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The big news this week is the city of Portland’s announcement that it will be sweeping the entire Springwater Corridor of its homeless camps and putting a prohibition on any future camping there.

As this decision will displace as many as 500 people—the city itself has acknowledged that 1 in 4 of Portland’s homeless population is camping along Springwater, and it has been identified by Willamette Week as “the largest encampment in the Pacific Northwest and possibly the nation”—this decision should be everybody’s concern. But it’s an especial concern for us at Nightwatch because in our SE operation, these are the folks we serve. These are our people.

The city admits that there is no where else for those displaced from Springwater to go. Most of existing shelter beds are already filled. But city has springwater trailsaid it needs to make this move because tensions have risen to such a point that there are serious safety concerns. A couple of weeks ago, the media reported a homeless-on-homeless shooting that happened on the Corridor not far from where our SE Hospitality Center is located. But that’s only part of the story. What the media did not report (though this story is confirmed by sources within the Mayor’s office) is of vigilante groups beating homeless people along the Corridor, even taking shotguns threatening them to leave.

So there are bad things going on. Homeowners near the trail report thefts. At least one even said his dog had been stolen. Where encampments have grown large, inevitable environmental and sanitation issues have risen as well.

But what will be mitigated when 500 people are displaced and simply forced to move somewhere else?

This past weekend while in SE I sought the reaction of a couple of our guests. Significantly, they made no excuses for bad behavior. They themselves admitted things has gotten bad. They could personally testify to it because they themselves had been victims, having their things repeatedly stolen by other Springwater denizens. Springwater, it seems, had become the drain around which all the cast-offs of society, including its sludgier parts had swirled. “There are bad people out there,” one guest said. “But everybody thinks because there are a few like that, we’re all bad people.” He then went on to talk about one encampment he knew along the Corridor consisting of a cluster of about a dozen people that kept strict rules prohibiting violence, hard drugs, and messy campsites. “But,” he said, “when the city comes in, they’re going to kicked out with everyone else.”

When I posted the news on Nightwatch’s Facebook page about the city’s decision to do the Springwater sweep, one person replied with this comment: “I have a politically incorrect question: was it legal to camp there in the first place?” My reply: “The search is on for legal places, but with PDX's lack of affordable housing, shortage of shelter beds, and limited spaces in mental health treatment and detox programs, they're hard to come by. And NIMBY attitudes make it even harder to come up with more.”

There’s no telling what the fallout from the evictions along the Springwater will be, but whatever they are, Nightwatch will continue to be on the job.

A lot happened this past week, from the onboarding of our new Mental Health Specialist, Kolin Busby, to conducting interviews for our new downtown Program Coordinator who will be replacing Steve Hutchinson, leaving in a couple of weeks.

But there is one thing item especially that consumed my attention: blankets!

Three thousand blankets!

They’re coming our way. Thanks to my colleague Rick Reynolds at our namesake, Operation Nightwatch in Seattle, I learned of a provision in federal law that allows agencies involved in disaster relief—homeless agencies included among them—to apply for free blankets stockpiled by the Department of Defense. With the support of City Commissioner Nick Fish, we applied for 3000 of them, and despite the fabled slow-turning wheels of government bureaucracy, our application was quickly approved. A call came from a supply depot in Texas: the blankets were ready to ship!

Our response? “Yikes! Where are we now going to store them?”

Three thousand blankets are a pile of blankets. We did some quick calculations and figured we could store them in a 20’ shipping container. Our long-time supporters at Resurrection Lutheran Church agreed to having such a container stored on their property.

Alas, our initial calculations were too quick. We learned that the 3000 blankets would be shipped on 38 pallets filling a 53’ semi-trailer. Math shipping container deliverywhizzes we’re not, but even we figured that whatever fit into a 53’ trailer would not be able to fit into a 20’ container. We asked Resurrection whether they would also be willing to provide space for a second 20’ container. They graciously agreed. (I know: 53’ does not equal 2x20’ either, but don’t worry. We’ve got that extra 13’ feet covered—I think.)

So as I write this, the blankets are on the road, on their way. They will be arriving Monday morning, July 11. With no loading dock and no forklifts to offload the truck, I’m hoping to have a good crew of volunteers present to do the job manually in a reasonable amount of time. My current anxiety is over whether all those who said they would be willing to show up will indeed show up to help in the task.

