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God bless the social workers of the world.

I’m currently reading Fourth of July Creek, a first novel by Smith Henderson, whose main character is a social worker in rural Montana. It’s definitely not what the National Association of Social Workers would want to use as a recruitment piece. What Pete Snow, the novel’s social worker, encounters in his work are families with capital “D” dysfunctions—everything from drug use to child abuse to incest to survivalist paranoia to violence-as-a-way of life. While recognizing that in many cases, the adults are lost causes, Pete intervenes for the sake of the children (locating foster families who will take in the saddest cases is one of his biggest jobs).  But Pete recognizes his is in so many ways a losing battle; for the generation he is trying to save the die has already been cast. The children have the imprints of their upbringings so impressed upon them that they’re fourth of july creekunlikely themselves to mature undamaged.

What a thankless, Sisyphean job! And it’s complicated all-the-more by the fact that there are simply not enough social workers around. If there were, then perhaps those in the profession would be so buried under their caseloads that they could devote more time to each one under their care. A professional’s attention could never make up for a parent’s abuse or neglect, of course. But every extra bit of attention might convey the message that at least someone cares, and that the s/he counts as a human being, rather than just as a problem to be solved. Of the social workers I know, they took upon themselves the mantle precisely because they wanted to convey that message—and the fact that they can’t must be extremely frustrating. What a struggle it must be not to succumb to cynicism, bitterness, and burn-out.

But thank God we have social workers who do what they do. Because by doing so, they allow me to do what I do.

I am not a social worker. The job of the social worker is to fix people’s situations. My job is not. My job is simply to fill that gap that social workers cannot fill because of  the other pressures upon them—it is simply to care for people in their situations.

I believe it’s the much easier job. Social workers are burdened with being busy, always needing to untangle complicated personal and relational messes and put their charges onto a path toward a solution. In contrast, all I need to do is devote my time to people in the midst of their messes, to open my heart, offer sympathy, and listen. Studies have shown how much healing can come from this—from having someone who merely shows concern and listen—but it’s not with that aim in mind that I do it. I do it only because every human being needs to know they someone cares for them, that they are not alone. Even those whom others may consider “lost causes,” whom others perhaps have given up on because they’ve been judged they never will be “fixed”—they need to know they are cared for, too . . .

Indeed, those who have known most deeply what it feels to be forsaken—the elderly alcoholic, the 20-something unmarried woman who has birthed five children by as many men, the disheveled man who is always muttered to himself as he shuffles along the streets—perhaps need to know the caring outreach of another person most of all.

I sometimes get asked, “How do you continue to do what you do?’ Their assumption, I suppose, is that in interacting with those of such immense needs I should be primed for burn-out.

But my answer is simple. It’s because I don’t get frustrated. Unlike a social worker, I don’t have place any expectations upon those I serve about their behavior. I don’t expect them to act any way other than they do. I don’t expect them to change. (I may certainly have the opinion that their lives would be better if they did change, but I don’t expect them to do it.) And by being without such expectations, I am never disappointed.

The only expectation I carry is for myself. And that expectation is that, upon whatever path life may carry those I know, I will never forsake them and never cease to care.

I was standing at the entrance of our Downtown Hospitality Center as I always do at the beginning of each evening to greet guests as they came in. Up the way slowly shuffled J., and older gentleman who is a favorite guest of many of our volunteers—as he is a favorite of mine. “Hey, J., how’s it going?” I said as he approached.

He brought his eyes up to mine. “I’m very disappointed in you,” he said in low gravelly voice. To hear that from J. is like hearing the pronouncement from an Old Testament prophet.

“What did I do this time?” I replied, trying to be jocular. But J. was having none of it. He couldn’t keep eye contact with me. He simply shook his head slowly, sadly, and proceeded inside.

J. wasn’t joking around. He really was disappointed in me. Trouble was, I had no idea why. And to lose J.’s regard . . .

That was of great concern to me.

 Later in the evening, activity around the Center had lulled and I saw J. sitting by himself. I went over and took a seat across the table from him. “What’s up, J.?” I said. “What did I do that’s got you so upset with me?”

J. explained that the day before when our paths had crossed I had said something to him that he thought was pretty insulting. I remembered the encounter. I had actually been on my way somewhere else and only met J. in passing. I made a remark to him that I had meant to be light-hearted, joshing. But J. hadn’t taken it that way. It had been at the height of our heat-wave, and J. had been exhausted, drained from his exertions during the day, something he mentioned when I first saw him. But I had only responded with my stupid remark, which he felt not only had not taken him seriously, but had belittled him.

