A Day on the Wagon with San Francisco's Mobile Assistance Patrol
by JOHN GORENFELD
N ANOTHER LIFE, Dave might have been a teacher or a salesman or a police officer or played any other role in society that includes having a place to sleep, but instead he's sitting by the railing over a subway station in San Francisco, his face set in an angry squint. His leg is bandaged because not too long ago a friend of his set it on fire during a disagreement, though they got over it. It is early afternoon in mid-November, and in his jacket is a flask of liquor that he hasn't finished off yet.
|Vernada Jones in her van, MAP 4.|
Dave doesn't like talking
to people. When the city's Mobile
Assistance Patrol began showing up to ask how he was doing, he used to swear
at them. He suffers from seizures. Sometimes, right there and then, he'd lose
control of his bowels, and when this happened his anger would grow and he would
shout at the MAP team. But lately he tolerates the nurse and her visits to change
"There he is, waiting on us," says someone in Vernada Jones' patrol van as they pull up. Dave's name is next on a list of people the MAP's Death Prevention Team will be checking up on today, people living on the Mission District streets and hotels for the homeless.
Mobile Assistance Patrol, founded by the late Phil Stoltz, a recovered alcoholic,
began as a service for drunks, but the nonprofit has expanded into a service for other
needy people including drug addicts, the mentally ill, and the homeless. "We
save someone's life about once a day," says MAP assistant coordinator Rick
Eastman. Eastman is a pony-tailed Vietnam vet and former construction worker
who himself spent many years homeless and alcoholic.
Jones, 42, spends her week trying to save the down-and-out. Her other job is working security at a soup kitchen. "V.J." is a formidably built woman with a strong face and a booming voice, wearing a shiny yellow jersey. For someone who's been through what she has, she looks young.
Those who most need her help usually don't want it. She understands; when she was a crack cocaine addict, she didn't want it either. She says she wants them to escape from homelessness the way she did. "I know that if I can do it, anyone can do it," she says.
Jones' van, "The Mayor's Van," is white with an orange strip. The name's a misnomer, referring to an earlier van Mayor Frank Jordan gave MAP during his reign in the early '90s. The homeless remember Jordan for his Matrix program, which meant having the police arrest them for sleeping in public places. Brown abolished the Matrix program. But his city hall still passes down orders for MAP to sweep certain streets, from time to time.
Mayor's Van is MAP 4, assigned to visit suffering people again and again.
MAP 1, on the other hand, responds to emergency paramedic and police calls.
MAP 4 makes repeat visits. A dispatcher in MAP's Fell
Street office, where a large map of the city and a xeroxed religious poem
are posted on the wall, sends the vans to various locations.
one can be forced to come with the MAP van. MAP is a non-profit, and does not
perform arrests, though it works closely with the police.
The people who live on the Mission District streets know V.J. and her van well. People wave at her as she drives past, or approach the driver's side window to ask for a blanket. And she recognizes many people she sees passing by on the sidewalk as former clients. Many will be clients again.
|A homeless man in San Francisco's U.N. Plaza|
has to convince reluctant people to accept the city's shelter and counseling
services, often by persuading her clients that police arrest is their only alternative.
She and the team get to know people on the street, in the hope of winning the
trust of the destitute. "The goal is, try to get them into treatment and
off the street," she says.
she entered a detox program, Jones was homeless herself: not living on the streets,
but jobless and drifting. She didn't consider herself homeless. In her mind
she was just passing from place to place, getting high.
get loaded," she said. "My nervous system was shot. The only way to
get sleep was to go to the hospital." There, she could be tranquilized
enough to sleep. "Sometimes they'd give me too much," she says, "and
I was like a zombie."
the hospital she met a social worker who kept trying to convince her to get
drug treatment. But Jones resisted. "I kept saying 'No, no, no,' and she
was there for me," she says. "If she would have just given up on me,
I wouldn't be here today." Like V.J.'s clients, she took a long time to
makes their job worth it, MAP workers say, is the rare success story. "They
come back and say, 'if it wasn't for you, I wouldn't be here,'" Jones says.
the driver seat and the front passenger seat is a black plastic chest, full
of things that people living on the street can use. There are small bottles
of shampoo and shaving cream, tampons, condoms, socks, vitamins, anti-fungal
powder, nutrition bars, toothbrushes, and toilet tokens.
|The van Jones drives.|
day begins in the early afternoon, when she meets the people who have gathered
near the civic center, waiting to be taken to the McMillan Drop-In Center on
Fell Street. This crowd looks as if they've stepped out of The Grapes of
Wrath. They are clean-cut, have gray beards and wear sober expressions.
They've hit hard times and have accepted, for now, the game of shelter roulette.
To play this lottery, people like Joe enter their names in drawings that take place at shelters in different parts of the city. Joe is a retired man who says he worked at the Chronicle printing press, among other blue-collar jobs, before San Francisco housing costs priced him out of his home. He used to go to Reno every year -- to have "a couple of drinks and goof off" he says -- but this year he's homeless and playing the shelter game.
decide who stays at the Multiservice North and Multiservice South shelters.
