Worth More Than 1,000 Words
- Published on Monday, 02 December 2013 10:48
- Written by Gary Davis
Friday evening was our annual Portrait Night at the Downtown Hospitality Center. In prior years, the portraits were at the mercy of my mediocre photographic talents (supplemented by some pretty terrific processing software!), but this year we had the benefit of professional photographer Andy Robbins.
The night started out slowly. Playing the role of cheerleader, I kept trying to persuade guests to have their pictures taken. “These aren’t for our purposes,” I assured them. “They are our gift to you. You get the copies, and you can then send them to family or friends for the holidays.” "I don't need a picture of myself," several of them groused. But finally, a few made their way before the camera’s lens and before long, a line formed. Once others began to see the fun the first participants were having with the photo-taking, even a couple of the grousers came forward.
We had a lot of laughs. Moreover, our guarantee to the guests was, “We’ll make you look good.” And Andy did. The result? For at least this brief period of time, our guests felt good about themselves.
That indeed is the main purpose of Portrait Night. But here’s another:
Take a look at these faces. They’re very human. Couldn’t they easily be someone’s son or daughter, brother or sister, parent, aunt or uncle?
Guest what? They are.
The Garden and the Flower
- Published on Sunday, 24 November 2013 13:22
- Written by Gary Davis
One night not long ago, one of our new volunteers had just gotten into his car and was beginning to drive away from where he had been serving with our Mobile Hospitality Center in SE Portland. He heard a shout. Looking into his rearview mirror, he saw one of our Nightwatch “guests”—a homeless man he had spent some time talking with that evening—running after him, clearly trying to get his attention.
“Uh-oh,” our volunteer thought. “What’s this?” Being a new volunteer and still not totally at ease with the folks Nightwatch serves, he later admitted his immediate thoughts were uncomfortable ones. Did the this homeless man now want something more from him? His mind raced. Did the man feel that just because the two of them had had a friendly conversation over a meal the two had bonded in some blood-brother sort-of-way? Or could there be something even more sinister afoot: now that most everyone else had dispersed, had the volunteer’s pursuer transformed into some grotesque Mr. Hyde who was out to accost him?
Yet despite his misgivings, our volunteer braked his vehicle and came to a halt. He thought he had everything he had brought with him, but maybe the man was just after him because he had forgotten something and left it behind.
Out of breath, his pursuer reached the driver’s side window. Our volunteer cracked it only enough as to squeeze a paperback through. “I just wanted to say thank you,” the man said between breaths. “It’s just great all that you guys do for us.”
And that’s all he had to say.
Our volunteer was so struck by the encounter that the next time he saw me he felt he had to tell me about it.
"It happens all the time,” I said.
Poverty is a great leveler. So it is that so many of our guests, though barely eking out their lives day-by-day, often go out of their way to register with us their expressions of gratitude. When life is a garden, who’s to notice a single flower? To be sure, when our life is a garden, rather than appreciate the wave of beauty it presents, we’re more likely to complain about that one scrubby patch in the back where we can’t get anything to grow. But our guests’ lives are not a garden. And to them, a single flower can be such a treasured thing that they can find the simplicity of it transcendent.
Do you have the tradition of doing this with your family when you gather around the Thanksgiving table: before dishing up the feast, going around and having each one mention something they’re thankful for? And have you ever had that experience as the go-‘round nears you of mentally searching, “Gee, I dunno. What am I thankful for?” Has the great multitude of our blessings so anesthetized us that we cannot see how much we have to be thankful for?
Invite one of our guests from Nightwatch to your Thanksgiving. They’ll be able to tell you what to be thankful for.
Mother Teresa, who ministered to the “poorest of the poor” in Calcutta, upon a visit to the United States commented famously, “The spiritual poverty of the Western World is much greater than the physical poverty of our people.” And a prime indicator of that spiritual poverty is the way our affluence has so callused us from recognizing the grace of our lives and being thankful for it.
So if it happens someday that someone should pursue you just to offer their thanks for what you may have done, slow down. Don’t take it lightly. Indeed, thank them for having entered your life to open your eyes once again.
The Oppression of Free Time
- Published on Saturday, 16 November 2013 15:09
- Written by Gary Davis
J.F. Sargent is a young man who upon graduation from college got an AmeriCorps position trail-building in the Montana wilderness. His schedule was one-week on, one-week off. On his off-weeks, he stayed in a friend’s apartment in a small nearby town. He hadn’t known his friend had been delinquent with rent checks. Thus, he was surprised to come out of the woods one week to find his friend had been evicted and he now had no place to stay. He was in effect homeless.
For Mr. Sargent, the experience was relatively short-term. Nevertheless, he found it an eye-opening one. Reflecting on it, he posted a blog last week entitled, “7 Things No One Tells You About Being Homeless.” Here’s what he discovered:
7. It doesn’t take much to end up homeless.6. Having a job won’t save you.5. Government benefits aren’t as much help as you think.4. Shelters are a band-aid.3. Your free time becomes your enemy.2. Your biggest asset is your charm.1. Most homeless are young, and most are only homeless for a couple of months.
I would like to focus on #3. To hear many critics of the homeless who cavalierly label them “bums” or “freeloaders,” you might can the impression that homelessness is somehow a life of leisure. They don’t consider the truth that too much time on one’s hands can become oppressive.
