Lowell Hamilton, 1/30/2012
Current Occupation: Social Worker
Former Occupation: Outreach Worker
Contact Information: Lowell Hamilton lives in Louisville, KY where he works as a social worker in a homeless program. He has been previously published in Darpan, The Southeast Asia Literary Journal and the anthology At Home Away. He has previously worked as a video store clerk, a liquor store clerk, a forestry technician, an English teacher in Vietnam, a high school basketball coach in Botswana and managed a center for refugees and asylum seekers in Hong Kong.
I entered the garage-like bays of the Mental Health Association-Orange County drop-in center and looked around. The overall color of the place was gray and the cobbled together furniture gave the place a grassroots feel it wore well. I liked the MHA-OC. It was located, quite incongruously, in a storage complex around the corner from Disneyland. And being relatively new to the field, I was impressed by the seasoned, street smart staff. One of them had recently appeared on the cover of the OC Weekly’s ‘Urban Camping’ issue.
I noticed a line of people sitting against one wall. In the last chair, a man was bent over double and shook violently. His spiky, bleached blond hair vibrated.
My boss, Baines, a former homeless Veteran himself, was getting increased pressure to fill our new Supportive Housing for Veterans program. If it wasn’t full by the end of the year, our agency would lose a significant chunk of funding. All the outreach workers were charged with finding new referral sources and the MHA-OC was one of mine. Unfortunately, in two visits, I hadn’t identified any Veterans, let alone homeless Veterans with the type of income that qualified for the Supportive Housing program. I wanted to make the MHA-OC a regular stop of mine, but if I didn’t start showing some numbers from there, I would be pulled off the site and sent elsewhere.
A short, brunette staffer was stationed behind the reception desk. I was uncertain if she remembered me.
“Oh thank goodness you’re here!” the brunette staffer exclaimed when she saw me, “I didn’t know if you were coming today.”
Her enthusiasm caught me off guard. I also noted that she didn’t consider me dependable yet. Staff members like her and the Urban Camping cover boy were part of the reason I hadn’t identified any Veterans. They knew that outreach workers, and especially those targeting Veterans, were frequently judged not by how many people they connected to services, but by how much paperwork they pushed, which in turn generated funding for programs. Until I demonstrated that I actually was capable of helping their clients, rather than merely documenting them, the MHA staff didn’t have time for me.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Can you take David to the VA?” she asked matter-of-factly. “Wait, you have a car, right?”
“I have a car, but who’s David?” I asked to buy myself time. For safety reasons, Baines strenuously discouraged the practice of transporting clients though I noticed he always stopped short of expressly forbidding it.
“You don’t know David?” the brunette staffer asked, perplexed. “He’s a Veteran.”
“Sorry,” I said and fought off the need to point out that the staff should’ve facilitated an introduction to David weeks ago. “I haven’t met all your Veterans yet.”
“That’s alright,” she said and came around from behind the desk, “He’s right over here.”
The brunette staffer led me straight to the vibrating blond man seated against the wall. His face was contorted and strained, veins stuck out on his forehead and his breathing was forced and irregular. His skin was purplish and he looked like he was coming apart in sections.
“This is David,” the staffer informed me. “You want help getting him out to your car?”
“What’s going on with him?” I asked.
“I think he’s having a panic attack,” the staffer said, “but I’m not positive.”
“A panic attack?” I replied. “Really?”
I had heard people describe their panic attacks before. Those descriptions bore no resemblance to what I was seeing in front of me.
“Yeah. He gets them pretty bad sometimes,” the brunette staffer answered. “But this is extreme. Could be something worse.”
“Did he say he wanted to go to the VA?”
“Let’s ask him.”
She lightly stroked David’s back, and in low soothing tones, told David about me and asked if he wanted to go to the VA. David shakily replied that he did. I motioned with my head towards the reception desk and the staffer followed me back over.
“Don’t you all have a way to get him to the hospital?” I asked.
“No, the guy who drives our van is gone for the day.”
“If I can’t take him, what will you do?”
“Probably just let him sit there and see if it gets any worse,” the staffer sighed. “If he really starts having problems, we’ll call an ambulance. We really don’t like to do that unless we have to. We’re not the most popular tenant in this complex. The last thing we need is a regular stream of ambulances coming back here.”
“The problem is,” I said with a grimace, “I’m not supposed to transport clients.”
The brunette staffer’s eyes changed very slightly. “Well,” she said after a beat, “it might just be a panic attack. I guess he can just sit there until it passes. Or until we close.”
She turned her back on me and answered a ringing phone. My brain felt locked. I looked at the clock. It was nearing rush hour. I was unnerved by the possibility of David ‘getting worse’ in the middle of a murderous southern California traffic jam.
“Let me check on something,” I said to the staffer.
I stepped outside and used the two way feature on our work phones. After a few seconds, a chirping sound was followed by Baines’s drawl. I quickly explained the situation.
“Is he suitable for Supportive Housing?” Baines asked when I finished running it down.
“I don’t know if he has income. He’s a Veteran, but I just met him and he’s not really in condition to talk.”
