She had a wickedly keen intuitive mind, an incredible sense of humor (She called Vanity Fair, which she loved and bought from garage sales whenever she could, "The monthly journal of people who are going to hell,") and a booming laugh that could fill whole rooms with warmth.

But to those people who saw her in her last months, she was just another bum out on Gallatin Road. All of these people you see in the streets matter to someone, even if those people can't or won't help them.

After I shared my story with Costis, the bus pulled up to the Beacon, the homeless outreach service operated by Christ Church Cathedral. (The bus also runs to the city's other shelters, the Social Security office and down to the Medical Center.) Beacon feeds the homeless from Friday to Monday, and it was bustling on this end-of-week lunchtime. A couple of hundred people -- mostly men, mostly black -- ate pork, beans and cabbage at tables, while others bustled at the laundry window, waiting to get their clean clothes back.

A volunteer there told us she'd been seeing lots of new faces -- distressingly, these were often entire families from the Rust Belt, she said. Meanwhile, a weather-beaten white woman walked over to Jasque Taylor beaming and planted the world's biggest hug on him. "He's just the best," said the woman, Christina Amy, a former carnie originally from Oakland.

Christina said she followed her now-incarcerated husband first to Florida and then to Texas and was now two-years clean from a long addiction to crack cocaine. 'I'm highly blessed," she says. She now lives at Harmony House -- the one downtown near the ballpark. She also says she's been seeing a lot of new faces out on the streets. "You can spot 'em a mile away," she says. "They look so lost and confused and they don't know what to do." She does what she can to help them, she says, and finds her greatest joy in trying to help others slay their addictions.

We also met Miguel there. A few years ago he was working as a photojournalist at a Spanish-language publication called El Echo. When that folded, he took a job at the Heights Target, but he had to quit because of a carpal-tunnel-like medical condition. He fell behind on his bills and took to the streets instead of moving in with family. He said he didn't want to burden them with his troubles. He's bewildered by his inability to find work -- he said he neither drinks, smokes nor fights.

After that, Costis, Taylor and I walked up to New Hope-Harmony House, which lives up to its name for the most part. Housed in the former Del May hotel at 1414 Congress, the feel of the lobby area puts one in mind of a European hostel or hipster inn. (There's a library and a TV in a communal area.) It's a single-room occupancy shelter for the working poor. Most of the residents pay some share of the rent for their rooms. As their own literature states, it is a place where "veterans, the elderly, students, those with minor disabilities, individuals overcoming substance abuse, the working poor, and the formerly homeless" can live in dignity amid stylish design.

Out back, there's an utterly tranquilo walled garden. A smoker was billowing white clouds and the air was perfumed by sizzling hamburger meat. It was there that we met Pete, one of the residents. About 40, Pete used to work on the highways as a road-striper. He says he saw a few of his friends die on the job. Weekends were the worst, he said. Drunks plowed through worksites fairly regularly. He says the memories of their gruesome deaths gave him PTSD and hurtled him toward the gutter.

He said his life at 1414 Congress is wonderful. He's staying clean and sober and getting his meds straight, stabilizing his soul. Pete finds it difficult to focus, so much so that he has trouble formulating the thoughts and planning required to get through a regular day. Because of this, each night he practices the scenarios he thinks might unfold the next day.

He appreciates that he is treated with dignity -- not forced to pee in bottles or submit to breath tests. He and his buddies play cards and dominoes in their spare time, maybe barbecue a little on the grill. Pete says he's rapidly becoming "Chef Boyardee around here."

As he was telling us of this idyllic existence, a tall, wild-eyed black woman with maroon-tinted hair stalked onto the patio and pointed a long, crooked finger at Pete.

"You!" she snarled.

"What's up, Miss Black," Pete asked good-naturedly.

'I don't know. You tell me." Miss Black sing-song-snarled. "I wanna know."

"We're just talkin' out here," Pete said.

"You're despicable," Miss Black hissed. "You're lucky I'm not wearing my glasses." With that she stalked back in the building.

Pete chuckled. "The day is what she's made it," he said. He mentioned that the two have a bit of a history of trouble, and admitted that he "picked on her some." He added that come nightfall, Miss Black's attitude often improved drastically, all the way up to the point where they could laugh together.

After Jasque led Costis and me to a homeless camp under the Eastex Freeway bridge, where he tried to woo a couple of the people we encountered towards SEARCH, we headed back to Midtown. I had a life to get back to -- a lovely wife, a beautiful home, wonderful kids, a job I adore -- and I was thankful for that.

I was also thankful that some of the least among us could have some of that same dignity through groups like SEARCH, New Hope-Harmony House and Christ Church Cathedral.

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