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[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.

What’s the good of Nightwatch?

I was most recently confronted with that question this past week when tackling our application to be accepted as one of the non-profits to be featured in this year’s edition of Willamette Week’s GiveGuide.

We’ve been honored to be in the GiveGuide over the past three years, so you might think that filling out the application for another year would just involve some cutting-and-pasting. But a new question was added this year:

Your Bottom Line for Portland

Tell us how you measure the progress against your mission. This should be a quantitative statement that encapsulates the impact you had in the past year. Example: “During the past year we helped 650 people secure housing. On average, more than 80% of those remain housed a year after our financial assistance ends.” Word count: 50 word. Please answer in full sentences.

Whenever I write grant proposals I am required to answer similar questions. If a foundation is going to give its money away, it wants to measure the effects of its largesse in quantifiable results. It wants to know how we define our metrics. Success is something that can be discerned by a simple glance at a spreadsheet, in the form of hard numbers (never mind whether the housing those 650 people were placed in was sub-standard, or whether the residents remained depressed despite their housing situation).

I certainly understand the value of metrics as an element in determining the effectiveness of an organization. For instance, if I received a report from the Red Cross that in the wake of a hurricane hitting Miami it had only helped 100 families, I would be mistrustful of its management. But I would argue that numbers alone are insufficient and any analysis that relies on metrics alone is superficial.

For what do numbers mean at Nightwatch. Through our Hospitality Centers, we serve anywhere from 400 to 450 people a week. But what does that mean? Our basic mission is hospitality. What a squishy concept! What difference does that make? We often make the point that what makes it a pleasure to volunteer here is that most of our guests are “regulars” with whom we have built connections, so over time they become friends. But the fact that they are “regulars” means that, whatever Nightwatch does, we are not getting them off the streets, not getting them into housing, not getting them job placements, and not generally doing anything else to meet any spreadsheet-measurement of “success.”

So what is the good of Nightwatch?

Enter Brandon. Literally.

The speculation was that Brandon was dead. No one had seen him for months and the last time we did, he was in very poor shape. With his disappearance, death seemed a logical possibility.

Brandon was no angel. Indeed, he was one of our “problem people.” He was an addict. He was also a dealer. When we suspected he was using the Downtown Hospitality Center to sell drugs to others, we excluded him. This didn’t prevent him from reappearing at our door. At times he looked particularly pathetic, we brought him a sandwich or allowed him to use the restroom, then escorted him back outside.

Then came a horrible accident. Brandon was so smashed up, he was released from the hospital in a wheelchair. It looked like that would be a permanent situation for him. In addition to being physically crippled, he was clearly thrust into a deep , deep depression. Now such a vulnerable figure, we not only lifted his exclusion, but actively worried about him, especially on those occasions he spoke of suicide as he rolled himself out the door on a cold rainy night.

Given his physical state, his mental/emotional condition, and his ready access to drugs, suicide seemed a real option. And when we abruptly ceasedreturn of the prodigal seeing him, with no one knowing anything about him, we concluded that was where he ended.

Then last week, a thin figure haltingly made his way up the entry stairs at our Downtown Center. I had had a long day and was sitting at the top of the stairs to greet folks as they came in.

I didn’t recognize him at first. For one thing, he was walking! Granted, he was using a cane and moving slowly, but he was walking nonetheless. And though he still obviously was struggling physically, he looked the healthiest I believe I had ever seen him. His eyes were lively, the color of his face was good. No drugs in his system.

I believe my jaw dropped. Then I felt a big grin come over my face. For all the grief that Brandon had caused us in the past, I couldn’t believe the joy I felt in seeing him. “Where ‘ya been?” were the first words out of my mouth.

“Guess,” he said.

I shrugged. “Jail,” he confessed sheepishly.

He then sat across from me and we had a long conversation. Brandon said that he took the opportunity of his incarceration to “rehabilitate” himself. He was committed to transcend his wheelchair so he took upon himself his own regimen of physical therapy. And he sought to give himself an attitude-transplant as well. More then once he said that he wanted to apologize for all the past bad behavior to which he had subjected us. Then he said that a lawyer wanted to pursue a civil case against the person who had crippled him. “This was his idea, not mine,” he said. “And I don’t know if anything will come of it. But if I get any money, I want to give some of it here.”

“A lot of people thought you were dead,” I remarked.

A smile curled one corner of his mouth. “You learn who your friends are when you’re on the streets,” he said. “You stood up for me when no one else would. I owe you everything.”

So what’s the good of Nightwatch? I don’t know how you quantify it or put it on a spreadsheet, but there it is. 

This year we did away with most of our outings. Back in the 1990s when we began taking guests to the beach or to Timberline or to a ball game, we could easily do it because outings were fairly inexpensive. For a negligible fee we got to use an old church bus, and with an investment in food for a picnic, that was about all we needed to spend. In those days, even the ball teams were willing to donate tickets.

But times have changed. The old bus became unreliable and we needed to start renting our transportation commercially. The sports teams have given up donating tickets in favor of offering “group discounts.” And food has gotten more expensive too. In short, costs for the outings skyrocketed.

