DURHAM — Late in a long day of hunting half-lost men and women in alley corners, under bridges and in odd wedges of forest at highway interchanges, the team in the minivan rolled up on nine men stealthily sipping beer and socializing behind a church.
"I hope I can get a house!" one of the homeless men yelled, after recognizing the team. He was joking, but in a sense, getting him into that house was exactly what the trio in the van was there to do.
They were members of an outreach team fielded by a group named Housing for New Hope, a roving tie to society for some of the Triangle's most hard-core street people.
The teams roam Durham and Orange counties almost daily, performing a kind of free-range casework, checking in with homeless people they know and chatting up newcomers. They build trust and relationships, helping with basic health assessments, advice, referrals and transportation.
All the while, they're watching and listening for any opening, any hint that someone might finally be ready to sleep indoors. The agency has its own housing and works with other agencies and independent landlords.
Pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline recently gave $40,000 to Housing for New Hope, one of several grants the company awarded to small nonprofit groups around the state that are effective in providing health care to under-served populations.
More than 1,400 people were homeless in the Triangle as of the last annual count in January. Some take advantage of traditional or transitional housing and visit soup kitchens and support agencies such as clinics.
Others, though, dip only occasionally into the patchwork of support, and they do their eating, drinking and sleeping outdoors. The most effective way to reach them is as obvious as it is unconventional: Go where they are.
It was still dark on a recent morning when a three-person Housing for New Hope team parked near a used car lot and began following a footpath into a stand of trees. Michael Kelly took the lead, followed by Marigny Manson, a registered nurse, and Patricia King, who, like Kelly, is called a peer-support specialist.
As the path entered the trees, Kelly stopped to examine a six-pack of beer bottles on the ground. They were thick with ants.
He shook his head. The trail was cold.
Life in hidden places
Kelly knows beer bottles. He knows woods and knows the people who drink beer in the woods. He was one of them for years, until outreach workers with the agency got him off the street and helped him become one of them. Now he lives in his own Habitat for Humanity house.
On this day, Kelly was the driver - and security expert and all-around field guide to the world of homelessness. Manson brought the critical health care expertise, and King stood ready to add anyone who was willing to the agency's database and lend a knowledgeable ear for the endless problems that homeless people face.
Their quarry was surprisingly common. It seemed like every vacant wooded lot near a convenience store, or close to a good spot to panhandle - such as Durham's Ninth Street or Franklin Street in Chapel Hill - has tents, tarpaulins or rolled up sleeping bags tucked away discreetly.
"We find people, meet people and build some form of relationship," Kelly said. "Anybody can get out and preach from a corner and tell you what you ought to be doing. We don't do that. We just let them know help is available and when you're ready we can help link you with it. We have empathy that's real, and people can relate to us."
A few stops later, the team parked near another camp, in a wedge of woods between two highways.
"It never ceases to amaze me where you find these places, and with all the ones we know about, there are sure to be a bunch more that we don't know about," Kelly said.
A good conversational gambit, he said, is to look for something a little different or clever about the camp and compliment the residents on it. A bathroom cabinet nailed to a tree, for example, or a rubber bag hanging from a limb for a shower.
'It's not that cold'
The man they were looking for wasn't home, so they checked the entrance to a nearby shopping center where he usually "flies" his sign.
"Homeless help needed" the sign said. The man, whom the team did not want identified, was sitting on a thin cushion on a curb, a bag with a sandwich in it and an aluminum cane on the ground beside him. He had tied his graying hair in a ponytail, and he was wearing a nice pair of work boots and a clean, waterproof hiking jacket. Manson had taken him on a tour of group homes a couple of weeks earlier and wanted to hear whether he had made up his mind about moving into one.
He showed no sign of emotion at their presence and didn't look at them.
"You know it's going to get cold out here, man," said Kelly.
"I know," came the reply.
"I just don't understand why you're not interested in a group home," Manson said.
"It's not that cold," he said.
"Not yet," said Manson, "But you know you've got that option, OK?"
The man decided they deserved a full explanation.
"Look, I don't need to be around a whole bunch of people, and when I want to drink a beer, I want to drink a beer without anybody messing with me," he said.
"Well, at a group home, you can go outside and drink a beer," Manson said.
"Well, I get angry and I might get arrested and that will cost me some money."
Manson, changing the subject, asked what he wanted for Christmas. A group of local churches is trying to fill lists for homeless people. He replied that some insulated coveralls would be good.
They headed for the church near Ninth Street, a gathering place for some of Durham's most entrenched homeless people.
Behind the church, Kelly eased out from behind the wheel and greeted old friends who go by the names of Concrete and Slim.
The team's strategy
It's tempting to think Kelly is too chatty, but his easy manner with people who may be drunk, mentally ill, or both, and an intuition about how to approach them, are unusual gifts that the other members of the team both need and appreciate.
"Having that social relationship is really important for those not ready to engage with us yet, because it's just like, OK, we're just chatting about the old days, and who's doing what, and how they are," Manson said.
Chattiness also helps as another kind of tool. If they walk up to a group and two are garrulous drunks and a third is quiet and seems to need some help, Kelly can amp up his chattiness while one of the others eases the quiet person aside for a talk. Which is exactly what King did behind the church, walking a newcomer to the streets around to the other side of the minivan and enrolling him in the agency's database.
Many of those standing around in the group just don't like being hemmed in by walls and roofs and rules, said Slim, whose real name is Davlin Carver.
"And a lot of people here have burned bridges with their families," he said. "Some of 'em have that sickness, that phobia thing about being cooped up.
"Me, I stay out here because I choose to," he said. "Everything is a choice."
And what does it take to get someone to make a choice to come in off the street?
"It takes something harsh to get every man or woman to that point where Michael got to," Slim said, grinning atKelly.
Waiting to hit bottom
The familiarity is a two-way street. The outreach workers know the street people, and the street people know them. In Kelly's case, that's easy, because he has been a member of both groups. And he might still be in a tent, drinking and panhandling, if he hadn't reached that point where he was vulnerable.
Six years ago, Kelly was living in some woods near Ninth Street with Concrete and another man, near where Slim now camps. The outreach workers with Housing for New Hope had been chatting him up for a year and a half, and when he hit bottom - two health care crises, including one in which a doctor told him he had briefly been dead - they were there.
When the agency helped him ease back into society, he got a normal life, and the agency got something extraordinary, too: a man who is not only wise about homeless life, but has a deep knowledge of it. His skills are unique, something no training program could replicate.
Slim understands what coming off the street has done for Kelly, but he'd rather have the woods, the freedom and that paper cup of beer in his hand.
"I just ain't at that point," he said. "Till a person hits the bottom, they'll continue to do what they're doing. I haven't hit that bottom."
Kelly shot the breeze awhile longer with his old buddies, then, with the rest of the team, climbed back in the minivan.
Slim, he said, got cleaned up a couple of times with the help of a religious ministry, but slid right back into street life and sleeping out in the woods. One day, though, Slim may give them an opening, and Kelly said they'll be ready.
"It's our goal in life, I suppose, to find out what makes people to continue to choose that," he said. "Then, somehow, we have to figure out how to change their mind."