"This stuff pretty much kills anything," says CHIERS van operator Ashley Nikoo, squirting CC10 sanitizer solution into the back of the vehicle. The previous occupant had pissed himself before we picked him up and brought him to the Hooper Detox Center 20 minutes ago.
"Pretty much any kind of fluid the body produces has been back there," says Nikoo's colleague and driver for tonight, James Allman, as he follows up with a hose. Fortunately the van's secure passenger compartment is waterproof and has drainage holes in the floor for just such occasions. After they're done cleaning, both Nikoo and Allman remove their blue plastic gloves, ready for the next client.
CHIERS stands for Central City Concern Hooper Inebriate Emergency Response Service, the van which drives around Portland every day, transporting nearly 3,000 intoxicated clients to the Hooper Detox Center on NE MLK and Burnside every year. Nikoo has been with the service since February—she's studying emergency medicine at Portland Community College—while Allman has been driving the van for nine years. He worked for three years in an inpatient detox center before that.
The van can pick people up anywhere in Portland's city limits, and averages between six and 10 clients each night. Since Allman started driving, the most lucrative locales for gleaning intoxicated people have changed. He used to pick most people up from St. Johns and NW 23rd, but both areas have cleaned up over recent years, and a good proportion of CHIERS' customers lately are coming from Southeast. There's no standard customer, either.
"One guy had a $20,000 Rolex on. He owned a publishing firm and he was standing there arguing with his wife," says Allman. "She wouldn't take him home, so Hooper was the safest thing for him."
Tonight's wet-panted inebriant, however, fit a more stereotypical image. By the time we arrived at Creston Park on SE 45th and Powell, there were two cops on the scene who had been called by a concerned neighbor. The man, who had been barbecuing hamburgers on a makeshift grill between two shopping carts, could barely stand, and he launched forth with a stream of invectives once he'd been loaded into the van with his belongings.
"Come on, you little punk bitch, I'll beat your ass," he yelled. "You better have a warrant. You better be taking me to jail. You aren't nothing but a punk bitch motherfucker anyway. Someone's gonna get sued. Let go of my shit."
Allman continued driving, calmly, with K-Hits 106.7 playing softly on the radio.
After driving around for another hour, our next potential client of the night is called in by a social worker. He's a one-legged African American man walking west in the road on NE Broadway, toward a Shell gas station. The man is yelling at passersby in the street, so Allman calls for a patrol car to assess the man's condition. Once the cop determines the man is not intoxicated—it's a mental health issue—we drive on.
Our last client of the night walked into the Veterans Association Medical Center six hours earlier, blowing a blood alcohol level of 0.30 percent—the equivalent of having consumed 12 drinks in an hour. At 11 pm, the hospital is still concerned about his welfare, so Allman talks to the man, breathalyzes him, and determines he is not intoxicated enough to take to Hooper. A blood alcohol level of 0.30 percent is high for most people, "although for chronic alcoholics, that's not that high and they can still function," Allman explains. Besides, the man has had several hours to sober up.
Instead, we take him to a downtown bus stop, before speeding off into the night.