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Mobile Miami Medics: The Lazarus Project, Part 1

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MIAMI (CBSMiami) – Passing him on the street, at best, he is a faceless stranger.

To many, the cardboard box the elderly man was living in wouldn't even attract a stare.

From a distance, it just looked like discarded garbage abandoned in  a downtown Miami vestibule.

But in fact, if you cared enough to lift its top, you would find someone described as chronically homeless man trying to sleep this chilly February morning, hidden in a tattered blanket.

"Amigo!" is the chant echoing from a unique rescue team that pulls up to him.

The team calls him Miguelito and offer words of encouragement but share concern over his health and condition.

Within seconds, his blood pressure is checked.

"I'm sure when you pull the cardboard back you are hoping he is alive?" asked CBS4 Chief Investigative Reporter Michele Gillen, who rode with the team over the course of a month.

Related: Mobile Miami Medics: The Lazarus Project, Part 2

"In this case we know him for over a year. He trusts us right away," said a relieved Adrian Mesa, a psychiatric nurse practitioner with Camillus Health, who sets about assessing the situation with his team.

On that Tuesday morning, Miguelito is just one street side visit in what will be a hectic morning for the rescue and outreach team known as The Lazarus Project.

Many observers and advocates in the field of addressing homelessness say the project is bringing a new wave of doctoring to the street, bandaging wounds and lives.

The urgent mission, Mesa says, is to bring help and hope to the chronic homeless.

The priority is men and women, some of whom have been living on our streets for more than a decade, many of whom are suffering from mental illness.

"Everybody here actually cares about the people we are trying to help. We took it a step further. You don't want to go to shelter? What can we do for you? They will allow us to give them medication. It may take months for the medication to work," said Lazaro Trueba, supervisor of the team.

The project's name is actually a nod to Trueba, the program being his initial brainchild and the Biblical figure Lazarus, who is associated with a legendary miracle of life after death.

The project is said to be a novel idea slowly changing the paradigm and price tag of addressing chronic homelessness and its nexus with mental illness and costs of hospitalization and often incarceration.

In a recent Homeless Trust count of the homeless population on Miami Dade streets, some 64 percent of the homeless were identified as having serious mental illnesses.

"One of the most important  programs we fund now is a program called The Lazarus Project," said Ron Book, President of the Homeless Trust.

"Understanding that we are not going to get all the chronic people off the streets. And understanding the vast majority of the chronic population have mental health related issues. We make sure they are getting their prescriptive medicines. We make sure that their health care needs are being met on the streets. If they are going to live on the streets and they are unwilling to come off, we need to meet their needs. We need to come and meet them,"  Book shared with Gillen.

The team searches for clues to lives that are a hanging in the balance – weary souls, like 58-year-old Valcent.

"How are you feeling today? What is in your mind?" asked Gillen

"I' m so tired. So tired for everything. So tired," he responded, telling her he is hoping to find shelter and get off the street.

"The Lazarus program is about showing them that  we are prepared to embrace them and bring them and help them and pay to meet their needs on the street, hoping that at some point they will come in," explained Book. "Lazaro helped us understand what it was."

"Right now what's the mission?" asked Gillen.

"To find Jesse. We call him ' Bigfoot.' You will see why," Trueba told Gillen as they rode with the team across downtown Miami streets just after dawn.

One particular morning, amid torrential rains, the team was driven to locate Jesse to administer a shot they say has stabilized his world.

"There he is. Today is when he gets his monthly injection. So it is important," Trueba exuded as the man approached.

After two decades of living on the streets and struggling with mental illness, at first he used to run away from the team.

Mesa recalled, "The first time I saw him he was scared of us."

Now he comes to them.

"You saw how he came to the van. Over time he realizes we are here to help in. At first he ran away from us," said a drenched Mesa, who with his team ran to administer the medication to Jesse in the pouring rain.

The value of this visit is priceless, according to Mesa, for Jesse and the community.

"He is doing really well. He is very calm. He does not want to go back into the shelter. He has managed to stay out of the hospital and jail.  That's the way of seeing the success of the project. Not only are you improving someone's quality of life. You are saving taxpayer money by keeping people out of the hospital and out of the jail," an encouraged Mesa shared with Gillen. "People might ask, 'What is the cost of this project?' The question is, 'What is the cost of not doing this project?'"

Beyond the injection, their bonds are palpable. Acts of kindness sweeten life on the street. It's apparent that there is joy in not just  giving Jesse a new pair of dry sneakers, perhaps the best medicine, the team agrees is love and it can be found in the tying of someone else's laces, like those on the new sneakers they help Jesse put on.

In case after case, medical assistant Aldo Fleites employs every tool possible to build the trust. He is proud of the transformation he has seen in many clients. The face of dignity and humanity restored.

He carries a photo of a woman's nails he carefully clipped to help wash away a reminder of lost time living on the streets.

His mornings are spent sharing cigarettes, socks and smiles. And of course, checking blood pressure and vitals.

One day they discovered a man who might  have lost his legs from infection. The before and after pictures are dramatic.

All the while they help each individual build an infrastructure.

"We help get them social security and food stamps. So they know we really want to do something for them," said Trueba.

And from there, they are in a better position to decide to come to shelter.

To the Camillus House, for starters, puts them on a path that could lead to independent living.

That chapter of this story will be revealed in Part 2 of Mobile Miami Medics, as multiple facets of the community including the  Camillus House, Camillus Health, the Miami Coalition for the Homeless and the Homeless Trust press forward on addressing a complex problem.

Meanwhile the Lazarus Project continues – one hug, one visit, one pair of new sneakers and one abandoned cardboard box at a time.

Neighbors 4 Neighbors is accepting donations and volunteers for this program at their website.

To donate just go to the above link and click on the "Donate: button and select "Help for Homeless" on the designation box and "Lazarus Project" on the dedication.

To volunteer, click on "I Want To Help" and select the Homeless Project. You can also call them at 305-597-4404 or email Thank you for caring!

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