“Oh, J., I’m so sorry!” I responded. “That was so insensitive of me! I didn’t mean to hurt you. I was just being stupid. I’m sorry. I hope you’ll accept my apology.”

I could see a little light return to J.’s sad eyes.

“I hope we’re still friends,” I said.

J. extended his hand across the table with a smile curling his lips, a hand I gratefully took. “We’re still friends,” he said.

“I’m sorry.” Over the six decades of my existence, the things I’ve learned could probably fill several encyclopedia. But one of the most important is what powerful healing those two words can bring. Yet what strange creatures we are—and what fragile egos we must suffer from!—that we so often act as if to utter them would completely undo us.

Because, when you think about it, to be so resistant to offering an apology when an apology is called for is completely self-destructive behavior. We see it all the time among guests at the Hospitality Center. If apologysomeone does something disruptive and we call him on it, everything would be fine if all he did in response was say, “Oh, I’m sorry,” and tone down. Yet more often than not, the disruptive person escalates. Defensively, his back goes up. He curses. He threatens.

This is not rational behavior. For a rational person would think, “Is this kind of behavior going to make others more inclined to like me?” No. That’s what makes it self-destructive.

But sixty years of experience has also taught me that our Nightwatch guests are no more prone to eschew apologies than many other folks I’ve known. It might not even occur to many that someone in J.’s life situation—a mere guest at Nightwatch, a recipient of our charity—would even be deserving of an apology.

Some might think that someone like J. is not worth such a surrendering of one’s ego.

Yet how much conflict in our world could be resolved if people just learned more to say, “I’m sorry”?

[This week's blog is by Mikaila.]

“It’s good to be seen.”

Over the past couple of months, I have had two experiences at Nightwatch that have truly reminded me of why we do what we do, and the subtle importance behind how we do it.

One of these experiences took place at our Mobile Hospitality Center. Each week, we mhc fulldrive our RV to the Flavel max stop and serve hot meals, coffee, and socks to our guests. One week, however, food never showed. We waited, and waited, and waited, but it eventually became clear that food was not going to show up. I felt horrible about telling our guests “I’m so sorry, but there is no food this week.” I expected a variety of reactions from our faithful guests, who depended on us for food and trusted it would be there. I expected anger, resentment, sadness, and for relationships to be ultimately damaged beyond repair.

To the contrary, our guests were extremely gracious. Overwhelmingly, I heard “That’s okay, you still showed up didn’t you? We’re just glad you’re here.” I felt extreme gratitude for the grace and understanding our guests showed us that day. Later in the evening after all the coffee had gone and we had nothing to offer but socks and water, I was talking to one of our regulars who reiterated “You still showed up, and that’s what matters.”

From this experience I was reminded of a very important message: Nightwatch is about building relationships. Our organization is blessed with donations and volunteers who make other services like meals possible, but at the very heart of what we do is to exist and recognize each other, and to take time to be in relation with each other. The truly important thing is that we show up and give whatever we have to give while we are together, even if what we have isn’t a whole lot.

The second experience occurred when I was working at our Downtown Hospitality Center. I was making the rounds, greeting guests and asking about their day. In the back of the room was a gentleman that I have seen for years, yet never really had an in-depth conversation with. He was sitting by himself, and no one seemed to be conversing with him. Eventually I made my way back to him and said “Hi, it’s good to see you today.” His response was a golden nugget of wisdom, a sound reminder of why we do what we do: “It’s good to be seen.”

Once again, this experience drove home the importance of building relationships with our guests. Additionally, it made me reflect on the importance of building relationships with our guests equally. Often, myself included, we tend to interact with our “favorites,” or those who we already have built relationships with. However, it is extremely important to push our own comfort zones and attempt to interact with everyone equally. It is only by doing this that we can make sure that everyone feels like they have been seen, not just a select few who feel seen regularly.

I am thankful for the lessons I learn from our guests. They are often more profound and genuine than lessons learned elsewhere. They have a wonderful power to knock me out of autopilot and encourage me to look at things through a different perspective. It would have been selfish of me not to share these lessons with you all, so ponder them and do with them what you may.

Human beings are remarkably resilient creatures, but they can—and do—break.

