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When Ed Koch was mayor of New York, one of his signatures when we met groups of constituents was to ask them, “How'm I doin’?”

Mayor Koch knew what he was doing. If you’re in the “customer service” business—which a politician certainly is—it’s always a good idea to check in with the “customers” to see whether, from their point of view, they in fact feel they’re being served.

Nightwatch is in the “customer service” business too. And we therefore feel it’s important to check in with our guests to see, whether from their side, they think we’re being as effective as we hope we’re being. In September our Program Coordinator, Steve Hutchinson conducted a survey of our downtown guests. The questionnaire he developed had some directed questions seeking their opinions on issues we specifically wanted their input on. Then the questionnaire had an open-ended section where guests could write anything they want.

Here’s what they said (I edited some out only because they were either indecipherable or carried some specific suggestion. The tenor remains the howm i doinsame):

  • a retreat from the cold, damp streets- at least for a few hours.
  • This is a great place.  I like that you are still operating, I've been coming here for seven years--yeah!
  • I have yet to attend the Bible study but it ranks high in my book.  I heard good things about it.
  • I think we should make more of these for people cause it does help. Just fill we need more blankets so we can do on street outreach.
  • This is the only place left downtown for homeless to connect w/out being broken up by cops-thanks
  • It's a Blessing to come here and the panty/party/lingerie/unmentionables are a great gift for me. I used to volunteer here and you all and the great volunteers and people running Nightwatch are wonderful
  • It's been 5 years since I was in Portland last and I'm very glad to see that Operation Nightwatch is still going on.
  • It work okay on some matters
  • Thanks for everything and keep it up.
  • It's all good!
  • It's an outstanding…[indecipherable]
  • The things I marked low were only because I haven't participated in them.  I love this program and really appreciate you guys.
  • I love this place, you have my back! Thank you.
  • God Bless!
  • Doing a Good Job
  • The courteous and friendly staff
  • Good service in health care
  • Love this place thanks

So how’re we doin’?

Pretty well, I’d say.

Believe it or not, that’s not a headline from The Onion. Behind it lies a real story.

It’s been happening in Great Britain. Churches and their leaders there really have been protesting food banks. But it’s not what you might think. It’s not that the members of the ecclesiastical establishment have suddenly turned a cold heart toward the poor and hungry. Quite the opposite. What they’re feeling motivated to do is speak up on behalf of of the poor and hungry.

For you see, until quite recently the U.K. had enough of a publicly-funded safety net that food banks were largely unnecessary. The needy received sufficient government support they could shop for themselves and not feel their lives were wholly dependent upon charity. But Parliament, confronted with budgetary shortfalls, defaulted to cutback mode and, as usually happens in such cases, the programs first led to the chopping block were those that served the ones least able to contribute to politicians’ campaign coffers. Opposition leaders, of course, protested the injustice such cutbacks: “But these programs feed people!” they said. “We can’t just let people go hungry!” “They will not go hungry,” the budget-cutters calmly assured. “Others will rise to meet their needs. There will be food banks! Neighbor will help neighbor, and enough will be collected to feed them.”

One might hope that would be true. But here was the problem, as the Opposition—and the churches—saw it: this was the first time private charities were being proposed for carrying the prime responsibility for the poor as a matter of public policy. It was an implicit declaration that Britain as a people was no longer going to care for its weakest and most vulnerable.

And as the churches saw it, not only was this an offense to Christian sensibilities—how could any Christian claim that care for the poor and needy was beyond their scope?—but it was also a fundamental redefinition of the British character. In one comment, one church leader said, “We don’t want to become America, of all things! That’s where the poor rely on food banks, and everyone just takes it for granted that that’s the way it should be.”

Ouch. That stings.

But when I read it, I have to admit it was an eye-opener. I have to admit that, until I read of the British controversy, I myself had never really thought of what the prevalence of food banks means in our culture. I had never thought about how we really do take the existence of the poor around us for granted. Indeed, what an irony it is that those in the country known for Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey would feel they were now in a place to criticize our country for its class system!

food bank line

But isn’t it so that for many of us most of the time, the poor remain merely an afterthought? Food banks are what we give our spare change.

We at Nightwatch are currently in our year-end fundraising cycle where we would hope to raise the question in our supporters’ minds, “How much should I give to Nightwatch?” And it’s true that Nightwatch, like food banks, exists to fill gaps that the needy are falling through.

But what would happen if a critical mass of people actually went beyond question to ask, “Why are there such gaps? Why does there even have to be food banks, or Nightwatch?” For indeed, unless we’re prompted to ask such questions, the poor are likely to remain those we’ll always just take for granted.

