22 Aug 2014
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Helping the Homeless, One at a Time

Patch spends time on the streets of Martinez with Doug Stewart as he provides help and outreach to those who are truly in need.

Helping the Homeless, One at a Time Helping the Homeless, One at a Time Helping the Homeless, One at a Time Helping the Homeless, One at a Time Helping the Homeless, One at a Time Helping the Homeless, One at a Time Helping the Homeless, One at a Time Helping the Homeless, One at a Time

Doug Stewart spends his nights picking his way around piles of garbage, trekking through mud and across the many creeks that cross Martinez and Contra Costa County. With a flashlight and backpack, a sweatshirt and hat for the cold nights, he’s actively looking for people that the rest of us turn away from: the homeless, the destitute and forgotten.

Since 2004, when, as a member of the Pacheco Town Council he founded Pacheco Homeless Outreach, Doug has administered to the needs of those living on the streets. His mission now centers on Martinez, where he and his wife and two children live, and the name has morphed into Martinez/Pacheco Homeless Outreach.

Doug’s white Ford Aerostar van is a familiar sight as it patrols the streets of Martinez, dispensing clean socks, aspirin, shirts, scarves and help. Sometimes the help is a ride to a homeless shelter. Sometimes it’s a friendly word. Whatever form it takes, it’s part of his goal to help the homeless get their life back together, to leave them better than they were when he found them.  Patch.com rode along with Doug for two nights to get his story and a better understanding of the issue.

I met Doug at the Amtrak station, an area in which some of the dispossessed congregate. Aside from a dark blue sweatshirt with the words Outreach Team, he could be just another passenger ready to board the Zephyr or Starlight for a warmer spot.

It’s cold. Not bitter, but cold enough for the wool cap he’s wearing. We walk through the station and as he tells me we’ll make the rounds tonight, he calls out greetings to familiar faces. None of “his people” he tells me, just folks he recognizes. Outside the station, Doug takes out a flashlight as we go down an embankment toward the creek, where some homeless have been seen. It’s near where a body was found, face down in the creek yesterday afternoon. There’s an old shopping cart there now, and blankets, clear signs that the area’s been used recently. But not tonight.

Walking back to the parking lot, Doug spots a man sitting on a low wall. He walks over and says hello. It’s Kevin, and Doug asks him how he is and introduces me. He needs a ride to the shelter in Concord, so we pile into the van, Kevin in the back and me riding shotgun. Kevin tells me he used to work in construction but lost his job and has been on the streets for a couple of years. After we drop him off at the county shelter in Concord, I ask Doug about him.

“If you see a guy like that panhandling,” Doug says, “at 7-Eleven or whatever, and you're thinking ‘get a job, you bum’, that's just ignorance, non-education. Because No. 1, some of these guys have huge alcohol problems, like Kevin. Alcoholism is the root of his problem. I’ve been trying to work on it, trying to get him to go to detox.” He says that seven to nine out of 10 homeless people have drug and alcohol problems.

How does a guy like that get help?

“He's gotta want it.”

If you're not there, what happens?

“The only other outreach team, and it works during the day, is Project Hope, or they can call 211 and get on the list. But the problem with getting on a list is that a lot of these guys don't have cell phones, so they can't get called back.”

What about in an emergency, someone who needs help right now?

“I'm really blessed in that I've been doing this for a while, and if I had an 80-year-old guy here right now, I can call the director, call her at home, and get him into the shelter. They work with me. They know I'm out here and fill a huge void in the county. But for the average homeless person that calls 211 and tries to get services, they're on a list for six months, eight months.” The county allows the indigent to stay at the shelter for 120 days at a time. After 30 days, they can reapply for admission, which means another six months waiting.

And that happens because the county is overwhelmed, is that the issue?

“Yeah. I think the number right now in Contra Costa is about 4,500 every night. It’s around there. And that shelter [in Concord] is supposed to have around 70-80 beds, and they’re at around 110 right now, and the shelter in Brookside is also around 110. There’s also about 30 or 40 detox beds. There’s GRIP, which is the Greater Richmond Interfaith Program, they do family shelters.”

We’re headed back to Martinez now, to check out a camp on the hill behind the county hospital. There are separate shelters for families, Doug says. The other shelters separate men’s and women’s sleeping areas, for obvious reasons. And no pets are allowed, which creates an additional problem for some who won’t leave them behind.