I just finished a masterpiece of a first novel by Anthony Marra entitled, A Constellation of Vital a constellation of vital phenomenaPhenomena. It tells the story of a cast of characters all somehow connected to a small village during the brutal Russian suppression of efforts at Chechnyan independence during the 1990s and early 2000s. One of the characters to whom we’re introduced is someone who is universally loathed by his fellow villagers—including his father, a World War II veteran—for being an informant. Because of him, a dozen of so of those in the area have been “disappeared” by the Russians. He does indeed seem a distasteful fellow.

But late in the book, we learn his backstory. In the beginning of the uprising, the fellow himself had been picked up by the Russians and threatened with disfiguring torture if he didn’t identify those he knew in the insurgency movement. The man, however, didn’t know any insurgents, and he wasn’t going to “name names” falsely just to save himself. But the Russians had their ways of breaking someone down, and though the man endured suffering such as would easily undone many others in his place without capitulating, he too finally fell into blubbering submission.  He held out until his nervous system short-circuited, and then he became willing to betray even his best friends and thank his torturers for the privilege of doing so.  A half-hour earlier, he would have been considered a hero; now he would be a pariah.

redeploymentI’ve followed up the Marra novel with a book of short stories by Phil Klay called, Redeployment. Klay’s stories all involve U.S. Marines in the Iraq War. A former Marine himself, Klay speaks from experience and all his stories are about how the war broke people—broke their psyches, broke their morals, broke their spirits. In many cases, they came home unrecognizable from the people they were before they deployed. Once home, they often appeared strangers to their loved ones; in many cases, they felt like strangers even to themselves. Insomnia,  isolation, depression, substance abuse, divorce, violence, suicide become the flip-side of the macho, “hoo-rah” culture which implicitly dictates it’s a sign of weakness to confess that one is broken.

At Nightwatch, those we deal with are broken people. Most obviously there are those suffering from mental illness (which studies concur comprise 20%-40% of the homeless population.) But there are also the others:

  • An Australian survey of homelessness—and likely the situation is pretty similar here in America—revealed that 90% of men and 100% of women on the streets reported some significant experience of abuse in their lives.
  • Those who grew up under extremely dysfunctional conditions, with parents who were alcoholic, drug users, neglectful, or even completely absent; we have guests whose memories of childhood involve nothing but foster homes.
  • And we too have our war veterans, whose own experiences continue to haunt them, with their sleep fraught with continuing nightmares and their waking hours are an emptiness simply to be endured.

The brokenness of our guests is apparent even as we celebrate with them their little successes. After many months on a waiting list, one of them gets into subsidized housing, only to be evicted a year later for mismanaging his finances, frittering even the minimal rent he is required to pay on some distraction. Another gets a job through the diligent intervention of his caseworker, only to be dismissed within a few weeks because he 1) doesn’t show up on time, and/or 2) isn’t able to stay focused on the work, and/or 3) gets into trouble because he doesn’t know how to deal with his frustrations/anger. Another earns our trust for us to take on experimentally as a Nightwatch volunteer, only to have us dismiss before long because, despite our supervision, he simply can’t seem to absorb simple lessons about hygiene, or dependability, or boundaries.

To be sure, it can be frustrating. But we need to remember that the habits that govern our own lives—habits based on self-sacrifice, delayed gratification, hard work, integrity, trustworthiness, and cooperation—are neither habits that were ingrained in us by our DNA. We only own them because we grew up under good models who taught them. Furthermore, we have been graced—yes, graced!—by lives sufficiently absent of such spirit-destroying trauma that our own nervous systems haven’t been so short-circuited as to abandon everything we previously valued.

Sure, it can be frustrating. But our mission at Nightwatch has never been to fix those who come to us. It has simply been to care for them.

And I would urge caution to anyone who expresses sentiments such as, “What’s wrong with these people? Why don’t they just get jobs?”

For we don’t know their backstories.

At one time, they may have been heroes.

In all my previous Lamplighter missives, I have presented stories from the “front-end” of our operation—i.e., about incidents with our guests that have mostly happened during the hours our Hospitality Centers have been open.

On this occasion, I’d like to give you peek as to what happens on the “back-end.” Most of the hours the staff commits to Nightwatch are done on the “back-end,” addressing all the details necessary to making the Hospitality Centers work well during their open hours. And that’s is as it should be: for though a concert performance may only last 90 minutes, if those 90 minutes are to be satisfying to the audience, it will only because the musicians had spent many hours of rehearsal and other preparation ahead of time. Likewise, when we plan a special evening to have guests in our home, we involve so much of ourselves frontend backendcooking, cleaning, and preparing beforehand.

