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It’s doubtful that the founders of Operation Nightwatch, when they brought all the pieces together 33 years ago, conceived of us as being part of the public health establishment. But that’s exactly what we’ve become.

Back then in 1981, all that comprised Nightwatch was a group of volunteers that went out onto the streets to make a human connection with the oft-neglected, engaging them in conversation and hearing of their woes, frustrations, and needs. Today, our involvement in public health is apparent through the volunteer nurses we have serving at our Downtown Hospitality Center every night it’s open. Our nurses can see up to 35 guests a night, offering foot care, tending to minor wounds, ministering to health complaints, and doing assessments and referrals, judging whether a guest may require the intervention of more specialized care. Some a guests have presented quite serious conditions, having neglected their health for a long time, and it’s fair to say that by getting them to the hospital we’ve actually saved some lives.

But beyond what our medical professionals provide, over the last several months I’ve become aware of our place in the public health establishment in yet another way. For some reason, we’ve recently been seeing more guests at our Downtown Hospitality Center suffering from severe mental illness. Depending on the severity of their illness (and whether they’ve been taking their meds), they can provide a real challenge. Many are fearful due to their perception of a world out to “get them,” and though the threats mental health statsthey perceive are objectively insubstantial, they are very real to them. As a result, they can also be unreasonable in other regards, and sometimes belligerent (though rarely violent). 

And they come to Nightwatch. Why? The answer to that is simple: where else are they to go? 

I have thusly been reminded of the true scandal of mental health services in our country. “Inadequate” doesn’t even begin to describe the situation. When major federal funding cuts were made to mental health programs in the 1980s—and never restored, no matter what political party was at the helm in Washington—facilities were closed and former mental health patients were literally dumped on the streets. In most cases, if a family isn’t wealthy enough to pay for private in-patient psychiatric services for its tormented spouse, son, or daughter, they’re on their own.

And on Portland evenings, Nightwatch becomes the default mental health provider.

Not that we have much to offer—we are not trained therapists or licensed psychiatrists—but this:

A new study out of Brigham Young University presents compelling evidence that social isolation can significantly shorten a person’s life span. To put the conclusion into perspective, the study concluded that to left abandoned and alone “was as great a health risk as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and being an alcoholic.” And with all else that those with mental illness have to contend with, is there any other group-as-a-whole, precisely because of their unusual behavior, that is more socially isolated?

Yet of course, even without recognizing the physical health benefits, providing a human connection as an alternative to social isolation has been Nightwatch’s mission from the very beginning. It’s what sent those first volunteers out onto the streets 33 years ago to seek out those camped out in the doorways and on the loading docks.

Which means, though the founders may not have recognized it, we have really be part of public health from the start.

You probably heard about the fraternity at the University of Oklahoma that was nailed because a video was uncovered of its members engaging in a vile racist chant. The

Less likely is that you heard about the Congressman who suggested that one solution to the homeless problem would be to let loose wolves on them and let the wolves do their work. What action was taken against the Congressman? No media firestorm. No recall effort. Not even any censure or demand for an apology. In short, no nothing.

Most everyone was outraged by the behavior of the fraternity—other U of O students, the university administration, the fraternity’s national HQ, not to mention the general public—and rightfully so. No one would accept the explanation the frat brothers were just “joking,” having some fun “fueled by alcohol.” Their little ditty was hate speech, purely and simply. (No chant that refers to lynching black people is even remotely funny.)

But why weren’t the Congressman’s comments equally considered hate speech? Why is it that the media didn’t even pick up on the story? (The news from the University of Oklahoma was the top story on the CBS Evening News on the night I watched, while the only way I know about the Congressman’s “wolves” remark was through a Twitter feed I receive from The Washington Post.) Is the reason for the huge collective shrug that the homeless have become that last acceptable group about which they can express their disdain and disgust without any public reproach?

Let’s put the Congressman’s words to the test. The word “homeless” describes a set of people under which there are many varied subsets—as is often said, the only thing that all homeless people hold in common is that they are without shelter. If we identified those subsets and substituted them in the Congressman’s remarks, how would they then sound?

