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This week’s epistle will be a little more personal than most.

A letter appeared in the Nightwatch mailbox this week with a typed return address of “Marathon City, Wisconsin.” Sometimes we get donations mailed to us from out-of-state by someone who has somehow heard of Nightwatch, and my first thought was that it must be something like that.

Instead, rather than a check dropping out of the envelope there was a nicely typed letter than began like this:

Dear Gary, 

In the eighteen years since I left Lake Oswego I have often regretted that I’ve never expressed to you how much your ministry meant to me in one of the typingdarkest periods of my life. Last week, when a friend from Oregon was visiting to celebrate my 95th birthday, he said it wasn’t too late. His smart phone turned up your address. I hope this note will find you . . . 

And then the writer—Elaine—went on for several paragraphs to say a number of other nice things.

But I was chagrined. For the truth was, I could barely remember Elaine. I don’t remember any significant conversations I had with her. If I were to list the many wonderful relationships I developed with the members of the church I served for 19 years in Lake Oswego, I’m embarrassed to say Elaine wouldn’t appear on it at all.

I guess it just goes to show we never know whom we might have a meaningful influence on.

Elaine’s letter prompted me to think of those in my life who have had such a profound influence on me. There were teachers and clergy, spiritual directors, mentors and just-plain-good-friends, of course. But there were also those who I’m sure had no idea what a strong force they were in broadening my psychic contours into become a better person. There was Bill, my first African-American friend in eighth grade, who taught me skin color does not matter. There was an old girlfriend Susan, the first to help me overcome my beliefs in male dominance. There was Jan, who loved me through the process until I finally came to the understanding non-heterosexual people were indeed people, too.

And naturally, I could also count the many at Nightwatch who are still teaching me every day that, while one may be shaped all sorts of life circumstances different from mine—poverty, addictions, phantom voices that keep telling them to do crazy things—we all are bound together by a common dream. We all just want to be happy. We all just want to live.

I know that there are many I have never taken the initiative to tell all the important people of my past exactly how much they have meant to me.

But it is not too late.

Have you?

Not long ago I read a novel where most of the action took place aboard a 19th-century whaling ship. (No, not the one about the Great White Whale.) In speaking of the captain, the narrative mentioned that though he was married, he hardly saw his wife. Whaling voyages would last as long as 18 months, and once his ship returned barely two months passed before it was outfitted to go to sea again.

As far as his marriage was concerned, I wouldn’t call that much of a relationship.

Relationship-building is important to us at Nightwatch. It’s through relationship-building that you get to know an individual as an individual, and it’s through that knowledge that compassion grows. That requires spending some time with the other. While I supposed some good is done by groups that do a “homeless blitz” by coming downtown to pass out sandwiches or distribute jackets and then make a hasty retreat back to their homes in the ‘burbs, I would say there’s also a definite dilettante-ish quality to such an approach. Behind such efforts is more a sense of pity than of compassion. “Pity” maintains the distance of a superior feeling sorry for an inferior, while “com-passion,” it must be remembered, literally means “to suffer along with.”

Just as it’s hard to imagine, just because of their lack of shared experience, of a whaling captain having much compassion for his wife’s woes, so it’s similarly difficult to imagine much compassion being engendered in “hit-and-run” encounters with the homeless.

That being said, we’re always looking for new ways of building bonds of understanding between those of good intention and the folks we serve. I speak of “new” ways because: 1) we know with all the complexities of life, for many it’s simply impossible for many people to devote much time coming down to our Hospitality Centers and having face-to-face encounters with our guests, and 2) technology offers possibilities for transcending those difficulties in ways we never had available before.

Behold: “Meet Nightwatch.” “Meet Nightwatch” is a podcast our Program Coordinator, Steve Hutchinson has been putting together over the past studio micsseveral months in which he presents the opportunity for listeners to get to know the personal stories of some of our guests through interviews he’s conducted with them. What the interviews do is present our guests in the fullness of their humanity. The focus is typically not on how they’ve experienced the hardness of life, but on memories of their childhood, funny stories they’d like to share, and things they still dream about.  Not only do the interviews succeed in eradicating the facelessness of “the homeless,” but they reveal that the person at the other end of the microphone is an individual to be enjoyed.

The full range of podcasts will soon be able to be accessed through our Web site. In the meantime, you can listen to the first episode by clicking here. The interview is the first with Meagan, one of our downtown regulars, and through it the warmth of her personality shines through.

So I invite you to spend some time with her by tuning in. And see through it, however vicariously, whatever relationship you can build.

The picture that struck me in the gut this week came via my Twitter account. It had been tweeted by Mary Loos of KOIN News, and it was a photo of overloaded shopping carts lined up like a forlorn wagon train with it pointed in the direction of . . . where?