Furthermore, our guests are “in a different place” than they were 20+ years ago. Back in the 90s, to have a picnic was a valued diversion for them from their ordinary day-to-day travails. But now they have the opportunity of entertaining themselves with other distractions. Would you believe the Internet has created almost as much interruption in social relationships among the homeless as it has within the average American family? It’s true. Once public Internet access was made commonly available by the libraries, we began getting fewer and fewer guests attending our outings. Like kids holed up with their computers in their bedrooms, our guys would rather immerse themselves in virtual reality than in the actual reality of, say, a walk along the beach.

So we were paying more for the outings while serving fewer through them. Outings no longer seemed a wise investment. Last year, we cut back their frequency from monthly to quarterly. This year, we eliminated them entirely, save for one, plus our annual spiritual retreat.

And here the question was raised: “Should we eliminate the retreat too?”

The retreat always felt to be in a different category than the other outings. Stretching over three days, it had more of a focus. It wasn’t just about having a “time away.” It was designed to be plumb deeper parts of the spirit, to learn something more about ourselves and others. Correspondingly, not just anyone could sign up to go on the retreat. Participation was always by invitation only. We would determine the individuals we thought would benefit most from the retreat, and they would be the ones we would ask along.

And yet we had to contend with the fact that costs for the retreat had mushroomed in just a few years. For years, the camp we used donated its space to us. Now we have to pay. We also have to cover the costs for out-of-town transportation. So guests can attend who may be bereft of required personal belongings, we may buy them sleeping bags. And food for 15-20 people for three days can add up to a pretty sum too.

Bottom line: four years ago, total costs for the retreat were about $600. The retreat we just returned from this week cost us three times as much. Parsing it out, we invested about $100 for each participant who came on the retreat. Given that we can serve guests at our Downtown Hospitality Center at the cost of roughly $1.88/individual/night, that’s quite a disparity!

Since in my position I must be sensitive to Nightwatch’s expenditures, I have to admit that I’ve wondered whether the money we spend on the retreat might more effectively be invested elsewhere. But it’s one thing to think about such issues abstractly versus experiencing what is realized by them directly. It’s as dramatic a difference as thinking one has a grasp of the truth in devoting himself to virtual reality versus actual reality.

And in the wake of this year’s retreat, I stand affirmed in what power the retreats carry. For in the space of this most recent three-days, I had conversations steve presenting smallwith our guests with such depth that they could have never reached around the tables of the Hospitality Center. Though our mission may be relationship-building, the available time and busy environments at the Hospitality Centers just don’t allow for much intimate opening-up to happen. But at the retreat, I learned things about our guests I had never known, though I had been acquainted with some of them for a very long time.

I heard stories of depression, of troubles with alcohol and the challenges of recovery, of past marriages and estranged children, of dealing with the horrors of being a grunt in Vietnam and of the difficulty of adjustment in coming home. I heard stories of regret, but also those of redemption.

And what a great time we had at the end, when we all got to learn a little more about each other when each participant was asked to choose a particular song or piece of music that had a significant influence upon him. The choices ranged from Carmina Burana to Marty Robbins’ El Paso to Pharrel Williams’ Happy to Weird Al Yankovic’s Dare to Be Stupid to the Beach Boys’ Little Deuce Coupe. Those choices provided a story unto themselves!

So, yes, the retreats are expensive. But what is a relationship worth?

Does that make the annual retreat worth it? I was there. I would say so.

This is the week of our annual spiritual retreat. On Monday, we head out to Camp Adams near Molalla with fifteen of our guests from downtown and SE to spend three days in a lodge in the woods.

Our topic this year: “Music That Shapes Our Lives.” It’s a different approach toward the retreat than we’ve taken in the past. Since we label it a “spiritual” retreat, in previous years we’ve formed the days around formal presentations on topics such as prayer, pilgrimage, and community. This year’s retreat will be much more participatory and interactive. We are going to ask each participant to pick a song or piece of music that has been influential in his/her life, and then tell us as best as possible to describe how/why it has such an impact on him. The format we have chosen for them to speak about the choice will not be a lectern-oriented presentation, but a one-on-one interview with him/her by one of the retreat’s leaders in a “Tonight Show”-type arrangement. The other retreatants will simply listen in as the presenter-of-the-moment talks conversationally with the interviewer. We’ll see how it works. We think our participants, most of whom hate standing alone in front of an audience, will feel more comfortable speaking in this kind of set-up. And we plan to record the interviews in the hope we may get some podcasts out of them.

Given as much as I know of our guests we have going along, I’m anticipating we’re going to get a wide range of musical tastes reflected in their choices. But that raises a question. If one of our retreatants says that the song that has had the greatest influence upon his/her life is something by Led Zeppelin or AC-DC (or George Gershwin, for that matter), how much can we say this has remained a spiritual retreat? Must something be aplaying for change musicians Bach cantata, a gospel hymn, or a praise chorus in order to be “spiritual”—with all else being “the Devil’s music”?

Well, let’s look at the word “spirit” itself. In both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, the word translated as “spirit,” literally means “breath”—i.e. the breath of life. If there is a piece of music that instills in an individual an enlivening power, then there must be something inherently spiritual in it (at least for that individual). In a fine essay on the relationship between music and spirituality by music-producer and filmmaker Frank Fitzpatrick, he writes, “I usually [say] any music that helps reconnect us to our essence — to our inner and divine nature — is spiritual.” And if it’s a piece of music that’s “shaped our life,” isn’t that all about “connecting us to our essence” in most fundamental way?

So I’m excited about our upcoming week. And I know our guys/gals are, too. I’ll report back on how it goes.