Usually you win 30 days of stay at a time. "You can go about four days
without winning," Joe says.
thing I've never done in my life is, I've never been to a gambling place,"
says Ronald, a man with a gray beard and no mustache, who also plays this lottery.)
they win a stay at the shelters, they don't need Jones, or the twenty beds at
McMillan, which are downstairs from the MAP headquarters. If too many people
show up, Jones must turn the younger ones away. Ever since the Mission Rock
shelter closed and was replaced by the new stadium parking lot, Jones says,
there are even fewer beds in the city, although churches offer some additional
shelter in the coldest months.
One time, V.J. visited a man who was too drunk to pull his shirt over his head. She helped him to his feet, and made him put his shoes on. She yanked and yanked. Finally, the shirt came off. The insides of his sleeves were infested. "There were bugs the size of my fingernail," she says.
this first, tame trip of the day, it's time to deal with the more desperate
cases, which Jones has been doing since she started this job three years ago.
Yesterday she made her weekly run with a team of mental health workers. Today,
since it is Thursday, she picks up the Death
Prevention people and checks up on the dangerously unhealthy. On Fridays,
she drives around a transsexual who hands out condoms from a garbage bag.
is in her van, reviewing the day's itinerary. Outside the headquarters, a glum-looking
woman stands with her shopping cart, rolling a cigarette. She has big front
teeth. Her name is Mary. Across the street looms one of the city's many Internet
billboards. It says, "COMPUTING MADE SIMPLE. EVER DREAM YOU'D SEE THE DAY?"
your man go?" Jones asks Mary, who has come over to her window.
went back to prison," she says.
asks her if she is going to get back together with him. "I can't, V.J.,"
Mary says. "Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, shame on you."
her time with MAP, Jones has seen many of the same people in trouble over and
over again. This doesn't discourage her, she says.
what we're here for," she says. "If we see repeat cases, at least
rainy winter day, she picked up an Indian man she'd been picking up periodically.
He had been drinking all day. "He was laid out in front of a liquor store,"
she says. She was able to wake him-- otherwise, she would have called a paramedic
-- and he got into the van with her. He sat in the back, awake, but cold and
drunk and talking in a delusional way. He didn't seem worse off than most of
the drunks she picks up. By the time she got back to Fell Street, he had passed
out. It took some effort to get him out of the van and into a bed at the McMillan
center. But he didn't make it through the night. "He died in one of the
beds," she says.
picks up the Death Prevention Team a few blocks away at the city's Tom Waddell
Clinic on Ivy street. This team goes out Tuesdays and Thursdays. It includes
a nurse practitioner, Meredith Florin; a doctor, Barbara Wisman; and a social
worker, Damon Eaves. There is also Ramona, a medical student.
They sit in the back of Jones's van, talking about the people they've gotten to know during their work-- who they've seen lately, who they haven't, who has frustrated their efforts, who has gotten into detox, who has escaped from it. They've heard that someone was found dead at a hotel. But they keep their sense of humor as a way of protecting themselves from despair. "If I could break that barrier, shit on myself in public once, I don't think it would be that big of a deal after that," Eaves wisecracks.
find Dave just where they expected him to be. Jones parks, and they get out
of the van. On the way to Dave, Jones comes across Gary, 48, who is passed out
in front of a bank.
"Hey," Jones says to Gary. There's no response, so she says it again, loudly, nudging him hard with her foot. "Are you okay?"
the plaza, Dave stares ahead fiercely as Meredith Florin treats his leg, stripping
off old gauze. Meanwhile, Gary is still laid out cold. "Laid out"
is a phrase that is used often in Jones' line of work.
you need to sit up," Jones is telling him. "Sit up. You can't lay
elicits a murmur from Gary. He is a white man with a pepper-colored mustache.
Some of his bottom teeth are gone. He has on a Tommy Hilfiger jacket and a hat
that says "Grand Sequoia." On the side there's a pin of an American
up," Jones tells him.
mama," Gary says, but stays where he is.
would take him to sleep at the McMillan center, but today she has to take the
team to their appointments. "You need to sit up before the police come,"
she says. "I'm the MAP driver."
know you," he says, eyes bleary, and adds, "I need to sleep somewhere."
He tells her he has, or had, a place to sleep. He missed his time to check in
last night. In a few hours he'll be able to sleep there. Jones wants to know
how he is going to get there.
you're still here when I get back, I'm going to take you to McMillan,"
take a bicycle," he says, drifting off again. "I'll take a bike."
up," she says firmly. He does.
she leaves, Gary says under his breath that he hates people. Sometimes you just
get so tired, he says. You get so tired, he says again, and is that so hard
to understand? He sinks to the ground, tucking in his knees, and his eyes close.
nurse is asking Dave how long it's been since he last saw his oldest son. "He's
still alive, right?" she asks. "Your mom lives close to here, right?"