Here’s what Mr. Sargent says about it:
What surprised me the most about being homeless was just how much time I had on my hands. Remember: no TV, no Internet, no video games, no inviting people over to hang out (tell you what, just make a list of how many of your leisure time activities require having a place to live). And at least I had a job -- but even then, it was one that had me working in the backcountry for a week at a time with a week off when I got back.
So ... what do you do with yourself? Me, I went to the library, I visited the park, I tried going hiking, I spent time at friends' houses -- but each time, I ran into problems. I was new in a small mountain town and didn't know many people all that well. As for the parks and libraries, keep in mind [what I looked like] from spending so much time in the woods and having limited access to laundry and showers. Want to guess how I wound up spending that free time? Here's a hint: An estimated 50 percent of homeless people are addicts.
Yep, having nothing to do and nowhere to go got so stressful that I ended up finding a good source of LSD, and this became my last resort for filling time. The thought process was basically "Yay, I have an activity for the next 12 hours! I'm going to manage an acid trip! I feel so productive!"
And here's where I'll lose a lot of readers (think about the last time you considered giving money to a beggar, only to have a friend say, "He'll just use it to buy drugs!"), but I've found that there's a misconception here. The assumption is that all of these people are homeless because they're addicts -- they blew their rent money on drugs, right? But that's not always the case -- what often comes first is having nothing else to do (an especially big problem for people staying in shelters), and the boredom literally drives them crazy. I finally understood, in a very immediate way, why people who've been living on the street for a long time tend to be addicts: Drugs not only get you high, but also give you a schedule and a routine.
And once again we see how a short-term problem can turn into a cycle that threatens to suck the rest of your life into it.
We at Nightwatch have know that from the beginning, and that’s why we’re here. Of all hours of the day, the evening hours are the worst for loneliness. Think of the times you return from your daytime activities and for one reason or another, have to face an empty house. You think of all sorts of ways to fill the hours until it’s time to go to bed, so you can get up and get involved with others again. Now consider not having many options with which to fill those lonely hours—no TV, no computer, etc. Now consider not even having a home at all.
At our Hospitality Centers, we seek to provide a place for our friends on the streets to fill their loneliest hours so they need not turn to unhealthier ways to fill them. As we like to say, Nightwatch is a place where for a few hours a few evenings a week they may feel “at home.”
"Nothing Like It . . ."
- Published on Sunday, 10 November 2013 16:27
- Written by Gary Davis
The woman was from Clark College in Vancouver. She was calling because she was interested in coming to volunteer at our downtown Hospitality Center with several other students from Clark.
I was used to fielding this sort of call. Two to three times a year we had groups of student volunteers from Clark. They typically proved to be good ones, and I told the woman on the phone that we would be happy to have them.
But then she said, "We're happy to make the trip. We think that what Operation Nightwatch is doing is great. We have nothing like it up here."
Ah, but now I had a different reply to give her than I had from my Vancouver callers in the past. "Well, you soon will," I said.
For Nightwatch is soon to expand to Vancouver. A coalition of churches north of the Columbia became aware of our outreach in St. John's and asked whether we had ever thought of coming up their way. In fact, we had—we just had not found the right folks to partner with. And we will go no place unless invited.
The churches are eager to get started. Their enthusiasm is such that they pinned us to a December 3rd starting date.
December 3rd feels to me like it's just around the corner and I have to confess that initiated another expansion of our outreach after having just started in May in St. John's feels a bit daunting. There will be more drivers to recruit and more people to train. We're already begging to meet our expenses and serving more will meet more coffee dispensed, more blankets distributed, more needs of all kinds to address.
Can we pull it off? If we continue to have the enthusiasm of our partner churches and the commitment of those like the Clark students, we will.
How dare we fail, knowing that otherwise there's nothing like it?
An Unsolicited Testimonial
- Published on Monday, 04 November 2013 10:24
- Written by Gary Davis
Sometimes the nicest things come “out of the blue.”
Alex was one of our regular volunteers when she was attending college here in Portland. She even took the training to become one of our Street Hospitality Team members. We were sad for ourselves when graduation came and we had to say good-bye.
Yet Alex kept in touch. Following graduation she went to study in Sweden for a year. Following that, she took the advantage of her youth to do some other traveling to see the world. Occasionally she’s pass through Portland and drop in to the downtown Hospitality Center to say hi.
For all of us, though, the time comes when we must settle down and look for a job—which is why Alex is now back home in Colorado. I figured it would be a while before hearing from her again. But last week this email from her unexpectedly appeared in my inbox:
I wanted to thank you, and also yell at you, about Nightwatch. As I am out and about exploring this big wide world, I have gone to many missions and shelters and soup kitchens in search of the love and community that I found with you and Nightwatch. However, in all the states and countries I have been to, I have yet to find anything even a little bit close. Thank you so much for the magic you create, or maybe the magic that you allow to manifest. It changed my life in many ways. But now I can't find it anywhere else and that makes me sad. So I have been spoiled by you! And I guess I need to try and make some magic wherever I go. Thank you, thank you, thank you. You are wonderful!
How do I respond to something as nice as that?
Other than saying, “Thanks, Alex, for your magic in helping to keep the light shining.”