Just Another Vet Looking for a Place to Stay
- Published on Monday, 10 March 2014 10:54
- Written by Gary Davis
Dan has been a fixture at downtown Nightwatch since our Julia West days. Although he sometimes drinks a little too much, he’s always friendly and good-natured with a good word to share.
Last Thursday I was leaving the building just before our downtown Hospitality Center was about to open and Dan was sitting outside, waiting to enter. “Hey, Dan,” I greeted.
“Hey, Brother Gary!” he smiled. “How ‘ya doin’?”
“Just fine. How ‘bout yourself?”
“Enjoyin’ my freedom. Just got out of jail. Fifteen days. Got me for trespassin’.”
“For camping?” I asked.
“Yep. The judge asked me what I was doing sleepin’ outside.”
Now, Dan doesn’t dress like a stock trader. One look at him and a person would know that Dan had not skipped any grades in the School of Hard Knocks. Furthermore, this was likely not the first time Dan had been brought before the court because of “trespassing,” and the judge would have had Dan’s record before him. So I have to give the judge the benefit-of-the-doubt, thinking that, by asking his question, the judge was just bantering with Dan. He had to have known the answer himself. He couldn’t have been that stupid.
“I told him,” Dan went on, “that I was just a Vietnam vet needing a place to stay.”
And then he grinned. “But it coulda been worse. It was only for 15 days. It coulda been 15 years!”
And then, thrusting a first into the air, he said it again, “I’m just enjoyin’ my freedom, Brother!”
A Mile in Another's Moccasins
- Published on Monday, 03 March 2014 10:55
- Written by Gary Davis
My friend Larry dropped by the other day. I hadn't seen him for a while, so we had some catching up to do.
Larry always brings an interesting perspective to things. He knows what it means to be homeless. For years he was on the streets himself. But he was able to get himself on his feet, and now as a housed individual of considerable duration, he's a fixture in the neighborhood, active in efforts to help homeless folks himself.
Larry happened to visit on a day when our office was still stockpiling Backpack Beds, as we were readying them for distribution in North Portland. As an outdoors person, Larry had been admiring them and said, "You know, I'd sure love one of those. How much would one cost?"
"Well," I said, "you could order one from Australia for $250. But we can't sell you one."
"I know, I know," he said. "They're only for homeless folks. But I'm not going to go back to that in order to get one. Uh-uh. No way."
"You know," I teased, "there are some politicians who say that they only reason some people remain homeless is to get all the freebies. You know—free meals, free shelter, free socks. And they don't even have to work for it."
Larry harrumphed. "You know what I think of that!"
Indeed I do. Here's a simple observation: most people who judge homeless people don't know any homeless people. It's hard to imagine that a Washington politician, ensconced in the cocoon created for him by staff, lobbyists, and campaign advisors, has any more contact with the homeless than those he may observe on the sidewalk as he takes his climate-controlled car to his office. But politicians themselves are too easy targets for scorn. They're only creatures of their environment, having gotten elected to office by those who endorse their views. As Nicholas Kristof points out in this Sunday's New York Times,
A Pew survey this year found that a majority of Republicans, and almost one-third of Democrats, believe that if a person is poor the main reason is "lack of effort on his or her part."
We've experienced the sentiment the few times Nightwatch has been in the news. Follow the Internet trolls who respond to the articles about us, and you'll witness their vitriol that Nightwatch is only a place that encourages society's "scum" and "parasites." But as Nick Kristof points out, while "[i]t's true . . . that the poor are sometimes lazy and irresponsible[, s]o are the rich, with less consequence."
I know many of our Nightwatch guests would willingly trade lives with those who criticize them for having things "too easy." But I don't know of a single one of those critics willing to take them up on it.
Showers to the People
- Published on Monday, 24 February 2014 10:51
- Written by Gary Davis
I hope I’m not being overly intimate when I tell you I took a shower this morning. In fact, I take a shower nearly every morning. If I miss my shower, I feel a certain grunginess that keeps me out-of-sorts through the rest of the day.
Do you know the feeling I’m talking about? When I'm feeling grungy, I just cannot feel very good about myself.
It’s no surprise then that when we survey our guys who come to our various hospitality centers about what services they would like to see “more of” if we could provide them, they mention invariably mention two things: laundry and showers.
We haven’t been able to do anything about laundry yet, but we are doing something about showers. A couple of years ago, a fellow named Peter Fournier also saw this gaping need experienced by the homeless and invested in a trailer rig with portable showers, forming a non-profit called “Shower to the People.” However, when difficulties ensued, Peter decided to dissolve the non-profit and put the rig up for sale. When a couple of organizations in St. John’s we have partnered with since our expansion there—AllOne and the Community of Hope—expressed interest in the rig, Peter decided to donate it, and Nightwatch was also invited to come on board.