But one way or another it will all work out. And we’ll be blessed with a gift of 3000 blankets.

Wow! Do you know what that means? There has never been an occasion in my entire experience with Nightwatch that “blankets” hasn’t occupied the very top of our Wish List. We’ll be able to replace that top slot with something else.

Three thousand blankets will last us, serving the needs of our guests, for a good, long time—certainly past the end of my tenure as Executive Director. And consider just what a gift this has been to Nightwatch. Yes, we had to make something of an investment for this project to happen, the biggest of which was $3000 in the purchase of two used shipping containers. But as an amortized cost, that translates into only $1/blanket. When we have ordered blankets in the past on the private market, they have cost us about $10 apiece. And given the fact that Nightwatch is now an approved agency with the government, when in the future we might order even more blankets, the amortized cost becomes even less.

Yes, consider the worth of this gift. If these blankets themselves sold for $10 apiece, there’s $30,000 value right there. Then throw in the cost of shipping from Texas, for which we also didn’t have to pay. A quick estimate using Web resources puts that at about $2500. That’s quite an “in-kind” donation!

Our shipping container expenses came out of the fund we had built up over time to purchase blankets directly. So I want particularly to thank all of you who may have contributed to our Blankets and Socks Fund. You made this possible.

But I also want to thank everyone else who made this a successful team project. I want to thank Rick Reynolds at Seattle Nightwatch for the idea and support. I want to thank Commissioner Nick Fish, whose endorsement of the project opened the federal government’s doors to us. I want to thank Roger Fuchs and the other good folks at Resurrection Lutheran Church, not only for their ongoing support of Nightwatch, but for also going with us this extra mile. And I want to thank all the volunteers who helped us in the key effort of unloading 38 pallets on delivery day.

It’s just another illustration that if Nightwatch is anything, it is a team. It is a community.

Jimmie is a young native Alaskan who, ever accompanied by his faithful Lab, is a welcome guest at our Downtown Hospitality Center. He always greets you with a smile and expresses his thanks when it’s time to take his leave. In short, he’s pleasant company to have around.

Some time ago, when I took advantage of cheap airfares to make reservations for a week’s vacation in Alaska, I mentioned to Jimmie that I would making a visit to his home state. “Man, I wish I could go,” he said. “I miss it.”

I just returned from my Alaska trip last week, and walking downtown a couple of days later, I ran into Jimmie. I told him about my trip and said I had thought of him while I was up there (which indeed I had).

But his smile was missing. He was in a dark place. “You probably know a lot of addicts, Gary,” he said. “And I have to tell you that I am one. I’m drinking myself to death.”

“Aw, Jimmie, don’t say that,” I replied—although from his glassy eyes and the slur to his speech I could tell that he had very recently indulged.

“Well, it’s true,” he said morosely. “I just can’t help myself. I need to have it.”

“The last time I talked with you,” I said, “you said you were up for housing.”

“Oh, that’s still true,” he said. “I guess. Although I haven’t my caseworker in a months. I miss appointments and . . . You know. It’s the drinking.”

“I do know,” I said. “It’s hard. You can’t kick the drinking on your own. The alcohol—it messes up your blood chemistry and everything.”

“Yeah,” he said. “You know, I was born an alcoholic? Everyone where I grew up drank.”

It’s right around that point where we parted. But before we did, I put my hand on his back and said, “You’re a good man, Jimmie.”

“Well,” he shrugged, “I try to be.”

I don’t know why I feel compelled to tell this story. It is not a happy one and there was no resolution.addiciton

But I truly meant what I said. I know Jimmie to be a good man. And there are a lot of other good men and women out there who are not made any less good just because an addiction has gotten themselves in a stranglehold and just won’t let go. Because that stranglehold is so fierce, constant frustration accompanies it, not least in the sufferer who can feel in its death grip as much as he tries to wrestle it to the ground.

But the frustration is also experienced by family and friends who, seeing the sufferer fail in his struggles again and again and again, are ever-tempted to give up on him.

Yet this much too is true: no one can kick an addiction on their own. So as frustrating as an addict’s behavior might be, the worst possible thing any of us could do is to give up on him. Should any ever ask, “Who cares for the Jimmies of the world,” we should be able to say, “We do.” 

[NOTE: This week's dispatch is from Mikaila.]