“You’ll see that situation later tonight,” he tells me. “I’ve got a couple over in the park that we’re going to check on, with a dog. The police told me he got sliced or stabbed, so we’re going to check on him later. She’s got a little dog, and she wants to go for Sober Living [a detox facility], but they won’t take the little dog so she won’t go.”

She won’t go for detox because she won’t leave the dog?

“Right, she won’t go without the dog. That’s another problem. But you know, I can’t fix all the problems of the world, I just try to take them one person at a time.”

We turn onto Allen Street, make our way up the hill and park at the end of the road. About 100 yards up the hill, Doug finds a clearing in the brush. He tells me to stay behind — he’s wearing a bulletproof vest and I’m not— and calls out. There’s no answer, so he ventures in. No one’s there, he says, and it’s safe for me to follow. There are sleeping bags and a blanket hung over a rope to fashion a makeshift tent. Off to one side is a fire pit for cooking. Poking around in the debris, he finds a crack pipe. Under a tarp is a blanket, with a plastic bag with dry clothes in it, a clear sign that whoever lives there will be back. Doug says it’s probably a couple, judging by the clothing. He’ll report what he found to the police. He’s got a good working relationship with the Martinez Police Department and it’s part of what motivates him.

“It’s not my job, but I’ve kind of taken it on because you know the police can’t do it. They can’t do everything, they’ve gotta have help from the community. You know this winter they [the homeless] were calling the police, calling 911, saying it’s cold, it’s cold, you know? But what can the police do? But if they’ve got somebody like me that’s out at night, they’ve got an answer. Even if I can’t put them in a shelter, I can bring them a blanket, give them a clean pair of socks; I’ve got a box of jackets back there. I can do something. I can make them warm, leave them better than I found them.”

I asked Doug why he does what he does, every night of the week, alone.

“I care about these people a lot. I care about the city. I want the city to be clean, I want them to get cleaned up. It’s easier for a kid in Iraq to get medical care than it is for a homeless person, and there’s something wrong with that. We’re the most powerful nation in the world and we’ve got people sleeping at bus stops. It doesn’t make sense to me.” He thinks about it for a moment, admits that it troubles him, that he sometimes sits in his van and cries.

“If I can help somebody get their life back together,” he continues, “and help the community at the same time, I’m gonna do it.”

What help do you get from others?

“I have one group that gives me 150 pairs of socks every other month, and they gave me some scarves. The California Grand Casino in Pacheco gives me some money every year. And there were a few other businesses that gave me $50 here or $100 there. Other than that, everything comes out of my pocket.” He estimates that he spends more than $3,000 a month in the winter, about half that when the weather’s more forgiving for those who sleep outside. He’s in the process of forming a nonprofit foundation to make it easier to continue his work. I ask him about it.

How much of this will change when you become a nonprofit? Won’t it be easier for people to make donations?

“I hope it does. My main hope is that the city of Martinez will jump in. The police officers are totally behind me because they’re the ones benefiting. But they have to prioritize, you know, and homelessness is not at the top of their list.”

While he concentrates on Martinez and Pacheco, Doug also helps out in Concord, Pleasant Hill, Richmond and Antioch. He serves on a multidisciplinary team that includes six or seven law enforcement agencies, county mental health officials and homeless organizations that come together once a month to discuss issues. In 2008, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness awarded Doug Stewart the President's Call to Service Award in recognition of his volunteer efforts.

Is there a particular success story that you’re proud of?

“Yeah there was one guy, back when I started in 2005, his name was Bill, in Pacheco. He was really mentally ill; you could tell that he was paranoid schizophrenic or something to that effect. It was the dead of winter, February, and he would walk around with no shoes on. I found him under a bridge, lying there in a T-shirt, with no shoes on. I’d give him shoes and a blanket and the next time I saw him he wouldn’t have the shoes. So I referred him to mental health [services], and they came out and got him on medications. So, he started to remember that he had a sister-in-law in Michigan and had kids in Michigan. It turns out that he had gotten off his medications, and hopped a bus and wound up in Florida first, then wound up here. And they had thought he died, because he just disappeared on them. But we got him in a shelter, and somebody from mental health followed up, did some research on what he was remembering and came up with his family in Michigan. And they got hold of them, on New Year’s Eve 2005. So he’s back there now, living with them again.”

