The Right Not to Be Bothered

I was thrilled to receive a call from someone at the Portland Film Festival saying that they were looking at the possibility of opening a venue to show their films to a homeless audience and would we be interested? “Absolutely,” I said, barely controlling my excitement. “Our guys love watching movies and to see something rather than a ragged old shoot-‘em-up, it would be quite the experience to see something new, fresh, and possibly a world premiere! And to have their opinions sought afterwards by the filmmaker . . . well, they’re hardly honored with the opportunity of having their opinion sought on anything.”

So we got a movie scheduled for last Friday at our Downtown Hospitality Center—“Find Your Way,” which tells the story of several street musicians—and now I got to be the evangelist spreading the news to our guests. Our Downtown Center was going to be site for the Portland Film Festival Friday night!

“Aw, Jeez!” said John, rolling his eyes.

“Um,” Bill measured his response. “I think I’ll play chess.” (Every night Bill plays chess.)

It was not quite the reaction I was expecting.

I related this story to Sharon, my wife. And although I didn’t exactly say this, I’m sure I injected my narrative with this tone: “What’s the matter with these guys? Here I go, planning something special for them, and it’s almost as if they resent it that I movie portland film festival low-resbothered.”

Sharon certainly detected the tone. And she said, “Well, you’re always saying your mission is to create a place where your guests can feel ‘at home.’ And you know how it is when you come home and you derive comfort knowing it’s a place where you can relax and settle into a comfortable routine and just not be bothered by anything else. Your guys have established their routine. They’re comfortable with it and they don’t want to be bothered. You need to consider the possibility that you’ve succeeded. The guests have come to feel very much at home.”

I hadn’t really thought of it that way. The old adage goes, “A man’s home is his castle.” Maybe a contemporary way of putting it is, “A home is where you have the right not to be bothered.”

I’ll remember that the next time I try to get our guests aboard a train that’s going in a direction that’s thrilling to me. And enjoy the success that’s already been created.

Why Some Homeless People Will Not Go Into Shelters

“Are you guys a shelter?” the ninth or tenth caller in a week asks me with essentially the same question.

“No, we don’t put up people overnight,” I say.

“What do you guys do, then?” he asks.

“We essentially serve those on the streets who don’t go into shelters,” I respond.

“What do you mean, ‘don’t go into shelters’?”

And then I explain. While it’s true that there are many more homeless people than there are available shelter beds, there are a number of folks—I’d say a significant number—who wouldn’t abide going into a shelter even if there were a place for them..

They all have their reasons. But rather than my outlining them to you, listen to the voice of someone whose “been there.” Kevin Barbieux has been homeless on-and-off for many years and keeps a blog called, “The Homeless Guy.” Here is what he writes:

You check in to a homeless shelter and hope for the best. But the ‘best’ is not offered at shelters ... After a long period of processing and standing in lines...shelter you'll finally be assigned a bed. You'll find this bed is located in a large warehouse type room with many other beds—more than likely they will be bunk beds, or army cots, (ever try to sleep on an army cot?) You will be in a room with anywhere from 25 to 150 other homeless people, and not all of them will be ready to go to sleep. They will be talking, laughing or yelling, getting into fights (verbal and physical) making noises, the mentally ill will be trying to wind down from their constant hallucinations. As is practiced in many shelters, you'll be required to undress, give your clothes over to shelter personnel to be placed in a closet, you'll have to wear hospital scrubs. You'll be given one thin blanket, regardless of the temperature, you may, or may not be issued a pillow. If you like the cold, you'll sleep well, if not, you could have problems ... After a couple hours, most everyone has settled in to sleep, and you'll get some sleep. But then you'll be awakened, sometimes rudely, at 5 a.m. at most shelters. 5 a.m. every single morning.

In short, homeless shelters are not as “sanitized” as you see them portrayed on TV. (FYI, prisons aren’t, either.)

Shelters are not homes. Homes are places defined by relationships that make us feel us feel welcome and secure. While Operation Nightwatch doesn’t put up people overnight, we do seek to provide a place where, at least for a few hours a few evenings a week, our guests can feel “at home.”

In Praise of Sofas

Allow me to sing the praises of sofas—specifically, the sofas we have at our Downtown Hospitality Center.

Or rather, let one of our downtown guests sing their praises. He was a young man who was attending for the first time a couple of weeks ago.

We had shown a movie that night (“Public Enemies” with Johnny Depp), and when it was over and I was putting the equipment away, the fellow came up to me and after making some compliments about the movie, he said, “And it’s great to have someplace comfortable to sit! Something with soft edges. You know, we don’t get that much. We go to other places, and it’s always hard chairs. And you know, homeless people are under a lot of stress. You can’t relax in a hard chair. Thanks for doing this.”

I drew satisfaction from his words because I myself had been a strong advocate for the sofas. When we moved to St. Stephen’s several years ago, the church had a collection of sofas where the current ones sit, but they had definitely seen their day. They were worn and splattered with innumerable indelible stains. One with a missing leg was propped up by bricks, another by a stack of books.

Inevitably, the church decided those sofas needed to be given a decent funeral and sofasmeet their undertaker at the dump. But the question rose whether the sofas should be replaced. By that time, the feeding programs at St. Stephen’s had expanded considerably, and simply ridding themselves all bulky furniture would certainly be easier on them when they had to prepare the space for hungry people with tables and chairs. Fortunately, they asked my opinion. “Please, don’t get rid of sofas altogether,” I pled. “That’s one of the things that makes this place the special place it is. Just think about it: how many opportunities does someone on the streets have just to have a comfortable place to sit and relax? Their world is mostly a world of hard surfaces: ground, sidewalk, park bench, soup kitchen chair. When do they have a chance to experience something upholstered and soft?”