As supporters of Nightwatch, you should be as interested in what happens on our “back-end” as what does on our “front-end.” For so much of our “back-end” work is all about managing resources—and since you are contributors to those resources, you have an investment in knowing they are being managed well.

And here’s the constant challenge that comes from managing a non-profit: making sure that as many resources as possible get directed toward helping the people we seek to help, rather than fritter them away on unnecessary frivolities or administrative stuff.

Two cases in point, which have consumed much of my “back-end” time over the past few weeks:

Our office is not very high-tech, but we do use computers and software to facilitate our work. One of the most useful programs we regularly use is that which specializes in donor management. Through this software we record all our donations, and it in return processes reports for our bookkeeper, keeps track of thank-you letters that need to be sent, and generates end-of-year tax receipts for our supporters. It also serves as the repository for all our mailing lists. Not long after I began my tenure as Executive Director we bought this software for about $500—a hefty price at the time, but we were assured it would only be a one-time expense and that it would prove to be well-worth it.

Only one of those assurances would prove to be correct.

The company that originally produced the software, which possessed a genuine mission to serve the special needs of non-profits, got bought out by a private equity firm that had more of an interest in its own bottom-line. It saw no promise in a business model where its product generated only a one-time sale. So the new owners adopted a different model, one in which its software could not be purchased outright for installation on one’s personal computer, but could only be accessed online on a subscription basis for an annual fee. Instead of a one-time cost of $500 for the program, in order to use its software customers would now have to subscribe to the tune of $1080 per year.

But what about all those old customers like Nightwatch that already had the old version installed on their computers and were perfectly satisfied with it?

Well, the Mafia has its enforcers and private equity firms have their way of “encouraging” compliance, too. All old customers were informed that if they didn’t adopt the new model and send in its $1080 annual “protection money” by June 30, the company had the power to erase all the data files customers had entered into the software. Several years of our donor records—GONE, with one press of a remote delete button. This would be like your car company, in its effort to get you to buy a replacement for your clunker, telling you, “Unless you do, we’ve got a time bomb hidden in your engine that’s going to blow it to smithereens.”

You may glean from my tone that I consider that an odious business practice. It may even involve breach-of-contract, making it illegal (after all, didn’t our purchase of the software transfer ownership of it to us?)—but who’s going take a corporation to court for $500? In any event, I had concerns about now needing to spend $1080 of our budget each year on this little bit of software, and even if a replacement was going to cost us more than it did in the past, I was determined not to put the money into the pockets of such ethically-challenged people.

So I did my research. As it turns out, almost all companies that produce comparable donor-management software now also only offer it on an annual subscription basis. But did I finally find one that still seemed attuned to the special needs of smaller non-profits whose fee was less-than-half that of our former vendor, and decided to give them our business.

Not that the switch hasn’t come at other costs: it’s required me to spend many, many hours over the past weeks painstakingly transferring the donor files for over 1600 people and over 3500 donations into the new software by the June 30 deadline.

And, I’m happy and relieved to say, I completed the task just before I began writing this “Lamplighters.”

While this has all been going on, we’ve also been looking for a volunteer bookkeeper. The emphasis is on “volunteer,” and the reason again boils down to the most effective use of resources. For all but the last few months of Nightwatch’s history, it has had bookkeepers who have volunteered their services. That changed when our last volunteer bookkeeper got into a personal bind that led her to quit suddenly and we were left in a lurch with bills to be paid, payroll to be covered, etc. We needed someone to replace her, and we needed someone fast. So we hired a pro.

Everything went well until we received her first bill for services. Yikes! Her fee was $45/hour—standard rate for professional bookkeepers—and the breakdown of her charges indicated that she operated like a lawyer with a “billable hours” model, meaning if she took time to answer a question I emailed to her, that was “on the clock” and we got billed for it, too.

That first bill led us to do the math: assuming Nightwatch’s bookkeeping required about 4 hours a week, at $45/hour, that totaled over $9,000/year. That $9000 would swallow up a lot of donations that I think our donors would prefer to see actually going to serve our guests, so spending that much money on a bookkeeper seemed untenable.

And I find my time being devoted to beating the bushes for a volunteer bookkeeper once again.

Serving as Executive Director is a juggling act, to be sure. First and foremost, I do concern myself with how to best serve the needs of our guests. But I also need to attend to the needs of our volunteers, our staff, our partners-in-service (e.g., St. Stephen’s, the Clackamas Service Center) . . .

And I hope you can see how much you, our supporters, also count, as I seek to be sensitive to your hopes and designs for Nightwatch, too.