The Last Retreat
- Written by Gary Davis
I remember my first encounter with Walking Dan. It was one of the first nights I was serving as Nightwatch’s Executive Director, almost eight years ago. I was standing on the sidewalk outside the door of Julia West House, and he came up and introduced himself. “You’re the new director?” he said warmly. “I’m Walking Dan.”
I wasn’t sure I heard him correctly. “Walking Dan?” I said.
“That’s ‘cause I’m always walking!” he said, and smiled.
I always enjoyed Dan whenever he came by. “Hey, Brother Gary!” he’d greet, and we’d do a fist-bump. Or sometimes, when I wasn’t at the door when he entered, after taking a seat in the Hospitality Center, once he caught my eye, he’d wave from across the room.
Like Mr. Bojangles in the song, Dan could say, “I drinks a bit.” But no matter how much he had imbibed, Dan always remained the gentleman. One cold night, as Dan passed me on the way to the smoking area, a can of beer fell out of his parka pocket. “Dan,” I said, “you know you can’t have that in here.” “I know, Brother Gary,” he replied. “It won’t happen again.” And he was true to his word: never again did he allow his beer cans to drop on the floor right in front of me.
For the longest time Dan had been camping out on the little wedge of land between the ramp onto I-84 and northbound I-5 where the two diverge on the east waterfront. It was a challenge for him to reach his camp—it required him to cross one of another active freeway. But he liked it there. It was a spot so isolated (while, ironically, being in the middle of everything) that he knew he wasn’t harming anything and no one bothered him.
That is, until a few months ago, when the Oregon Department of Transportation decided to move in, clear out his camp, and put him under the stress of finding another place to sleep.
Walking Dan’s body was found in his sleeping bag under the Ross Island Bridge last week. He had been already been dead for at least a week when he was discovered. There were no signs of foul play. Indeed, indications are that he died in his sleep. There’s no denying Dan had his physical ailments, all of which were no doubt complicated by his drinking. Generally speaking, the lifespan of a homeless person is fourteen years shorter than that of someone who is housed—and Dan was not a young man anymore. So there’s no telling to what degree the stress of being forced from his old camp might have been a factor.
Dan loved going on our annual spiritual retreats. In fact, the last time I saw him was about six weeks ago and he asked whether he could go along on the retreat this year. “Well, Dan,” I said hesitantly, “we’ll have to consider that.” What honestly concerned me was Dan’s health. It seemed to me that I had not seen him completely sober a single time over the last couple of years, and for him to be on a retreat for three days deprived completely of alcohol might make him physically ill. Dealing with withdrawal would not make the retreat pleasant for Dan himself, and it was also something didn’t quite fit the agenda we had planned for the rest who would be attending.
But a determination as whether to allow Dan to attend still had not been made when I heard about his death this week. Dan on his own had gone on his last retreat.
So there will be a missing chair when the rest of our retreatants take off for Camp Adams in a few weeks. And though Dan will be missing, he has indeed affected the retreat’s agenda, as we have planned a memorial service for him in the outdoor chapel in the place he loved so much.
The Stages of Volunteer Experience
- Written by Gary Davis
When I do a full Volunteer Training Workshop for those intending to invest a serious amount of time at Nightwatch, I always include a segment called, “The Three Stages of Volunteer Experience.” Most of our volunteers come to us without themselves having had any personal history of homelessness—let alone poverty!—and I feel it’s only fair they know what they’re getting themselves into. Street culture has idiosyncrasies that significantly distinguish it from middle-class culture. The main concern is survival and there is a very low trust-level, which can lead to culture-clash if volunteers become seduced into believing that the ones they’re serving share their same assumptions.
As a result, not only have I seen a number of volunteers traverse—in the end, sometimes quite painfully—the Three Stages of Volunteer Experience, I know those stages because I’ve passed through them myself.
The First Stage is what many newcomers to Nightwatch undergo. Because they are new, everything is very strange. The environment of the Hospitality Center is itself is unfamiliar. But the people also don’t match the template set by their usual circle of family and friends. They look different. They may also smell different. And given that a number of our guests suffer from mental illnesses, they may also manifest some very quirky behaviors. Characteristic of this first stage, therefore, is an inevitable anxiety within the volunteer. They may only hang around the periphery, assessing how they can possibly relate to this crowd. What often goes through their head is, “These people are very different from me.”