Then I went on to speak of the complications street folks suffer from sleep deprivation. This is a malady long unrecognized, but I’ve long maintained from my observations that 100% of those on the streets are sleep deprived. (I was gratified to read an article this week on The Atlantic web site that this is a problem that is finally getting some attention from others.) What an asset sofas would be in this regard!

The good folks at St. Stephen’s were a soft-sell. With the help of a grant from the Hillsdale Community Church, they obtained some well-made, wonderfully cushy sofas that, while making you have soft thoughts just by looking at them, also are likely to stand the abuse of many years.

When he was a young man, George Orwell (best known for 1984) suffered poverty and homelessness for some time, an experience he detailed in his memoir, Down and Out in Paris and London. At one point he says this:

 “[O]ne could enumerate scores of minor evils — to name only one, discomfort — which is inseparable from life on the road; it is worth remembering that the average tramp has no clothes but what he stands up in, wears boots that are ill-fitting, and does not sit in a chair for months together.”

We have no pretensions at Nightwatch of changing the world. But if we can address just some of those “scores of minor evils” that bedevil our guests, our mission has been achieved.


"I Don't Know How You Do It"

“I don’t know how you do it.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say that to me. They’re referring, of course, to working night-after-night, week-after-week, with the sorts of folks who come to our Hospitality Centers. Not only can the challenges they suffer from—homelessness, mental illnesses, addictions, and so many other factors that relegate them to society’s margins (e.g., lack of education, dysfunctional habits, and troubles with the law)—seem insurmountable, but many of them also have, as a matter of survival, adopted behaviors that can be off-putting. Some growl; others whine. While many express gratitude for what we do, others can be aggressive and demanding, as if they are entitled to a blanket, or socks, or a sandwich. Meeting the limits of a lifetime of frustration, they sometimes explode in paroxysms of anger and cursing.

Given that overview, maybe you yourself are even tempted now to say it: “I don’t know how you do it.”

As I say, I’ve heard it many times. But last week was the first time I had heard it from a guest!

In this particular case, I think it was this guest’s way of saying, “Thank you.” For he patience is a form of wisdomhimself has not been an easy person to get along with, and I’ve had the hardest time establishing some rapport. Without going into the specifics of his story, I will say that, though he is a young man, he has experienced a lot of hardness in his life that has embittered him deeply. While those experiences haven’t driven him to drink or drugs, he has developed an addiction to his anger. As a result, he has alienated many, guests and volunteers alike. As for myself, I give him distance when I feel he needs his distance, but otherwise try to treat him as well as I treat everyone else.

I do so because I know that behind his anger is a whole lot of pain. And I do so because I know that he’s not at Nightwatch to please me. On the contrary, I’m at Nightwatch to provide a safe space for him.

His typical behavior toward me has been essentially to ignore me. Therefore, when he does say something to me, I consider it be of great significance. And the fact that he would come to me last week and say this very thing: “I don’t know how you do it”? Behind it may have perhaps been an expression of the difficulty he feels sharing the Hospitality Center with others who can be very demanding. But I saw it more as an expression of self-awareness of exactly how demanding he could be, and his appreciation that someone still hung in with him and cared.

It was the closest he was going to get to “Thank you.”

But for him it was close enough.

And that’s how I can continue to “do it.”

Our Mentally-Ill

You’ve probably seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, filmed at our own Oregon State Hospital. Under the stern eye of Nurse Ratched, life there appeared stark and grim.

Having done my own clinical pastoral training at Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts, I can testify that in reality, state hospitals were even worse than depicted. “Warehouses for the crazy”—or “snakepits”—is what they were once called, and that about summed it up. With only hard edges everywhere, “food” that was basically salt, fat, and carbs, smells that could gag, and a staff that likely found jobs there because no one else would hire them, state hospitals were the sorts of place that if you weren’t completely insane when you entered, you certainly would have achieved that status before very long. (I felt a little crazy myself after having only worked a few months there.)

Nevertheless, in the wake of “reform” that shut down most of the nation’s state i used to be your neighborhospitals, the alternative hasn’t been better. Even after my state hospital experience, I’ve come to question whether it hasn’t been worse. That’s because the “alternative” to the state hospital system has essentially been nothing. Community mental health agencies were supposed to take up the slack, dispensing necessary medications to those who would come in to get them; but that counted on the mentally-ill, unsupervised, to take the initiative in seeking the agencies out. Guess what? That hasn’t worked very well. As a result, you find many of the mentally-ill on the streets (or after they’ve acted out, in jail).

We have direct contact with them at Nightwatch (thank goodness for my state hospital experience!). Saturday night, we had one woman with severe schizophrenia lock herself in a restroom, unwilling to come out. Another guest approached me, eager to tell me that he had finally figured out who he was: “the physical manifestation of Christ,” against whom 3000 evil spirits were out to get him. Another guest who has a history of delusions, including that of a fantasy pregnancy, while speaking to our nurse suddenly began mewling baby-talk.

It’s simply criminal the way our society has come to treat its mentally-ill. If a family was discovered to have consigned one of its members to eating out of garbage cans while being shoeless and otherwise barely clad, someone would be arrested for abuse. Even a pet-owner would be cited for treating an animal as callously as our culture-as-a-whole treats its mentally-ill.

Unknown by many is the fact that the sandwiches that we serve at our Downtown Hospitality Center—except for those made by our Tuna Team—are prepared by a severely autistic young man with Tourette’s. He is accompanied by his mother and a hired caregiver. The only thing that separates this young man who makes the sandwiches from our guests who eat those sandwiches is that he has someone who loves him.

All Nightwatch can provide is a little light in the darkness. We do not provide therapy. We cannot cure. But at least we’re there, to show that someone cares.