Kennington Adams hadn't expected to return to the neighborhood where he became homeless.
He sat quietly in the van's back seat until he recognized the streets near Bellaire where he would sometimes beg.
"Mr. Mike, you know my mother stay out here?" Kennington said loudly so the driver could hear him.
"No, I did not know that, son," Mike Blockson said.
He became Mr. Mike when he left his job as a parole officer about 20 years ago to work as an outreach specialist for The Covenant House, a shelter for homeless youth in Houston where staff provide transitional services and, most importantly, cultivate a sense of self-worth in residents before destructive choices seem the only option.
It was the first night of the city's annual homeless count, which about 500 volunteers will continue Tuesday. The Covenant House partnered with the Houston Coalition for the Homeless for the first year of a federal pilot program looking for the best way to count homeless youth.
Last week, three young volunteers, two of them current residents at the Covenant House, held clipboards, pens and surveys in their laps as Mr. Mike drove.
"Hey look," Kennington, 21, said as the van turned a corner. "Right here my Mama's place. Mr. Mike, I used to be all up and through here."
"Why were you all over this area, Kennington?" Mr. Mike asked.
"It would be three in the morning, and I'd be walking."
After Kennington lost his job at Walmart, he slipped into bad habits during his free time, and his mother would often lock him out at night, leaving him to search for a place to stay.
"Why'd you be walking, Kennington?" Mr. Mike asked.
"Trying to find a store to go beg in front of, or possibly go find somebody with some marijuana."
"That wasn't a good thing was it?"
Kennington paused then spoke quietly to Tyran Heyward, his 20-year-old roommate.
"Damn. Thing about this, bro, is this gonna make me go back to my old ways again."
"No!" Crystal Lovings, 26, interrupted. "It should make you stay away from them."
Hoping for Harvard
Crystal completed the Covenant House program and will graduate with her bachelor's degree in entrepreneurship from the University of Houston this year. She is optimistic about being accepted into Harvard's graduate business school.
Crystal volunteers often at Covenant House, telling new residents like Kennington and Tyran that the staff members there are only nosy or bossy for their own good, to keep them focused on their goals for a better life.
"When you're being molded it's not pleasant," she told them.
"Yeah," Tyran said. Kennington listened as he played a game on a cellphone with no service.
"I'm not where I will be eventually, but I wouldn't have my head on straight as much as I do now 'cause I was wild. I was violent. I was angry. I was bitter," Crystal said. "I didn't want authority but I needed it."
Crystal owns her troubled past because it made her who she is "and I love who I am now."
She used to be an 8-year-old sleeping on her grandmother's porch because her mother had left her. Crystal, in turn, left her alcoholic, crackhead father. She wasn't often allowed to sleep inside on a bed like her cousins because the family didn't want her father, the thief, to come in the house if he came to get her.
After a few years, an uncle took her to Child Protective Services, and her fit-prone, bipolar mother picked her up. Crystal moved out to live with her first boyfriend, "the only person in the world who loved me," and starting drinking and smoking pot.
"Then he began to beat me," Crystal said.
One night, when she was 17, Crystal walked out. She found a bus stop bench and lay down to sleep. A stranger told her about the Covenant House and gave her bus directions. She went that night.
We 'give them hope'
Covenant House residents are prone to give up on themselves and cling to a few fun memories from their old lives.
"They're so afraid they won't make it because they've had a lifetime of people telling them they're a failure, they're not going to be anything in life," Mr. Mike said. "We have to give them hope that things will change."
Crystal left the program once and was kicked out another time, returning to her abusive boyfriend.
Mr. Mike said more than a third of residents will leave at least once, but, like Crystal, many come back and choose to live a better life.
Kennington looked out the van window then turned toward Tyran.
"I did have some good times over here," he said. "Like over there where that -"
"Where did it lead you?" Crystal interrupted. "Where are you?"
Kennington looked at her stern, playful gaze, smiled then said:
"This one time I was -"
"One time at band camp?" Crystal interrupted with the popular quote from the movie "American Pie."
Soon, the van stopped and they climbed out with their clipboards, hoping to survey a group of people sitting on a corner not far from Kennington's old home.