But if a volunteer has the determination to stick with it (not all do), they get to know some of our guests and begin building relationships with them. This is where they pass into the Second Stage of Volunteer Experience. What happens in the opening dance of relationship-building is that the individuals involved seek grounds of commonality. Over a game of Scrabble or Monopoly they may discover they like the same movies or read the same books. They may have each also once lived in the same city! And suddenly, these people who had seemed so foreign don’t seem so strange at all, once the surface is penetrated and the volunteer gets to know them. Struck by how much these Nightwatch guests “speak the same language” as the volunteer—both literally and figuratively—the volunteer may have such a conversion as to “romanticize the Other,” now thinking, “These people are absolutely NO different from me.”
But then SOMETHING HAPPENS. Something that comes from the clash of cultures. Maybe the volunteer puts their faith in the guest to do something noble, but the guest instead reverts to his habit of reacting out of his base survival instinct. Maybe the volunteer believes they have developed such a relationship that she can place her trust in him, only to find that years of living on the street has instilled within him behavior that shouldn’t warrant such trust. Essentially what happens is that the volunteer rudely discovers that the assumptions she thought they shared about what makes for a right-relationship are not the same assumptions the guest carried at all. And her thoughts revert back to thinking, “These people really ARE very different from me!”
This jolting realization is what brings an individual to the Third Stage of Volunteer Experience. The volunteer is doused in the face with the cold water of reality. And with that, she faces a crisis in which she must make a choice. She may choose to go the way of disillusionment, deciding she was wrong to get involved at all, and out of hurt wash her hands of them and give up entirely. There are volunteers who, coming to this point, certainly do choose this path and we never see them again.
But there is an alternative. And that is to choose, rather than to abandon the guest, to abandon her naiveté, and her need to get the guest to conform to her own agenda and expectations. It would be to make the choice beyond all of one own’s needs, not to give up, but with eyes now wide open, simply to continue to care. Employing the religious language that is familiar to me, it would be to recognize that, despite all of the Other’s failures, flaws, and perceived betrayals, he is still a person “for whom Christ died.”
I am currently reading Richard Ford's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Independence Day,. It is about a divorced middle-aged man who decides to take his teenaged son on a road trip over the 4th of July weekend to re-connect with him. The two of them suffer their own culture clash. The father lives on his own several hundred miles away, and sees his children but once-a-month, so they’re missing a day-to-day relationship. The son, in addition to being generally difficult because he is a teenager, has been exhibiting some particularly acute signs of rebellion, including shoplifting, taking his mother’s car out for some wild spins, and walloping his stepfather with an oar. Anticipating the road trip and at a loss as to how he might relate to his distant son once they share the car seat. the father ponders the nature of their culture-clash by concluding:
The worst of being a parent is my fate, then: being an adult. Not owning the right language; not dreading the same dreads and contingencies and missed chances; the fate of knowing much yet having to stand like a lamppost with its lamp lit, hoping my child will see the glow and venture closer for the illumination and warmth it mutely offers.
And ultimately, I think that’s where we all stand when we are immersed in the culture-clash for which Nightwatch is the stage. All any of us can do is “stand like a lamppost with its lamp lit, hoping [others] will see the glow and venture closer for the illumination and warmth it mutely offers.”
- Written by Gary Davis
That Edgar was a newcomer was as evident as if he wore a sign around his neck proclaiming such. When I was outside the Downtown Hospitality Center greeting guests as they entered at the beginning of the evening, Edgar came up the walk clutching an open Street Roots Resource Guide in his hand. “Is this Operation Nightwatch?” he asked.
“Sure is,” I said. “Come on in. We’ve got coffee ready. Help yourself to a cup, make yourself at home, and we’ll be serving sandwiches at 8.”
When I myself re-entered the building some minutes later I saw that Edgar had claimed a chess set from our game cart. He was sitting alone at a table where he had set the game up, as if he was hoping someone would join him in a match. “Looks like you play chess,” I said, walking over to him.
His eyes brightened. “Yeah! Wanna play?”
“Sorry, I can’t,” I replied. “I’ve got to supervise a lot of stuff around here. I’m afraid I wouldn’t be much competition. I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on the game, and you’d be able to be beat me too easily every time.”