There’s hardly anything better than an unsolicited testimonial.

I often write about the effect Nightwatch had on our guests. But it has an effect on many who come to know our guests, as well.

Here’s an email that appeared in my inbox this past week:

Hi Gary,

My name is K-- and we’ve met a couple times over the last month during some of the nights at Operations [sic] Nightwatch.  I’m reaching out with two intentions: to complete an assignment for a class I’m taking at Portland State and to express my gratitude. 

One of the themes for class the last couple of weeks has been reflection: what have we learned from our community partners, is there anything we’re taking away into our day to day life, and how has our experience evolved since beginning.  As I think about this concept and look back at when I started with Operations Nightwatch, I recall the hesitations, fears, and curiosity I was feeling as I started my first day.  I stood in front of the room with my name tag, crookedly pinned to my sweatshirt, wondering where to start.  I kept standing, awkwardly, while avoiding eye contact and wondering how I ended up here and if I really had anything to contribute. 

Turns out, its [sic] the men and women I’ve gotten to know, that contributed to me.  Over the last month I’ve been able to get to know a large diversity of the homeless community and recognize that we are all the same.  Some have house problems and car problems, while others downtown hc collagehave love problems and it doesn’t mean that anyone is better than the next person just because of circumstance A, B, or C. I've been able to work through my past judgements [sic], numbness, and fears and am grateful that I had a chance to contribute in the simplest, yet meaningful way, just by having a conversation and socializing. 

I’d like to thank you for being a leader of this organization and your continuous commitment to a group in our community that doesn’t get as much love, food, or home as others.  This group is often disregarded and “numbed” to, by a population of people with attitudes such as mine, before I got involved with volunteering here.  Thank you for your courage, education, commitment, smiles and kind heart.

Although I signed up to volunteer as part of a requirement fulfillment for an Experiential Learning class at Portland State, I will definitely be continuing my involvement once the class is complete in several weeks.

Thanks again for all you do, and I’ll see you soon!


I just finished reading the latest book by Anthony Marra, called The Tsar of Love and Techno. (Marra’s first novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, I thought a masterpiece and I wrote about it in a previous blog.) In the new book, one of the narrators makes this remark: “What my father lacked in education, he more-than-made-up-for in opinion.”

We have a lot of people who harbor a lot of negative opinions about homeless people, but how many of them even know one? Thank goodness for those like K—who have the courage to open themselves to new encounters and take the risk of having their minds changed.

Here was my reply to her:

Hi K--,

Thank you so much for your kind (and humbling) words. While I might look confident in my job, I could recognize everything you said in the way I myself felt when I first started at Nightwatch. Our guests have no idea how much they have a positive influence on US.

Look forward to seeing you again at Nightwatch. Thanks again.

Five minutes more and the doors of the Downtown Center would have been locked, and we would have been out of there and on our way home.

But it was not to be.

Friday night, clean-up had just been completed, the volunteers had gathered their things and were in the main room doing some final chatting before heading toward the door. I was back in my office putting some final things in order. Suddenly, there was the sound of hysteria, a woman using the foulest language, shouting at the top of her lungs. I rushed to the entrance.

There, at the top of the entry stairs was Sally, one of our guests who had been in earlier that evening. Our onsite coordinator, Brian, was already there, trying to calm her. The trigger for Sally’s agitation was another guest—a man—who had also been in earlier, who was now standing at the foot of the stairs. “Get away! Get away!” Sally was screaming at him. The man was putting on airs of bewilderment, acting as if he didn’t know what the issue was.

Sally was not to be consoled. She was angry, throwing her bags to the floor, their contents scattering everywhere. “Call the police! Call the police! I’m not leaving as long as he’s out there!” she yelled at us. Our poor volunteers stood frozen in their places as Brian and I tried to handle it.

The man made movements as if he was going to come up the stairs. I ran down to stop him. “Hey,” he said, “I just left my bag behind, and I want to get it.”

“We just cleaned the place,” I said. “We found no bag.”

“I need to look for myself,” he insisted.

Meanwhile, Brian was dealing with Sally. She was now accusing us of not caring, if we were not going to call the police on the man, reiterating her intransigence over leaving knowing he might be waiting for her outside.

“I going to ask you to stand out on the sidewalk,” I told the man. “I’ll look for your bag myself and bring it out to you.” He stepped outside and I locked the door.