Surveys have pretty consistently determined about 40% of homeless people nationwide are coping with some form of mental illness. So if we had the Congressman saying that the way to settle everything would be by setting wolves on the mentally ill, how would that sound?

The fastest growing segment of the homeless population is children. How about settling the problem by setting the wolves on poor children?

If others looked at the Congressman’s attitudes in this way, would the needle on their outrage meters budge even a bit? Or would the decision-makers at CBS, CNN, and all the other media outlets still consider it nobody’s news, because there we no ratings in it. Nobody cared.

In an interview that was also published this week with Eric Tars, the senior attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, he said,

statue of liberty freezing

The crisis of homelessness provokes crisis responses, responses where people aren’t thinking things thoroughly through. . . .

It really is about who we are as Americans. On the Statue of Liberty, the plaque reads, give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses. Send the homeless to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door, but now we’re saying don’t send me your homeless. Even the homeless that are already here, we’re not lifting our lamp beside the golden door, we’re lifting our police baton beside the gilded gates of a gated community. It’s a different concept of who we should be, as Americans. I think we need to return to our best ideals, rather than the worst nightmares that we are becoming.

But that’s why we rely upon you to keep the light shining.


Did you know it’s National Reading Month?

It seems only proper, then, that we should celebrate our guests participating in the 100 Book Challenge, which would have them read 100 books (each at least 100 pages long) over the course of a year.

We have a total of 15 people who decided at the beginning of January to take up the challenge. Like all New Year’s resolutions, I think that a number of them had good intentions of following through, but I haven’t seen anything of them lately. But we do have a core that continues on, and we meet once a month to talk about the books we’ve been reading and offer our recommendations to others. I myself participate, and I have to say that these discussions are among the most fun of all I’m part of at Nightwatch. It’s great to be with a group of other folks who are excited about reading and eager to share the insights they’re gaining.

 read more

Indeed, sometimes I think the enthusiasm of our guests surpasses my own. Taking on the goal of reading 100 books in the course of one year is an ambitious task—to succeed, one has to complete a book on the average of every three days! So far, I’ve been keeping up the pace with the others, but this is marathon instead of a sprint. We still have ten months to go! I hope I can keep up!

And lest anyone think that our guests are themselves meeting the pace by zipping through pulp novels and trashy biographies, here are some of the titles they have chosen to read:

  • To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
  • And the Mountains Echoed, Khalid Hosseini
  • The Tempest, William Shakespeare
  • Baghdad Without a Map, Tony Horowitz
  • 2312, Kim Stanley Robinson
  • The Constant Gardener, John le Carré
  • The Brooklyn Folly, Paul Auster
  • The Vine, Christopher Rice
  • Bad Money, Kevin Phillips
  • Drood, Dan Simmons
  • Hard Choices, Hillary Clinton
  • Margaret in Exile, Georges Simenon

So it’s National Reading Month.

What are you reading?

Saturday night a dearth of volunteers had me pitching in at our SE Hospitality Center, and towards the end of the evening I was helping with clean-by walking among the tables, picking up trash and rescuing wayward coffee cups.

I finally came to one table where a man remained sitting, alone. A cribbage board and deck of cards was within half-an-arm’s length. “Play cribbage?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he acknowledged.

I smiled. “We’ll have to have a game sometime,” I said.

“My wife died,” he suddenly said.

Taken aback, I dropped my smile. “Oh. I’m so sorry.”

Then I noticed his fist was clenched. He unwrapped his fingers, and revealed he was holding, like a talisman, a yellowing, folded square of newsprint. He slowly unfolded it. It was a newspaper article of indistinguishable age, but which looked like it had been folded and unfolded so many times it could possibly crumble into pieces right before our eyes. He gingerly rotated the article so I could see it. It was generally about caring for people on the streets, but one sentence was underlined in blue ink. It mentioned “Sister Katherine,” a homeless woman who had recently been found dead.

“That was my wife,” the man said. “She froze to death. Last February.”

“A year ago,” I reflected.

“Yeah,” he said. “But I still love her. I can’t stop loving her.”

“Of course,” I said.


“I found her,” he went on. Then his words became more sharp, more forceful. “I told her to stay covered up! We had four sleeping bags. But she crawled out of them somehow.” More quietly: “Then I found her.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said again. There seemed not much else I could say.