“New in town?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. Then he told me his story.
He said he had come from Sunnyside, Washington. Some months before he had been in Portland and did something stupid, and a misdemeanor warrant had been issued against him. He didn’t want to be accused of fleeing the warrant, so he decided to return and face the judge. But not having enough money to travel back to Portland, he sold his car to buy a one-way ticket here. His day in court arrived, but the judge dismissed the charges without even a hearing, and he was put out on the streets. Now he had money, no car, and he was stuck far from home with no place to go.
Well done, Criminal Justice System! You just created another homeless person!
Now, somebody could respond, “What’s the complaint? At least Edgar didn’t get thrown in jail. And if anyone’s to blame, it’s him for having put himself in this pickle by breaking the law in the first place!”
But here’s what that kind of response ignores: if Edgar had any money, he would not be in this situation. A misdemeanor so minor that a judge would dismiss it out-of-hand couldn’t have been that serious. A wealthier person living in Sunnyside, Washington, would have hired a lawyer who could have had everything erased without even making the trip. Even though he was without money, Edgar tried to do the right thing to make amends, and in return lost whatever it was he did have.
Which raises the question how much justice there really is in the justice system. Money inevitably does make a difference. In 2008, a relative handful of financiers broke the law and in doing so plunged us into a world-wide recession in which millions lost their jobs, and the resulting stresses upended the physical and mental health of countless people, no doubt resulting in untold early deaths. Yet not only has not a single one of those financiers gone before a judge, but hefty bonuses have continued to be paid their way. (In Sunday’s New York Times, columnist—and native Oregonian—Nicholas Kristoff cites a study that reveals that “Just the annual bonuses for just the sliver of Americans who work just in finance just in New York City dwarfed the combined year-round earnings of all Americans earning the federal minimum wage.”)
In contrast, folks who have no other recourse than to sleep in doorways or in the shelter of overpasses get rousted by police and have their meager belongings confiscated and destroyed.
It’s bad enough that the poor have to suffer the everyday economic struggle of simple survival. To find that every institution from which they hope to enjoy, if not outright support, at least a little modicum of fairness is also biased against them must lead to despair.
It remains for little outposts like ours let them know they are not totally abandoned and alone. A cup of coffee, a game of chess, a sympathetic ear—it may not be much, but at a particular moment, it can mean more than we can imagine.
The Nightwatch Mental Health Initiative
- Written by Gary Davis
On March 22, 2010, Jack Dale Collins, a homeless man with certified mental health issues was shot to death in Hoyt Arboretum by a police officer who maintained Collins had charged him with a knife. In the days before his death Collins had evidenced much agitation and distress over his life’s circumstances, and the March 22 incident was widely judged to be a “suicide by cop.”
Eleven days prior, Collins had even gone to the Portland Police Bureau to confess to a vaguely remembered crime he had committed decades before, and he explicitly requested mental health treatment. The officer who talked with him recommended a local community mental health clinic; however, there is no evidence Collins ever followed up on the suggestion.
Therein lies the (literally) fatal flaw in our current mental health delivery system for homeless and otherwise isolated low-income people: while services may exist, accessing them depends on the initiative of the affected person him/herself. Given the nature of severe mental illness—depression saps all initiative from an individual, while schizophrenia adds confusion and paranoia to the mix—expectations that the sufferer shoulder responsibility are hardly realistic.
Furthermore, even should an individual-in-crisis seek to visit a community mental health clinic, unless that crisis conveniently fits into the clinics' 9-to-5 weekday schedules, the individual is out of luck.
That leaves two default mental-health “providers” for the suffering to access during after-hours. One is law enforcement. The other is Operation Nightwatch.
We know, not only from the Jack Dale Collins incident but also from many others (the James Chassé, Jr., case no doubt being the most notorious), that encounters between security personnel and the mentally-ill do not often turn out happily. Police and jailers are simply not equipped to deal with those suffering severe breaks from reality.
But neither are we at Operation Nightwatch.
