MARTINEZ -- The final bus of the night was leaving downtown as Doug Stewart started his patrol. As his police radio buzzed in the background, Stewart drove his SUV down Castro Street and spotted four men walking toward the Amtrak station.
His eight years patrolling these streets have taught him these men were probably just released from County Jail, given a BART pass but having no way of getting to the station and out of downtown.
Stewart spins his SUV around, pulls alongside the men and inquires. His instincts were right. One of the men spent five days in jail for hitting a woman, and another says he got four days for a fight.
The two men jump into the SUV, and Stewart heads for Interstate 680 to drop them off at the North Concord BART station.
This is how most nights begin for Stewart. As the founder of Central County Homeless Outreach, Stewart works graveyard five times a week, giving rides, offering food, water and blankets and trying to find shelter for the area's most vulnerable.
"The guy's got a heart of gold," said Bill Schilz, a member of Stewart's board of directors.
Central County Homeless Outreach began as a one-man response to complaints of homeless camps in Pacheco. It was funded out of Stewart's pocket until it grew into a nonprofit with a board of directors a year ago. Patrols have expanded to Martinez and Concord, with talks of expanding further.
There are thousands of homeless in central
Stewart's work has won him national, regional and local awards and recognition, including the 2012 Person of the Year in Martinez. He said he enjoys helping everyone and particularly has a soft spot for homeless veterans.
"For me, there's no reason why I can't fight for them," said Stewart.
Stewart fell into the work after an injury forced him to leave his contracting job here. He has never been homeless, yet he speaks the language of the street, knows most homeless by their first name and has a knack for finding homeless camps in the nooks of freeway underpasses and through thick brush.
On most nights, Stewart rides alone -- and the job can be dangerous. On July 29, he was driving Rider Murray home to San Francisco from County Jail in Martinez. According to a police report, San Francisco police pulled Stewart over for making an illegal turn on Stockton Street and while being questioned by police, Murray pulled out a razor blade and held it to Stewart's throat.
Two police officers and Stewart wrestled the blade away from Murray, who was subsequently arrested, and Stewart walked away unhurt, according to the report.
His wife, Bailey Stewart, remembers when he told her what happened: "All I can think of is this huge gash in his cheek or a hole in his neck. At first, I got mad. When he got home, all I could do was cry and hold him."
Stewart's family has made sacrifices, too. Bailey Stewart sometimes takes 211 calls in the middle of the night from a radio in the couple's home office. Stewart's three children have given up toys and video games to homeless children. And the Stewarts opened their home to Kevin Kunze, a 48-year-old who lost his house and job in 2008 and developed a drinking problem while on the streets.
With the help of Stewart, Kunze got sober, has a place of his own in Martinez and works at Oil Express.
"It was amazing to me," said Kunze. "I was like part of his family."
Schilz remembers a day in January when Stewart ran out of blankets to hand out. He turned to his family for help.
"He had stripped all the beds of blankets, and that's what he was going to use that night," said Schilz. "It almost brings me to tears," he said of the memory.
"Everybody was allowed to keep one blanket," said Stewart. "I have a heater in my house. They don't have no heater outside. Man it's cold."
Stewart said he is the last line of defense for homeless needing help after sundown, and a recent Wednesday was no exception.
About 9 p.m., Stewart was heading to a homeless camp along Highway 4 when he found Anthony Paiva sitting with luggage at a bus stop on Alhambra Avenue. Paiva, 27, had just been released from a nearby hospital and did not have a ride, so Stewart took another trip to the BART station.
On the way, Paiva said he would have sat at the bus stop all night if not for Stewart, and the two chatted about Paiva's life, his daughter and his future. Stewart handed him his card and offered help whenever needed.
"It's nice that people do this for each other," said Paiva, of Antioch.
Nearly two hours into his shift, Stewart has driven three people to the BART station and checked on Loni Pitts, a man he met when he first started his patrols. It is then Stewart gets a phone call from John Muir Medical Center in Concord to pick up Elizabeth Streatch, who said she wants a shelter bed. Stewart has one available in Richmond.
The two meet inside the hospital. Stewart says he's met Streatch before, but she doesn't remember him. Streatch says she has been on the streets for 20 years, and it has taken its toll. She no longer sees her children, her addiction to alcohol has ravaged her liver and aged her a few decades beyond her 38 years.
"I'm tired of living on the street," Streatch says as Stewart drives west on Highway 4.
Stewart tells her that now is the time for her to commit herself to sobriety because she's on the brink of death. Streatch agrees.
But she doesn't make it into the shelter that night. On her way in, she falls, and her knee starts to bleed, and she is turned away. Stewart has a look on his face as if he's failed the woman, but he helps her outside, treats her cut and drives her to a nearby hospital.
Stewart tells her the hospital has agreed to take her and later put her into respite care to help her get sober.
"I wanna try for you," Stewart says. "You gotta try for these people because nobody else will."
He drops her off at the hospital and heads back to Martinez to visit homeless camps until his night ends around 3:30 a.m.
David DeBolt covers Concord and Clayton. Contact him at 925-943-8048. Follow him at Twitter.com/daviddebolt.
Claim to fame: Fouded Central County Homeless Outreach
Quote: "I might not be the one to touch millions. But I might touch someone that will touch millions." -- Charles Mask Lewis