“Well, that’s all I’ve got to say,” the man finally said. “I don’t want to talk any more.”

I nodded, and began to turn to pick up the coffee cups at another table and leave him his space. But before I could take a step, he had something else he wanted to say: “Thanks for listening.”

It’s a simple truth about mourning: how much more difficult it is when we feel no one else cares about our loss. If we ever need the support of a community, it’s at these times. It’s not as if we expect our friends and family to do anything –there are very few losses that can be undone—but just to know that someone cares enough for us to mourn with us means more than can be measured.

Our annual memorial service to honor those who have died on the streets in the past year will be held Wednesday, April 1, at St. Andre Bessette Catholic Church (a.k.a. “Downtown Chapel”), 601 W. Burnside, at 2:00 p.m.

As goes an old Lenten hymn, “Oh, Come and Mourn With Me Awhile.” For our Nightwatch guests, it’s the least we can do.

"Stereotypes." "Ignorance."

Those can be a couple of nasty words, can't they?

But they needn't be. Looked at objectively, they could both be seen as simply descriptive words, rather than pejorative ones.

Take "ignorance." To be ignorant is not the equivalent of being "stupid" or "moronic." To be ignorant is merely "to be lacking in knowledge." We are all born ignorant, the brain a tabula rasa waiting to have its capacious contents filled by what we gain from exposure to teaching and experience.

Within that context, stereotypes are placeholders we use to plug in the holes of our understanding where we are lacking full knowledge. Stereotypes may be but blobby, crude facsimiles of the realities they are meant to stand for, but we nonetheless need them when we lack full knowledge about the subject-at-hand. For if a discussion comes up about "Muslims," for instance, and we really don't possess any direct knowledge about Muslims, we need to call some image to mind to provide a frame-of-reference for what's being said. What's that we heard on FOX News--that Muslims are just a bunch of terrorists? Then that's the mental image we automatically call to mind, because we have no other knowledge to counter it. We know nothing better; how can we not therefore count all Muslims as untrustworthy, murderous thugs? If, on the other hand, we came to Nightwatch and met the Muslim students who volunteer with us and experienced their self-effacing kindness and compassion, the knowledge gained from this experience could fill the gap the lazy placeholder once held. At the very least, our stereotype of Muslims would have to become more refined, our image of them less crude and blobby, to accommodate the undeniable reality that is now part of our personal experience. Could it be that Islam could nurture virtuous people too?

Needless to say, homeless people suffer all-too-often from being stereotyped. And typically, when I hear someone express such a stereotype and I follow up by asking them whether they happen to know any homeless people, their answer is, "No." But the gaps in their knowledge have been filled by images they've seen in movies and on TV, and having had no personal experience by which to counter them, they've neither thought to question them.

There would be no problem with stereotypes, I guess, if: 1) people felt perfectly comfortable in their ignorance, and 2) the stereotypes we held didn't have a negative impact on the way we treat those we stereotype. I don't know if I can say much to address the first issue, because the truth is that a number of people do in fact feel comfortable in their ignorance and no amount of logic will sway them (take the anti-vaccination crowd, for instance). But I can attempt an argument to address the second. Stereotypes can hurt. They put everybody into a generalized category and take no account of the actual individual who is standing before us. That individual has his/her own story; that individual has his/her own needs. To judge them by some generalized, crude and blobby standard just because they happen to overlap in a common characteristic they share with some others is not a way we ourselves would wish to be treated. And it neither does no good in our treatment of others. To rely on stereotypes may be a convenience for us, but they can have devastating effect when we rely upon their to govern our behavior.

The Crisis Prevention Institute has produced this 90-second video illustrating the point (click the image to watch):  


We often speak of the good Nightwatch accomplishes for those who come to us. But our guests are not the only ones we serve. Nightwatch also has a tremendous impact upon our volunteers because in their exposure to the homeless, it breaks down many of the stereotypes they carry. They meet, they talk, they play games, they share a karaoke mike. The blobby images they may have carried become more refined, and the "homeless" diminish in their minds from being so much a "category" as individuals who carry their own stories and have their own tales to tell.

Ignorance is supplanted with knowledge. And can that not be only for the good?