As soon as I pulled myself into the right front seat of the Phoenix Rescue Mission’s Hope Coach (a late model Hyundai van), the case manager who shares my first name jumped into the driver’s seat and checked his supply of Narcan nasal spray. Narcan is a prescription medicine used for the treatment of known or suspected opioid overdose.
“Have you ever had to use this stuff on anyone?” Don asked.
“No,” I said. “Have you?”
“Oh sure. Just a few days ago, in fact.”
Each day the Phoenix Rescue Mission disburses several Hope Coach vans with case managers who are assigned to different areas of Phoenix, including several known homeless camps. (In the Winter months, officials estimate that the homeless population of metro Phoenix reaches nearly 30,000 or more.) Case manager Don is assigned to Peoria, a northwest Phoenix suburb of 200,000.
From the rescue mission headquarters just west of downtown Phoenix, Don typed directions into the GPS that guided us 11 miles diagonally along Grand Avenue north through Phoenix into Peoria.
We stopped first at the Peoria Community Center, and looked for Isaac who had talked with Don a day earlier, telling him, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
The plan was to help Isaac get an ID and to get him assessed and hopefully admitted into the rescue mission’s 5-month residential recovery program that currently houses and serves nearly 200 men and women.
When Isaac didn’t show up for his appointment, we headed for a second appointment to one of the city’s many methadone clinics. Don said a few hundred people come to this clinic every day, most of them one-time heroin users.
“You do understand that these clinics are Godsends but not magic,” he said. “They help keep people alive, but recovery is a process. Usually a long process that works best if undergirded with lots and lots of prayer.”
As we drove toward the clinic, Don was quiet for several blocks until finally speaking the words of Jesus from John chapter 10. “The thief comes to kill, steal and destroy. That’s what we’re up against, my friend.”
“How sobering is that,” I said.
“You got that right,” Don said. “But praise God, Jesus comes to give life, and one of the reasons I’m out here every day is to try to stop the devil from taking so many people out.”
Jack and Chris, both about 30, were waiting to for Don, just like they said they would be. For now, both are living on the streets. “But I hope not for long,” Jack said. The young men are trying to get their paperwork in order. Don had all manner of contacts at his fingertips to help. They wrote down a few numbers before heading off on bicycles.
We headed to one of the homeless camps in Peoria. As he drove, Don told me some of his story. He got kicked out of his home when he still was a young teen. He lived on the streets of Eugene, Oregon. He became an alcoholic. One day, “by God’s sheer grace, I found Jesus. More accurately, Jesus found me. Imagine doing that for a wild, out-of-control kid from Oregon.” That was back in 1984. Now for almost 30 years Don has worked to help people recover from their addictions and try and make a life for themselves.
Suddenly we pulled into a secluded 5-acre undeveloped area near a freeway. Driving up to a cluster of Palo Verde trees surrounded by thick desert shrubs, Don stopped the van and stepped out. Walking toward the shrubs he said, “Hello. Hello. We’re hear from Phoenix Rescue Mission.”
A woman named Tia emerged from behind the trees and gave Don a big welcome. We gave her 6 bottles of cold water and 2 packs of personal care items – shampoo, deodorant, tooth paste, a tooth bush, socks and a half dozen granola bars. Tia talked with us about her 23-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son. “They are doing great,” she said, smiling. “My ex has done a good job raising them.” Case worker Don and Tia talked about several people they are trying to help.
A tall, toothless man stepped out behind the trees and asked Don, “Do the police know we’re here?”
“Brother, we’re a rescue mission,” Don said shaking his hand. “We’re not here to turn people in.”
As we headed back to the rescue mission headquarters, Don noticed a young fellow struggling with a rope alongside the road. He pulled the Hope Coach into a parking lot next to where the man stood.
The man named Jason gladly accepted several bottles of cold water. As Don talked with him, he said, “My drug of choice was Alcohol. What’s yours?”
“Meth,” said Jason.
Jason told us his dad finally kicked him out of his home for good in March. “I would have done the same thing if I kept doing what I was doing.” A cardboard sign on top of Jason’s black backpack read, “Please help! Anything helps.”
Don told Jason about the programs at Phoenix Rescue Mission. “Would you ever be interested in something like this?”
“Maybe. I’m okay for now.” He took Don’s card and then suddenly hoisted his backpack over his shoulders and walked away, carrying his sign.
As case worker Don drove the Hope Coach back to the rescue mission’s headquarters, he had tears in his eyes. “Man, I hate to see these young guys suffer like that. I’ll come back here tomorrow and look for Jason. He’s crying for help. Pray that I can find him and that he’ll give the rescue mission a chance.”