We’re back at the Amtrak station, where a group crowds around the van. There are two women, one just hanging out, another, Nicole, in her 30s and living in the park near the marina with a guy. Her face is ruddy, flush with the signs of alcohol, and she’s wearing a man’s overcoat and a baseball cap. Doug’s a good guy, she tells me as she takes a bag of SunChips from him. One of the three men standing near her agrees. I ask why. He’s here for us, helps us out, makes it easier for us, they say, everyone nodding.

Next, we visit the park near the marina and find a small camp near a baseball field. This is where Nicole lives with her friend. It’s unoccupied at the moment but a beer bottle hidden under a bench means it isn’t abandoned.

“They’ll be back later, probably around 1 or 2” Doug says.

On our next night out, Doug takes me to a creek where several jurisdictions meet, Martinez, Concord, Contra Costa County and Caltrans all sharing a part of the homeless problem.

Doug has on a backpack and tonight gives me a bulletproof vest to wear. Everybody carries a knife, he explained, for their protection.

“You never know what’s going to happen. You approach someone 20 times, he knows you, and the next time he goes nuts. So I wear a vest.” He’s taken out the mace he carries about a dozen times over the years, but has only had to use it once, when he was attacked by a dog. There would be dogs where we were going, hence the vest for me, just in case.

Caltrans would be clearing the area in the next few days, and the police would be out tagging the camps. The tag was a 72-hour warning, after which the camps would be hauled away as trash. There’s a drainage pipe emptying into the creek bed, filled with plastic coolers, old clothes, sleeping bags, broken radios, bicycle parts. It’ll wash into the creek when the water is running, then the bay, which is a couple of miles downstream. It’s another problem with homelessness, the pollution. They leave behind the things they’ve collected to make their lives better because they have to carry their belongings. We come upon the main part of the camp, a scattering of about half a dozen tents and another few makeshift shelters. In the first one is a couple, Dave and Miriam. Doug calls to them to come out and they meet him with a smile.

“Diamond Dave is the mayor here,” Doug tells me. “How you doin’, Dave?”

“I’m doing alright.”
”Do you need anything?”

“Nah we’re good.”

Doug cautions them not to burn the tent down and asks what they’re cooking.

“Ravioli” Miriam answers.

“How you doing, Miriam? You OK? Let me see your arms.” She rolls up her sleeves and puts her wrists and forearms in the yellow beam of Doug’s flashlight.

“Good girl,” he says.

Doug tells them about the tagging, tells them to get ready to move on. Dave’s got a drug problem. Miriam he says, doesn’t. But she cuts herself, slicing into her arms with a razor blade. They’ll go up the creek into Martinez, he tells me, as we walk on. In Martinez, they’re no longer Caltrans’ problem, but he’ll see them again. The scene is repeated at the next two tents, one where a growling dog keeps us a good distance away. Doug drops a clean pair of socks into the tent, behind the dog.

The rounds completed, we head back to the van. I tell Doug about my encounter with Bobby while I waited for him at the station. Bobby, dressed in Army camouflage fatigues, warned me about the use of dog hearts in kidney and heart transplants. “Monkey don’t work,” he insisted, but dog did. The only problem is that you burp dog food for a while. I laughed when he told me that, then realized he wasn’t telling a joke.

I asked Doug about Bobby. He tells me that Bobby thinks he owns a bunch of marinas, tells him about drug deals coming in, off loading at his marinas. About government conspiracies against him. He’s mentally ill, but he keeps himself clean, brushes his teeth and stays out of trouble. It’s not a crime to be mentally ill or homeless, Doug points out. You can’t just lock them up. But they’re sick and they need help, the majority of them.

What’s the solution? Is there one?

“The city of Seattle has a great solution. They built a high-rise building of studio apartments for homeless people and alcoholics. In that building they’ve got caseworkers that can help them out. You know, the homeless take up so many resources in police and emergency-room visits and mental health, it was just cheaper to house them.”

That kind of answer to the problem of homelessness is most likely beyond the resources of the city of Martinez, or perhaps Contra Costa County. The county’s 10-year plan to eliminate homelessness was begun in 2004 yet, by its own estimate, 4,500 people are living in camps alongside creeks, in boxes under bridges or in sleeping bags in parks every night.

In the meantime, there’s Doug Stewart, working on the problem one person at a time, night after night, with his only reward the knowledge that’s he’s improved someone’s life, even if it’s only for the night.  

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