It was a picture of the belongings of those who had been rousted by the city from camping along the Springwater Corridor, just a few blocks from our SE Hospitality Center. The caption Mary had tweeted was, "Homeless moving off Springwater Trail, but to where?"

The image of those shopping carts was to me a visual echo of other images I had seen: pictures of modern-day Syrian refugees, escaping the violence of their land with springwater evictionwhatever belongings they could manage; grainy black-and-whites of Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl during the Depression; etchings of Cherokees being forcefully relocated from their homelands in the SE United States to trek the 1000-mile “Trail of Tears” to newly designated Indian Territories (with thousands dying along the way).

But the KOIN photograph was taken this past week. This is today. In our city.

Is this our own Trail of Tears?

This past week, I also watched an interview with two twenty-something brothers who were making a fortune through a new Internet start-up. One had been attending Harvard, the other M.I.T., but they both dropped out in order to pursue their vision and it was certainly paying off for them. The interviewer expressed a certain awe at their achievement at such a young age, but they shrugged in what might have passed for modesty but really had a tinge of smugness, replying, “Anybody with a little imagination could do what we have done.”

But the point is, no, anybody could not have done what they have done. Perhaps what they said could apply to the limited circle of acquaintances with whom they share their small bubble—the others they know who may have attended Harvard and M.I.T. But here’s a news flash: that’s a tiny elite.

What about those who are not intelligent enough to ace their S.A.T.s? Or those who didn’t have the advantages of birth to never go hungry, or be have the best medical care as they were maturing, or parents who cared for their education? Or those who suffer from mental disabilities or mental illness? Or those whose homes as they were growing up were not safe, but abusive places?

Maybe everybody would have the opportunity to make a fortune in their twenties if we all started on a level playing field. But we don’t.

Then the question becomes, “Do those who stand at the elevated end of the field acknowledge any responsibility to those consigned to the swamps?” Or is their position so elevated that they can’t even see them—leading them to shrug, “Well, if they find themselves in the swamps, then it must be their own darn fault”?

That’s certainly the way of the Trail of Tears.

[Once again, this blog comes from our Assistant Director, Mikaila Smith. WARNING: This story contains details of violence that may be disturbing to some readers.]

Last week I wrote about a disturbingly inaccurate news story about the “aggressive and dangerous” campers that were located at the Flavel Max Stop, where our Mobile Hospitality Center serves every Friday night. This week, I would like to offer a story that highlights how, contrary to common belief, often our guests are the victims of crimes, not the perpetrators.

Before I begin I would like to say a few disclaimers. I am simply passing on information our guests have told me; I was not an eyewitness. Names have been changed to protect identities. The camp at SE 92nd & Flavel I am discussing has since been dismantled, but to be concise I will simply refer to “the camp” in present tense. Lastly, while I offer my opinions on larger-scale societal issues I am not disparaging specific neighborhood residents or law enforcement agents.

The setting: a sunny weekday evening, nearing dusk. The campers are preparing meals and settling down into the evening.

Tracy, one of our regular guests, was standing in the cul-de-sac when she saw a black SUV drive towards the camp. She noted that the vehicle was swerving and that the driver appeared intoxicated, so she went into her tent to retrieve her keys so she could move her car to a safer area. However, before she could find her keys she heard a CRASH!!! Outside. She ran outside to see that the SUV had rammed into her vehicle! She began honking her horn in her other vehicle to alert her partner and the other campers, and as she did so a group of 3-4 men ran from across the street and the men in the SUV piled out.

Tracy’s partner, Stan, was approaching the damaged vehicle at the time. Tracy states that Stan was not aggressive, but holding his arms out in a “What the hell?!” sort of fashion. Then, two of the men come up from behind Stan and pummel him in the back of the head. Stan falls to the ground and the men continue to kick him and beat him as he is on the ground. Tracy runs up to Stan to try and get the attackers off of him. As she approaches Stan, one of the men shoves her so hard into the car she feels as though her shoulder is dislocated.

By this time the other campers are trying to get Stan and Tracy to safety, but the attackers appear to be on some sort of drug and are clearly assaultive. The men violence against homelesscontinue to attack the campers—kicking, hitting them from behind, ganging up 3-to-1.(By the end of the assault, no less than 12 of the campers are injured, some quite severely.)

During the middle of the chaos, Tracy hears her friend Marla yell “GET IN THE VAN! GET IN YOUR VAN AND SHUT THE DOOR!” Tracy runs around to her van door and just manages to get it closed as she sees a foot propelling at her face as it makes contact with the window, almost shattering it. Her dogs are barking at the man on the other side of the window and Tracy is praying that it will hold. Meanwhile, her friends and partner are still trying to break free from the assailants.

