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In the ritual Passover meal known as the Seder, there is a point at which the youngest participating child is scripted to ask, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” That prompts the Seder leader (usually the father, since the Seder typically is enacted around a family dinner table) to tell in summary form the story of the Exodus, the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.

Yet what also comes in response is something called, “The Story of the Four Children.” It tells of four possible attitudes a “child” might have in posing the Passover question.

  • The wise child asks, "What are the testimonies, the statutes and the laws which the Lord, our God, has commanded you?" You, in turn, shall instruct him in the laws of four sonsPassover. . . .
  • The unappreciative child asks"What is this service to you?!" He says `to you,' but not to him! By thus excluding himself from the community he has denied that which is fundamental. You, therefore, speak firmly to him: "It is because of this that the Lord did for me when I left Egypt"; `for me' - but not for him! If he had been there, he would not have been redeemed!"
  • The simple child asks, "What is this?" Thus you shall say to him: "With a strong hand the Lord took us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery."
  • As for the one who does not know how to ask, you must simply initiate him, as it is said: "You shall tell your child on that day, `It is because of this that the Lord did for me when I left Egypt.'"

The Story of the Four Children is merely a recognition that all people are individuals, different from one another. And because they are different, discernment, flexibility, and adaptability are required when addressing their needs. In the real world, “one size” certainly doesn’t “fit all.”

We meet a great variety of personalities at Nightwatch. Some are incredibly gracious. At the end of an evening, they are effusive in their gratitude even if we’ve done nothing more than give them a smile and a baloney-and-cheese sandwich. On the other hand, there are others who wouldn’t know how to be gracious no matter how much we have done for them. We invite them in, treat them to free coffee and food, fortify them with foot care, socks, a jacket, and a blanket, and still have nothing to bestow upon us but a curse upon our mothers.

What explains the difference? Nature or nuture? Something of both, I imagine. Mental illness would fall into the former category. But when someone exhibits no ability to show the most basic manners (e.g. cutting in line, trying to amass everything for himself, not knowing the appropriateness of “please” and “thank you”), I would attribute that to upbringing.

In last week’s New York Times Book Review there was a review of a book by a middle-school teacher who criticized the habits of parents who over-involve themselves in their children’s lives—so-called “helicopter parents”—who cheat their children from learning the lessons of failure. These children themselves come to adulthood burdened with the feeling that they are “incompetent, incapable, unworthy of trust and utterly dependent.”

I don’t doubt that’s true. But what about those (like many of our Nightwatch guests) who grew up with alcoholic or drug-addled parents who didn’t care for them at all, or who were essentially orphans because their childhoods were histories of moving from one foster home to the other? They’ve experienced nothing but failure. How can we expect them to have the most basic social skills when no one was present in their formative years to act as models for them?

The analogy I’ve been fond of using when orienting new volunteers at our Hospitality Center is to tell them that “it’s like entertaining guests in your own home.” The expectation upon a volunteer is play the good host; in contrast, the role of those who come to us is to play the guest. But it’s only lately I’ve been pondering how imperfect an analogy that is. Whether because of nature or nurture, a number of our visitors have no idea what it means to play a good guest.

As a result, for a number of guests I find myself not only playing the role of host, but of parent. I will point out behavior that is inappropriate. I will let them know what is rude. I will model for them what it means to be gracious and polite, and tell them that, as I have respected them, my hope is that they’ll show some respect in return.

I know I open myself to criticism in taking such an approach. It’s sounds paternalistic, if not downright patronizing. For aren’t we dealing with adults here?

But just as the Seder acknowledges there are different sorts of children, so it is true that to affirm individuality is to recognize that “one size” doesn’t “fit all” in dealing with different adults. Discernment, flexibility, and adaptability are all required if we are to be helpful in dealing with all in their individual needs. Some need merely to be affirmed. Others need more direction.

At Nightwatch, no night is really that different from any other night. Compassion laced with wisdom is required on all of them if true hospitality is to be ours.

Churches were the foundation of Nightwatch’s support in the beginning, and we still seek partnerships with churches as we continue our work today. Indeed, forasmuch as we have broadened our support base to include compassionate people of a variety of beliefs (and I dare say, non-beliefs), even today Nightwatch wouldn’t survive without our church connections. Church people so dominate our volunteer pools in SE and North Portland that those branches of our operation would literally not exist without them. And though we “rent” our downtown space from St. Stephen’s, to compare what we pay with fair market value of that space reveals the monthly rate laughable. The very fact that St. Stephen’s surrenders its building to Nightwatch’s use five evenings a week is itself proof that they are more dedicated to Nightwatch than from what our mere dollars might bring in.