She helps him put his shoes back on and tells him how to take care of his leg.
a while a security guard comes along and asks Gary to move. "Hello, my
friend," he says, politely. "Could you help me keep this place clean?
Can you just help me do that?" But Gary stays where he is.
you want me to go, I'll go," says Gary, but he doesn't, and the guard leaves.
older man, a custodian named Clarence Vardoe, is sweeping up shards of glass
a few feet away. He picks up a fragment of a Royal Gate Vodka bottle and looks
at the label. "This is what's causing all the misery in the world,"
Vardoe muses. "It's genuine 80 proof, all right." He drops it into
can learn a lot from what you sweep up, Vardoe says. "If you see balloons,
it's not because there was a child's birthday party." They're used for
preparing heroin, he says. Beer cans aren't just for drinking - they're well
suited to heating things put inside of them. In fact, you can use almost anything
hollow for a crack pipe, Vardoe explains. He also finds little bags that carried
I first started doing this I was a rare drinker," says Florin, the nurse
practitioner. "Now it reminds me of vomit."
tumbles out of Dave's pocket and onto the gray ground. It's his flask, which
he wheels around to pick up. It disappears into his jacket again. He rolls away
in his wheelchair, decorated with a Marine decal.
most of the other drivers and administrators of MAP, Jones lived in this world
before she began a career saving people from it. Around the corner from Dave
is a woman she knew in detox. The woman has long since relapsed, a chronic alcoholic
who lies in the street in her own feces.
is used to squalor. "Shoot," she says, "I've been picking up
shitty people since day one." She's not referring to their character. "You
don't want to hurt their feelings, so you lean out the window."
and the team drive off. Later, waiting for the team to come back from a hotel
where the day's second client lives, Jones is approached by a woman who asks
Jones whether she has blankets to give out today. Jones says she'll have some
later, and tells her to be at the civic center this evening.
woman looked familiar. "Either I've helped her before," she says,
"or she was lying next to someone I helped."
threat of violence and disease often keeps Jones on edge when she's driving
passengers. She keeps the windows cracked open so that air flows through the
van, dispersing airborne diseases. But she has kids -- including her boyfriend's
little daughter Amber, whom she calls her pride and joy -- and in spite of the
vaccinations Jones gets, she worries about passing along a disease such as tuberculosis.
now and then she's shaken by something that goes beyond the filth and misery
she's accustomed to. Once she visited a man who was in front of a church, trying
to pull his shirt off, but too drunk to get it over his head. She helped him
to his feet, made him put his shoes on, and tried to free the man from his shirt.
She yanked and yanked. Finally, it came off, and the insides of his sleeves
were bugs the size of my fingernail," she says.
had to get him off the streets. Sights like these leave her more baffled than
angry. "How can people live with bugs on them?" she says.
MAP drivers won't pick up anyone who seems dangerous, sometimes they are attacked.
V.J.'s only been attacked once, by a woman who spit and kicked at her when she
told her to quiet down. She did what MAP drivers are trained to do when a passenger
turns violent and won't leave the van: like a mother whose child has thrown
a fit, she took the keys to the van and walked away. The intercom in the van
was on the whole time, and the dispatcher on Fell Street could hear the woman
shouting and calling Jones a bitch.
safety of the driver comes first. "You don't know if they're going to take
everybody hostage," she says, "or shoot you in the back of the head."
Eastman says the streets the MAP drivers navigate are more dangerous than the
ones he lived on in the 1970s. "People are just a little bit crazier now,"
he says. "Young kids are carrying guns. There are people getting burned
in their sleeping bags in the alley."
single-room occupancy hotels, for which there are lengthy waiting lists, protect
the homeless from some of the dangers of the streets. There people sleep in
a room where they can store their belongings, living with counselors who check
up on them. But the price can be loneliness and isolation. There isn't the support
system there is on the streets. "They don't have anyone to come along and
say, 'hey man, wake up,'" Jones says.
team goes to visit a woman living in a hotel on Mission Street. The woman has
prematurely left a methadone treatment program for heroin addiction, and Dr.
Wisman wants to know how she is doing.
stays in the van, and the team goes inside to visit their client. When they
leave the old building and get back into the orange van, they tell Jones that
the woman wasn't sick, and wasn't getting any methadone, but sleepily insisted
she was no longer using heroin. Dr. Wisman kept asking her whether she wanted
to go to a clinic where she could get stronger. But the woman said she was tired
out from going from program to program, just too tired to go. "Don't worry
about me," she said from her bed, where she was recovering from a broken
hip after someone knocked her over, "'cause I'm tough."
lied to them, the doctor says as Jones drives off. Toughness alone would not
save her from the sickness of withdrawal. The woman felt bad about using heroin
again, the doctor said, and didn't want to tell the truth.
Jones drops off her team at the clinic and heads back to MAP headquarters.
Those are the first few hours of Vernada Jones' shift. She drives all week. "I do it," she says, "because somebody helped me."