Ed Rieboff, one of our faithful volunteers in SE, had independently been investigating options for offering showers to our guests, and with this opportunity arising he has taken charge of getting the rig to our people. Beginning April 1, Ed will be bringing showers to the folks we serve in SE two days a week.
One of the things this provides testimony to is the power of partnerships. We saw the need our guests had for showers, but it was beyond our own means to meet that need alone. Similarly, AllOne and Community of Hope would likely not been able to have done it on their own. But together, we have been able to combine our resources so the need can truly be addressed.
When Churches Do More Harm Than Good
- Published on Sunday, 09 February 2014 09:44
- Written by Gary Davis
This is an old hobby horse that I’m riding today, but it’s good to know that the nag has company.
I’ve often been raised the red flag about the practice some groups (usually from churches) engage in of wanting to “help the homeless” by coming downtown and, without any plan or coordination, willy-nilly handing out food or clothing to any street person they see. These groups are usually seen around the holidays, and I was prompted to write an op-ed piece in The Oregonian a year ago to comment on it.
These groups, while well-meaning, are neither efficient nor know much about the people they’re serving. Without coordination, they may give bombard one fortunate individual with a half-dozen sandwiches, while other street folks around the corner get none; furthermore, they have no way of distinguishing whether the coats they are giving out will actually be worn, or instead sold as quickly as possible in favor of booze or drugs. As I wrote in the op-ed, “No one doubts the good intentions of these ‘lone rangers’ who come downtown to spread their goodwill. But in addition to good intentions, I would hope they would also want good results. Nothing is really accomplished when good jackets go to people who aren't going to wear them or a plate of lovingly prepared food goes to rats.”
Guess what? The problem doesn’t exist only in Portland. In fact, a story appeared this week in the Huffington Post that it has gotten so bad in Los Angeles that the downtown clergy council had to issue an official policy paper asking groups to stop it. The article quotes a cop whose beat is the city’s Skid Row: “Although I am not for punishing people who want to do good—I have seen the harm churches can do to a homeless community. Since most faith-bsed groups are very territorial and refuse to work with their communities, [I can only see] regulating public feedings [as] the only solution to a very serious problem.”
A particular occasion is described right before Christmas where a group descended on Skid Row to bombard the folks on the street with their donations. Two hours later, as the group, satisfied with its good works, gathered to leave, “the majority of the recipients . . . dump[ed] out or [tried] to sell the items for drug money as they ambled down the street. In the background another minister was singing ‘Jesus is on the Main Line’ with fervor on the mic while all hell was breaking loose from their donations.”
The statement by the downtown clergy council sought not to discourage good-hearted people from helping the homeless. All that its members advised was the same thing I did in my column: “Portland [as L.A.] is blessed with a host of agencies with years of proven experience working with downtown's needy. Any one of them would welcome the human and material resources that individuals and groups strive to provide on their own.”
Yet this is a message these groups have no doubt heard many times before. So why do they still persist in remaining so territorial and acting on their own? Could it be that it’s actually more important to them to do their deeds because of the good feeling it gives them within, than it is to have a truly good effect on the those they purport to serve?
Worth a Thousand Words
- Published on Saturday, 01 February 2014 13:57
- Written by Gary Davis
Take a look at this picture.What do you see?
That's Lara on the left, one of our volunteers. It in fact is a picture of Lara on her very first night volunteering with us.
Lee, one of our regular guests, is on the right.
Doesn't it look like they're enjoying the moment? Lee's probably entertaining Lara with one of his stories, and he's clearly got Lara hooked. They are fully engaged with one another.
I love this picture because it fully expresses to me in a single frame the essence of Nightwatch. When we say that purpose of Nighttwatch is to recognize that those on the streets have much more than mere physical needs and to relate with them on a fully human level, here's evidence of that being done. Lee, like many others like him in similar circumstances, daily has more to cope with than we can imagine. But look at the smile on his face and the light in his eyes. Tomorrow, he's still going to have to cope with the same things but at least here for a moment, he has found a haven where he can relax, be fully accepted, and find one who cares. Maybe, by knowing such a haven exists, he can find enough energy to cope another day.
I love this picture so much that I posted it on Nightwatch's Facebook page. Almost immediately, a comment was posted in response. It came from Terris, a former guest who has since gotten on his feet. Terris said this:
[This photo expresses] often why I went. Not always, admittedly. Sometimes I just wanted a place to plug in and escape reality.
But other times, I wanted to sit and talk to someone whose primary concern wasn't where their next meal was coming from, or where they were sleeping that night. To talk about 'normal' things helped remind me that I was a human being.