Last Tuesday, Mikaila, Steve (our new Jesuit Volunteer), and I sat with folks of a church in SE with which we have yet to build a partnership, but which we were hoping to interest in helping us with our Mobile Hospitality Center. The members of the church were well-acquainted with the issue of homelessness in their quadrant of the city. With the congregation located only a short distance from where our Mobile Center serves on Friday nights, they’ve likely seen our Nightwatch guests walking their own sidewalks during the day.

There were about a dozen people to hear our presentation, and when we were finished, they naturally peppered us with questions. “How many people do you serve with your mobile unit?” “How do you manage to feed that many every Friday?” “How do the people who volunteer to prepare the food afford the expense?” “Do you have any problems with the people?” “How do you keep order?” “Do you make any efforts to win them to Christ?”

They were good questions. They were the sorts of questions I would have wanted them to ask. Certainly, if I were sitting where they were, they were the kind of questions would want answered if someone were asking me to enter any partnership of substance. So I wasn’t bothered by them. I expected them and was happy to entertain them.

Nonetheless, it’s impossible to face a barrage of questions without wondering whether the questioners are sincerely seeking information, or whether they are just signaling an entrenched skepticism no answer is likely to satisfy. Mikaila and I could only address our questioners as honestly as we could and hope for the best.

Seated at the table among the others was a older gentleman in a motorized wheelchair. My impression was that he was debilitated by stroke, from the way I observed the others being solicitous to him throughout the meeting, asking whether they could help him with this or that. Throughout the questioning phase, he remained silent, and to be honest, I didn’t know how able he was even to be engaged with what was going on. But after the questions, an unresolved silence fell upon the room and as we were all beginning to feel, “Well, that’s that!”, he suddenly spoke. “May I say something?” he asked.a summer night in se low res

Everyone nodded.

“I know a young man,” he said, “who was in a car accident. He is a paraplegic and is too in a wheelchair. He has nothing. But every Friday night, his friend wheels him to Operation Nightwatch, out where their mobile van is parked. And he says it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to him.”

After a pause, only one final question was asked: “How can we make this work?”

We had a little dust-up Thursday at our downtown Center due to (of all things!) a power strip.

You might be surprised how many electronic devices homeless people carry. It’s no doubt a sign of the times. Someone without a phone is so off-the-grid as to almost be a non-person. Phone numbers are required on every application anyone has to fill out, including those that are critical to our population—forms for housing, jobs, and benefits. In addition, since most of the applications can now only be accessed online, computers have become a near-necessity. And then everyone likes their diversions—from games to music to movies—and these further requiring plugging-in. Many electronic devices (cell phones and laptops, at least) end up being possessed by the homeless because, in recognizing today’s need to be “wired,” non-profits have actually sprung up to get the devices into their hands at low- or no-cost.

But while homeless folks have come to have the devices, there’s one related thing they still lack. That’s the electricity to plug them in and re-charge them.

We therefore provide a power strip at our downtown Center as a public service for our guests’ electronic needs. Usually there’s no problem with it. But on Thursday, one of our guests decided to become particularly territorial about it, and guard it for use for only himself and his friends. When another guest approached to use an open outlet on the strip, its self-appointed guardian snapped at her.

And snapped in a grossly inappropriate way. The guest seeking a spot on the strip was a woman, and the language that came out of the strip-guardian’s mouth was of the ugliest misogynistic variety. But the woman was tough, and she wasn’t going to be intimidated by insult, so she reacted by being insulting in return.

“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” we’re all taught in childhood, but that’s not really true. Names can hurt. And the reason they can hurt is that they can desensitize us to others’ humanity. While the name in itself may not be able to inflict a bruise, if unchallenged it can help harden in the name-caller such an attitude that can justify actual bruising when it takes place. Consider the propaganda the Nazis used to build sentiment among German Christians against the Jews prior to World War II; or, for that matter, the propaganda any country (including our own) uses to dehumanize an enemy when it decides to go to war.