Eventually the police show up. They find alcohol containers in the Black SUV, but claim that the attackers are not intoxicated. They separate the parties and arrest a few of the attackers. The police talk with the homeless campers. According to Tracy, the officers were EXTREMELY dismissive, and repeatedly openly accused the homeless campers of starting the fight. Many of the campers said that they wished to press charges. There were witnesses, clear injuries, and crimes committed. However, the police said it was “homeless on homeless violence” and let the men go without pressing charges.

Tracy told me this story a week or so after the event occurred. I heard similar retellings from many of the campers, all which confirmed the same information: they were attacked for no reason, and the cops did nothing to press charges against the assault. Tracy expressed that since the attack, the women who stay at the cul-de-sac are terrified of retaliation. “It was already bad enough being alone out here, you know? But now all of us women are terrified. We’re terrified that they’re going to come back and retaliate against us. We’re moving out of here, we can’t stay here anymore. We’re not safe.”

I feel like this story (which I personally believe is extremely accurate to the actual events) speaks for itself. These are the things that happen to the guests Nightwatch serves—regularly.

If this had happened to you or I, do you think the police would have dismissed our side of the story, or our desire to press charges? Do you think you and I would have been attacked in the first place? I certainly don’t think so.

Our guests are vulnerable due to their housing situation, and because of that they are victimized. The further injustice occurs when systems that are set up to protect people and keep them safe disregard them because of their status.

As long as our society continues to see homeless folks as “less than,” as “others,” as anything other than our brothers and sisters in humanity, injustices like this will be allowed to continue.

So, in reference to the previous week’s blog story, who really are the “dangerous and aggressive” ones? I’d put money on the fact that it’s mostly NOT the homeless folks you see camping in your neighborhood. It’s the people who see houseless folks as less than human and use their power to hurt others that are the truly dangerous ones. And they probably have a roof over their head. 

[NOTE: This week's post was written by our Assistant Director, Mikaila.]

 

The older I get the more I learn not to trust the media, specifically local news stations. As a child I thought they told the truth--now I know they play off of people’s emotions to keep their ratings up. Usually, I am able to chuckle at their tactics. However, a few weeks ago KPTV played a story that simultaneously broke my heart and--quite franky--pissed me off. The story was about the homeless camp that exists at SE 92nd & Flavel. According to the story neighborhood residents are afraid of these houseless folks because they are “so aggressive they fear for their safety.” Due to unrest among the housed residents and business owners in the area the Mayor’s office has decided to dismantle the camp. According to KPTV, outreach workers are presently working with the houseless camp to connect them to services and the camp will be cleaned out within the next few weeks.kptv homeless story

To the average person, this news story sounds perfectly reasonable.

However, to me it is an outrage. Humor me as I tell you why.

Operation Nightwatch has been hosting its Mobile Hospitality Center at the exact location of the camp for over five years (the camp itself is only approximately four months old). As such, we are extremely familiar with the campers--the vast majority if not all of the folks residing there have been regular guests with us for years. And trust me when I say that these people are some of the kindest people I have ever known, and far from “aggressive and dangerous.” I have never felt unsafe among the campers, and time after time they have shown us their generous nature.

Since this story came out I have had a number of people ask me, “How messy is it down there?” “Is it safe?” In response to these questions, I can attest that the camp was very and that it was, in fact, very safe. The news story mentioned concerns around human waste and garbage. I took the time to ask our guests about this and the overwhelming answer was that they all travel to a nearby portapotty, or otherwise empty their waste buckets in the portapotty. Garbage was similarly hauled out to dumpsters. The real zinger is that the city had promised them dumpsters and portapotties months ago, and never delivered on their end of the bargain.

I can understand housed residents being fearful of homeless folks--many housed people are. This fear stems from not knowing any better. You can’t really blame people for being afraid of the unknown--as mammals, it’s an inherent survival instinct. What grinds my gears is that these people have never taken the chance to get to know the people they are forcing out of their neighborhood. And I am even more angered at the media and their one-sided portrayal of our guests. Did they even think to talk to us? To come and see our crew on a Friday night, when children are running around playing, friends are catching up and swapping supplies, and when we are sharing a meal as a (very) large extended family?

Of course they didn’t. Because fear sells. And because it’s so much easier to see homeless people as dangerous eye-sores than what I know them to be: resilient, caring, creative, funny, loving people in a tricky situation, emphasis on people.

I showed two of our guests KPTV's news story. And you know what they said? “That is so backwards. If they took the time to get to know us they’d know this isn’t true. Isn’t God supposed to be the one to judge people?” Even in the face of blatant slander, our guests responded with grace and wisdom as opposed to the blind fear and hatred they have been faced with.

So, KPTV and other local stations, you appall me. Consider this a formal invitation for you to come out on a Friday and meet with us so that we can clear up the prejudices and misconceptions you so eagerly perpetuate.

P.S. There happens to be an even more galling "Part 2" to this story. That'll come next week.