“Well, you don’t transport clients,” Baines stated. “Tell them to call an ambulance.”
My stomach sank. I looked in and studied David in his chair. He looked miserable and helpless. If David was in the beginning stages of a major medical problem or a psychotic episode, refusing to transport him might be a ghastly miscalculation. And even if it was just a panic attack, if I refused to take him, any chance I had to prove myself to the staff was likely gone. My mind uncoiled.
“I think I should take him,” I said to Baines.
“I don’t know,” he answered. “You sure it’s safe?”
“I think so. It feels like it.”
There was a long pause.
“All right,” Baines drawled, “Do your thing.”
“Your call. I’ll let the PETS clinic know you’re coming.”
I thanked him, clicked off and walked back into the drop-in center.
“I’ll take him,” I said to the brunette staffer. She gave me a huge grin.
“If you can help him outside,” I said, “I’ll bring the car around.”
The staffer nodded. She went to David, whispered in his ear and then helped him to his feet. As the staffer brought David out, I backed my car to the entrance and rolled down the windows.
“He might do better lying in the back seat,” the staffer suggested through the passenger side window.
“Sure,” I said. ”Wherever he’ll be comfortable.”
David tumbled into the back and crumpled into a tight ball. The brunette staffer carefully closed the door. I eased the car out and waved goodbye.
As we pulled onto to Highway 22, I asked David how he was doing. The Vet grunted affirmatively. In the adrenaline rise of cutting in and out of traffic, I intermittently glanced over my shoulder. David was still hunched into a dense ball. Veins stuck out wherever skin showed and his muscles strained against an invisible burden.
As the orange groves blurred by in the periphery of my vision, gaps kept appearing in the heavy traffic and we made good time to Long Beach. The 22 became 7th street and I turned into the main entrance of the Long Beach VA’s parking lot, hooked a left and pulled into the first spot I saw. I hustled around to the passenger side and helped David out. When we walked through front door of the hospital, with David bent like a question mark, the man at the reception desk jumped to his feet.
“It’s okay,” I said and waved him off. “We’re just going down the hall.”
“Sure you don’t need a wheel chair?” the man asked, the phone already in his hand.
“No…wheel…chair,” David pushed out.
“We’re alright,” I said, “Just going to PETS.”
We continued down the hall and turned into the Psychiatric Emergency and Treatment Services clinic. The small waiting area was empty. The nurse behind the glass window came out immediately. She helped me steer David into a chair.
“Hey, honey,” she said to David, “You having a little trouble today, huh?”
The nurse lightly stroked his back. After a few seconds, she noticed me standing there.
“It’s okay,” she said. “We know him. We’ve got him now. You can go.”
As I backtracked through the hospital, I wondered if I had done the right thing. The nurse’s reaction made me fairly certain it was a panic attack or, at minimum, something she had seen from him before and knew how to handle. I was supposed to be finding residents for Transitional, not carting people to the hospital, especially if it wasn’t an emergency. As I drove back to outreach bullpen to check in with Baines, I turned it all over again, but didn’t get anywhere.
The following week, I returned to the MHA-OC and the Urban Camping cover boy greeted me warmly.
“Hey, Henry,” he said excitedly. “Check this out.”
He came around the desk and proudly showed me a new flyer posted on the wall. The flyer displayed my name, contact info, and the day and time of my visits.
“Cool,” I said. “Thanks.”
“And,” Urban Camping said, drawing out the word. “You have some appointments. We’ve got four Vets waiting to see you.”
I followed him through center and scanned the rooms for David. I didn’t see him anywhere, but one of the other outreach workers who also knew him had recently spotted him on the bus with his arm around a ghoulish woman. I knew he was okay.
Urban Camping took to me the back room of the center. There was a piano against one wall and a cafeteria table along another.
“Is this okay?” Urban Camping asked.
“This is great,” I replied.
“Are you ready to meet the guys?”
“Yeah, send ‘em on back.”
I sat down and got out my log sheet and resource list. The first guy back was a middle aged man in a ball cap, walking with a cane.
“You Henry?” he asked and pointed at me with his cane.
“I’m Earvin,” he said, “I’m a Vet.”
“Have a seat.”
“I’m on disability,” Earvin said as settled on to a bench, “but what I need is housing. Do you know any place?”
“Yeah, there’s a Supportive Housing program we can talk about. Let me get some information from you first.”
As I took down Earvin’s basic information, an old, wiry white man with a large bushy beard and sunglasses entered the room. He was balding on top, but the rest of his scraggly white hair reached his shoulders. He sat down at the piano and picked out a slow mournful blues. He sounded good, but the music made it hard to hear Earvin.
“Hey,” Earvin yelled at the piano player. “Knock off the music.”
The piano player half turned and looked at Earvin over the top of his sunglasses.
“But I’m a musician, man,” he said in pinched, stoner voice. “This is what I do.”
“Whatever, alright?” Earvin responded. “I’m trying to talk to Henry. He’s the Vet rep. Veterans, man. Like me.”
The piano player shook his head and left the room.
“Go on, Henry,” Earvin said gruffly.
I smiled. I was in.