I methodically went through the building looking for any orphaned bags. No luck. Brian had convinced Sally to follow him to the other end of the building where she might leave through another exit while I kept the man occupied. I went out onto the sidewalk. “Sorry,” I said. “No bag. If you left one here, someone apparently took it.”

“I want to see for myself,” he said. By this time, Brian had gotten Sally out of the main room and I thought it OK to let the man inside just to placate him. But instead of even making a pretense of looking for his bag, once he got inside he made a beeline for the other side of the building where Brain had taken Sally. The second I saw that, I stopped him. “Whoa! There’s no way you could have left a bag in that direction. We don’t even use that part of the building. You gotta go.” He didn’t put up a fight. He left.

Brian appeared, throwing up his arms in exasperation. Sally had hidden from him and wouldn’t come out of her hiding place. “What do we do now?”

“I don’t know that we can do anything else than call the police,” I said.

In that instant, Sally was in the hallway with us. “Oh, you’re going to call on the police to arrest me!” she said. “You’re going to send me jail, and I’m the victim!”

“We have no interest in sending you to jail,” I assured her. “We just can’t allow you to stay here.”

Within a few more minutes, Brian and I finally got Sally to the door. There was no sign the man was waiting outside. When I came back into the main room, I found our volunteers hadn’t budged an inch since the whole episode started. A couple had expressions like the proverbial deer in the headlights. “Welcome to Operation Nightwatch,” I said.

Once Brian and I were alone, he remarked, “This is what it’s all about, isn’t it? We have no idea what terror some people have living on the streets. But what we provide is four hours out of their day when they can escape from all that. We safe placereally have no idea how valuable that can be to some people.”

Throughout the entire night’s incident, we got no story from Sally about how the man had caused offense. Sally does wrestle with mental health issues, so we don’t know whether, whatever it was, it was real or imagined. What we do know is that Sally has had truly traumatic experiences while homeless. Our nurse Sean, recently treated her after she had suffered a broken rib from being assaulted when she was asleep. Prior to that, there had been an occasion when someone set her on fire. Terror from living on the streets, indeed!

Earlier Friday evening, our intern Ashley and her friend Paige had once again brought in the Portland Panty Project to distribute new undergarments to our women guests. They had teamed this time with Susan Hoover, who also had baubles, scarves and hats, for the women to pick out to help them feel pampered and special. Another of our women guests came up to me afterwards, literally in tears, saying, “This is like Christmas! You are so good to us! Thank you!” Then she gave me a hug.

Well, we might not be able to make every day like Christmas. But Brian was right. For those we serve, providing a place that’s a haven from their daily rigors, safe from threat and free from trauma, is gift enough. It goes a long way toward defining what we call “home.”

My car was stolen this week. Broad daylight, just a couple blocks from the Downtown Hospitality Center.


So I called my wife to ask her to come downtown and pick me, and called the police to request an officer to come to my office so I could file a report.

It was rush hour and I imagined that another stolen car wasn’t going to priority slot in police business, so I settled in for a long wait. However, an officer even showed up within 25 minutes, even beating my wife there.

He took the necessary details—make and color of car, parking location, whether anyone else might have been in possession of a key, etc.—and concluded by giving me his card with a case number on it. “It’ll probably turn up,” he said. “Somebody probably just took it for a joyride, or to do a drug deal or something. These guys just take the cars for a short while then dump them. Portland doesn’t have the ‘chop shops’ it used to. We’ll give you a call if we find it.”

“Well, thanks for coming by,” I said resignedly.

And with his task done, the officer could have left right then. But he didn’t. Instead, he did (for me) the most unexpected thing.

“I want to thank you,” he said, “for the work you’re doing here. This is not an easy population to work with. And because you’re here, you make our work a whole lot easier.”

Wow. I wish I could immortalize his words in neon and mount them on the facegood for community of our building! Because there are those individuals, businesses and organizations that see agencies like Operation Nightwatch as a nuisance and a blight in the community. They consider us as doing nothing more than reinforcing bad habits of people plagued with poverty. How to convince them otherwise that poverty is not a “habit,” but a condition? How to get them to see that, as an article I read earlier this week stated it, homeless people are not “a problem that needs to be solved, [but] a group of people who need our help”? How to make them understand that, by providing a place where those without shelter can get off the streets, we are performing a great public service as much for the community complainers, as for anyone else?

But there it is, in a police officer’s words. No one need take my word for it—the word of some former squishy sociology major who then went on to a career that preached a squishy gospel of grace and compassion.

They could take it from somebody really “in the know.”

Someone who knew from his own daily experience in a job dealing with the most difficult situations of just how much more difficult it would be if Operation Nightwatch were not here.