Such was evident Thursday night. When the woman sought a spot to plug into the electrical strip, the strip-guardian yanked it away actually saying, “This is for people!” By this time I had injected myself into the dispute and I said, “Need I remind you that B. is a person too?” “That’s debatable,” he growled.

I had had enough. “Listen,” I said. “We don’t ask much of you as our guests at argumentNightwatch. But we do require this one thing: that you at least be civil to one another. You don’t have to like B. But you do have to be civil. That’s the only way things can work.”

Perhaps some would not be surprised to have it revealed that homeless folks can sometimes be crude, ill-mannered, and uncivil. But then how do we explain Donald Trump and the solid support he receives for his comments from a sizable proportion of (presumably non-homeless) people in the polls? Mr. Trump “excuses” himself by saying, “I just don’t have time to be politically correct.” What Mr. Trump deems “political correctness” is really civility. He is saying he really doesn’t have time to civil. Really? Does it really require that much more time to be gracious than to be mean?

The truth is that discourse overall has coarsened over my lifetime. I think the advent of talk radio and “reality” TV has had particular influence in this regard; they allow all sorts of nasty-talk, implying this is not only a normal way of relating, but that it’s OK. When I was a child, I lived among grown-ups who were mired in all sorts of prejudices against anybody unlike them. But in public they would have never expressed themselves the way many media stars do now, if for no other reason than they would have considered it extremely “bad taste.” It’s hard to put a finger on what most people would ever count as being “bad taste” today.

But here’s what I can say about Nightwatch. We don’t ask much of our guests. But if Donald Trump ever visited, I would require that he, too, at least be civil. 

Guess which is the most neglected, underserved segment of the homeless population.

It’s not youth. Young people on the streets have many programs available to them. And it’s not families. While the services available to homeless families are certainly sufficient to meet demand, there are some very good ones out there. And it’s not even single adult men. Again, the demand for services among single men is much higher than the supply, but frankly, when most people think of a “homeless person,” a single male is the image that most comes to mind, and so when most people donate, they’re donating to them.

You may be surprised to learn the most neglected of homeless people—especially given their vulnerability—is single adult women.

We often get women coming into our Hospitality Centers telling us how hard it is for them to get shelter, for instance. If they had children, they’d have options. If they were victims of domestic violence, there would also be safe houses available to them. But if they fall into neither of those categories, they are close to resource-less. There are a few beds for unattached homeless women in a couple of shelters, but they can only stay for limited periods of time and the waiting lists are long. Similarly, when thoughtful people make donations of, say, clothing, it’s common for them to think of the needs of men, but women in their minds are mostly invisible.

Enter Paige Sanders and Ashley Garber. Paige and Ashley are Lewis and Clark students who volunteered at our downtown Hospitality Center this past school year. They became portland panty project logoespecially sensitive to the needs of homeless women, and this summer they took the initiative to start the Portland Panty Project to obtain clean women’s undergarments for distribution. As Ashley describes their goal on the PPP’s Facebook page, it is "to raise $3000 to provide up to 1,000 homeless women with one bra and two pairs of underwear per person." To that end, they've launcheda crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe, and have already raised $885.

Paige and Ashley are shining examples of the many great student-volunteers we’ve had working with us. So this is a “shout-out” to them.

But it’s also a “shout-out” to their campaign. They had a sensitivity to a portion of our service-population that most of the rest of us had been overlooking. Support the Portland Panty Project!

Several weeks ago I wrote about a new endeavor to which we shall be dedicating our energies: the Nightwatch Mental Health Initiative. The aim of it will be to do nothing less than challenge the dominant mental health delivery model that current exists. Rather than expecting those suffering from mental illness to have the motivation to seek out resources themselves--something their very mental illness prevents them from doing!--to bring mental health resources to them.

Why we didn't think of this sooner, I don't know. We have so many who come to our Hospitality Centers who clearly have mental health challenges (I would estimate they make up about 60% of our guests downtown), it would seem to have been a "no-brainer." In having nurses readily available at our Downtown Hospitality Center to tend to guests' physical health needs, we have had great success in having them taking advantage of the easy access. Why not mental health needs?

We've just put together a 4-minute video to explain and promote the Mental Health Initiative. Take a look. (Note: the video is still lacking a musical soundtrack. Also, be aware that the presentation includes a clip from an Academy Award-winning film that contains a couple of words some might find objectionable.)