That’s why in this last week I submitted two grant proposals with the aim of bringing an adjunct mental health professional onto our staff to be present during Hospitality Center hours. Various surveys conclude that that anywhere from 20% to 50% of those on the streets are burdened by serious mental illness (as compared to 6% of the general population). Based on data from a 2007 national survey, as many as 250,000 homeless people nationwide are thought to have schizophrenia or manic-depressive disorder, a figure that swamps the in-patient number of 90,000 to be in all hospitals across the country being treated for their disease. But we don’t need statistics to convince us of the scope of the problem. We know from experience that mental illness is a common characteristic among our guests. (From our observations, as many as 60% of those who frequent our Downtown Hospitality Center fall on the “troubled” end of the mental-health spectrum.)
By having a mental health professional present during Hospitality Center hours, our hope is that not only will s/he be available to intercede when crises arise, but the professional will be present to counsel our guests who routinely cope with mental illness in monitoring and assessing their conditions (perhaps leading to referrals). With the presence of nurses at our Downtown Center having significantly enhanced the physical well-being of our guests over the past couple of years, a model has been set that we may be able to duplicate to address our guests’ mental well-being, as well.
When Jack Dale Collins in his desperation sought a policeman’s bullet to relieve him from his suffering, it was no doubt because he felt he had nowhere else to turn. He lacked a supportive community. He felt forsaken, abandoned, alone. As we’ve come to say at Nightwatch, he lacked more than shelter; he truly lacked a “home.”
But, by definition, what makes a “supportive community” is the effort to care for its members where they meet their deepest desperations. If Nightwatch is going to be the city’s default mental-health provider, then for the sake of our guests we need to do it well.
That’s what the Nightwatch Mental Health Initiative is all about.
No Such Thing as Hopeless
- Written by Gary Davis
We occasionally celebrate redemption stories at Nightwatch. But I can’t remember when we ever met two on one night, as we did on Friday. And to have them presented to us within five minutes of each other was rather dizzying!
Riley had been the sort of guy over whom we could only shake our heads whenever he came up in conversation or we saw him stumble in to the Hospitality Center. Though loathe to admit it, I would have to confess we all had classified him “a hopeless case.” I can’t recall that we ever saw him sober. His drunkenness a “given,” it was only a matter of degree to which he was drunk. If he could barely maneuver, we had to ask him to leave. But we let him in if he was functional. After all, what could we do? It’s not as if he were going to change.
Besides, he had health needs and he needed to access our nurses. Neither were they minor needs. He had one of the worst cases of trenchfoot our nurses had ever seen. Riley wore a pair of high-laced boots, and he admitted that he had gone 47 days without removing them. The reason? Because he drank so much, he didn’t think that if he took them off, he’d ever be able to get them back on.
Riley’s condition was such as to finally be life-threatening—so life-threatening that our nurses got him to the hospital and, when he was admitted, consideration was made to put him into a hospice program. But the hospital decided on other treatment instead, and after several weeks, Riley was discharged to reappear at our Hospitality Center Friday night . . .
And he was a changed man! He was sober and looked fresh and vital. And when the nurses examined his feet, even the slightest sign of discoloration was gone. Riley had his thanks to offer. He said he felt really good, like he was “himself again.”
Will is another of our regulars. Though he hasn’t had the same problems as Riley, Will’s been on the streets for a long time. He’s a pretty straight-arrow, and it seems like he’s often got a story of victimization to tell. He’s often asking me if we’ve got a backpack, or a sleeping bag, or a blanket, because his things are always being stolen by those on the streets who are younger and tougher than he is.
But as I came away from seeing Riley on Friday, someone said, “You’ve got to hear Will’s story!” I had never seen him so beaming. “I’m getting some money!” he said. “I’m getting off these streets!”
It seems that Will had just learned he was to be the beneficiary of a substantial inheritance. The family fortune originated with Will’s great-grandfather, who was a major bootlegger during Prohibition. Will was one of the few surviving heirs. He was to visit the bank and get the details on Monday.
Needless to say, both Riley and Will still have major challenges to face. We can only pray that Riley will not surrender to old self-destructive patterns now that he’s been given a second chance, and that Will will not similarly be exploited by opportunists now that he has a nest-egg, just as he was when he was on the streets.
But one thing their stories reminded me of on Friday is that there really are no “hopeless cases.”
That’s something we must remember, as it is our very mission at Nightwatch to offer hope so that redemption indeed might come.