I often get volunteers and community members that ask me, “What do you think is the biggest issue that plays into homelessness?” While everyone’s personal journey is of course unique, the more I learn about homelessness the more readily apparent one answer becomes: a lack of affordable housing! Perhaps even some of our readers are beginning to feel the strain of increased housing prices here in Portland. I know that my rent is going up $100 with our next lease, and there are many that have it far worse.

According to the “2016 Out of Reach Report,” created by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, this is certainly becoming a countrywide issue. (For the full report, please visit: http://nlihc.org/oor/). 

Here are a few snapshot figures found in the full report:

  • Oregon is the 18th most expensive state to rent a two-bedroom apartment. You’d have to be making a wage of $19.38/hour to afford a 2 bedroom “fair-market rate” unit.
  • In Oregon, you would need to work over 68 hours a week at minimum wage simply to afford a one-bedroom unit at fair-market rate.
  • In Clackamas, Multnomah, and Washington Counties, someone would have to make $23.23/ hour to afford a 2-bedroom unit.

I can’t speak for our readers, but I certainly know that there is absolutely NO WAY I would be able to afford my housing without roommates, family financial support, and a lot of luck.

So, when I hear people allude to the fact that those experiencing affordable houting cartoonhomelessness need to just “get a job,” I am quick to point out how much of a solution that IS NOT. We have plenty of guests that are indeed working, some even more than full time. Yet, they cannot afford housing. When you consider how extremely expensive it is to be homeless (transportation, buying ready-to-eat foods, health care, replacing stolen, broken or dirty items, losing belongings due to theft, etc.) , saving up for a security deposit and first/last month rent to get into a place truly becomes a daunting task. 

Not only is housing expensive in Portland, there is not enough of it, at least not of the affordable kind. We are seeing a sharp increase of high-rise condos replacing what used to be family and community members homes. A story I am hearing more often these days is of our guests being forced out of the building that they have been living in for decades because they are being developed, or because rent is increasing so high they cannot afford it.

Portland currently has a rental vacancy rate of 3.4% in 2016, versus a national average of approximately 7.0%. This tells me that not only do we have extremely high rents, we also have fewer units for everybody to fight over. 

So yes, of course, homelessness is a diverse and multi-faceted issue. But truly, at the heart of the most simplistic answer possible, a lack of housing is pushing families into our streets and keeping others on the streets. Although it would be a small step in the right direction, rent control, an increase in production of affordable housing, and housing-first principles are certainly topics to be explored.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about my reactions to this year’s spiritual retreat that we held at Camp Adams, May 30 through June 1.

But what did our guests think about it?

As is our yearly practice, we invite the retreat’s participants to write us an evaluation. How did they like the retreat this year? Was there anything we could have done better?

As usual, everyone raved about the food (and justifiably so). For the past few years volunteer/former Board member/former Board chair Bergen Allee and her mother April Rhoades take time from work for the duration of the retreat to whip up wonders in the modest Waverly Cabin kitchen. And there’s always plenty of it! Each year, it barely feels like we’ve digested the previous meal before the next one comes along.

This year, our participants could also wax gloriously about the weather. Atypically for a Memorial Day, the day we left Portland it was sunny. In fact, it was going jean and creekto be hot. Retreating to the foothills of the Cascades, however, the temperatures moderated. And in the shady glen where our cabin was nestled, our microclimate was the most pleasant of all.

Oh, yes. We did offer a program to (we had to fill the space between meals with something). And everyone seemed to enjoy it immensely.

Some in their evaluations didn’t get very specific. All one said, for instance, was “It was fun and good. The leadership was good. The food was great. I had a good time.” Others just used superlatives like “great,” even “sensational!” One went so far as to say this:

“I would like to thank you for the best 3 days of my life.”

I’m always a little suspicious of such hyperbolic expressions, but to understand the impact that the annual retreat has on our guests, it’s important to understand the context from which they come. One of them wrote about that:

“Thanks again to everyone who put the retreat on. From sleeping on the streets of downtown Portland to getting a chance to spend a couple of days in a nestled cabin in the woods is an incredible treat. And to be fed and served like a king is amazing—I felt incredibly spoiled.”

Indeed, before we packed up to leave, several of our guests were conspiring to see whether they could engineer a way to say at the camp longer.

In short, with our guests I think the retreat was a hit.

Thanks to those of you who contributed to make it possible. And thanks to all of you who in your own ways serve to keep the light shining.