seeking sheltervolunteer buttondonate button stripe

How would you like us to bring the Mobile Hospitality Center and park it in your backyard?

I’d bet that you—even you, good-and-faithful Nightwatch supporter!—wouldn’t immediately leap at the offer. At the very least, you’d need some time to think seriously about it.

Well, this is what we have to negotiate whenever we want to take our Mobile Hospitality Center to a new site. And in many of these cases, we’re not dealing with sympathetic Nightwatch supporters. Indeed, the likelihood is that they haven’t even heard of Nightwatch. And it’s one thing to be asked to do something by well-known and –trusted organizations like the Red Cross or the Salvation Army, and quite another to be asked by some unknown entity that suddenly appears on your doorstep.

Currently, this is the situation we face as we seek to expand the outreach of our Mobile Hospitality Center by taking it out to East Multnomah County in the area of the Columbia Slough. We have identified this as an important site for serving because we know of folks who were driven to camp there when the Springwater Corridor was swept the beginning of September. We actually know these folks because we had been serving them in SE. But now they have relocated to a place where their needs are even greater. The Columbia Slough is an area where there are absolutely no services. What’s not been preserved as natural area is zoned commercial and light industrial, so there are only a bunch of undistinguished boxy buildings housing warehouses and corporate offices. For our friends camping out there, even the closest convenience store is about a mile away. What makes it further isolated is that Tri-Met has almost no presence.

And particularly challenging for us as we seek to establish a beachhead there for our Mobile Hospitality Center is that we have no natural allies to whom to appeal—no churches, no civic organizations, no agencies, no residences.

No one lives in the Columbia Slough except homeless people.columbia slough

So here we are, wanting to take our Mobile Hospitality Center out to the Slough, but we have no networks to exploit in order to find a place to park it and set it up, and neither are there any nearby public sites (e.g. parks) that might serve the same purpose. That relegates us essentially to making “cold calls” on the businesses there to ask, “Could we bring our Mobile Hospitality Center out and set it up in your back yard?”

Needless to say, it is a delicate process. Mikaila and I have crafted a letter of introduction that begins like this:

You may not be aware of it, but you have some new neighbors. There are some homeless folks camping in the woods behind you within the Slough.

You may not know them, but we know them. They are refugees from the Springwater Corridor who had nowhere else to flee when the city engineered a massive sweep of the area at the beginning of September. They are good people. Among them is Sarge, a proud Marine veteran. We have known Sarge for years. He had been a tough-as-nails guy who ate, drank, and breathed the “Semper Fi” culture. When we last saw him after he had relocated to Slough, he was only a ghost of his former self. He is now in a wheelchair, which has to be negotiated through the mud and over the exposed tree roots of the trail to his camp. Furthermore, he now suffers from incontinence and other indignities following several surgeries. “My gut’s gone,” he said the last we spoke. “I suppose there’s not much life left in this old Marine.” What moves me, however, is how much the other homeless folks who share his camp minister to and take care of him.

We know these folks because Operation Nightwatch has been serving the street population of Portland since 1981. Over the three-and-a-half decades of our existence we have built a sterling reputation and have gained the support of such institutions as The Oregon Community Foundation, The Collins Foundation, the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, and the Spirit Mountain Community Fund. We have an excellent working relationship with the Portland police, who have in fact commended us in commenting that in offering our services, we “make [their] jobs a lot easier.”

In addition to operating two bricks-and-mortar Hospitality Centers where people can be fed, receive necessary items such as blankets and clean socks, and be tended to by those offering nursing and mental health care, we have a Mobile Hospitality Center which is able to serve homeless clusters especially in areas where services are scarce. That would certainly describe the neighborhood around the Columbia Slough. There is an absence of feeding sites. There is neither access to any other services should emergency arise. Even the closest convenience store is about a mile away. Given the disabilities of those like Sarge, that and the lack of adequate public transportation complicates the hardship they are already experiencing.

We would therefore like to respond to the local need by bringing our Mobile Hospitality Center to your area one night a week. As we work in the evenings, this would be after business hours, roughly from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m., so as not to interfere with any commerce.

What we seek is a site at which to operate on those occasions, and we would like to approach you about using your parking area. . . .

Would this be enough to move you at least to consider it if we asked to bring the Mobile Hospitality Center to your backyard?

We’ll see how it goes in East County. And we’ll keep you posted.

Just in time for the holidays, the San Francisco Chronicle has published “What's the best way to help the homeless? Former homeless people share their advice.”

I say, “just in time,” because this is the season when good-hearted people feel a special compulsion to help others by assuming projects targeting vulnerable people. The homeless can often be found within their bulls-eye.

I appreciate the impulse. However, what I often find about these endeavors is that they are molded around the givers’ notions of what the homeless need rather than what they really need. It seems to me all that good-hearted energy would be better spent if the givers first took this one simple step: consult the ones they wish to help as to what it is they themselves could really use.

Without that, the givers may walk away after distributing their goodies feeling good about what they’ve done, but the question hangs as to whether they have really done good.

For instance, CNN ran a storyof a church in New England that has its members knit hats and scarves for the homeless to distribute during the holidays. "Our church is always looking out for some way of reaching out that engages people, that has people doing more than just writing a check," the church’s pastor is quoted as saying. Fair enough. But mentioned in several parts of the story is how “brightly colored” the knit items are. Pictures confirm it.The knitters no doubt projected themselves into the places of homeless people and thought, “I love bright colors. Especially if I were surrounded daily in such depressing conditons, I would want to wear something bright and cheery!”

But allow me to give a reality check. We at Nightwatch happen to receive donations of a lot of knit items during the holidays—and there is an inverse relationship between the colorfulness of a hat or scarf and the desire of our guests to want it. Most certainly, most of our male guests (and most of our guests are male) don’t want pastels or colors. The black and navy blue watch-caps are what go first, and if a hat or scarf is too busily bright, no matter how warm it might be, they might prefer to go cold rather than wear it.

Before engaging in any project to “help” the homeless, is it too much simply to ask what might really be most helpful?

So the San Francisco Chronicle has done a favor to everyone. It has asked for us. And here are some of the responses the paper gleaned from people on the streets:

 

When people ask homeless what do you need, they are thinking about objects, things like hats, sock and gloves or any other things useful in routine life. These objects make a small difference.

But the most important things are not objects. Things that make most impact and helps someone are non-objects.handout

  1. Dignity
  2. Kindness and understanding
  3. Encouragement

 

People don't realize that the toughest part of being homeless isn't going without food. Of all the struggles, food is the easiest. Other things, like bathing, sleeping, shitting, are a little tougher, but you learn to take care of your needs fairly quickly. It's the time that gets you. You're outside, somewhat uncomfortable, maybe asking for handouts, being told to move along, get a job, etc, for hours and hours. Feeling totally useless messes with your head. The idea of getting wasted is very appealing. You start to resent "housies." Other homeless people are the only ones you relate to. It becomes a trap. If you don't have a safety net out there you eventually lose any desire to rejoin society.

So just about any low pressure activity would be really helpful for homeless people to snap out of their rut and build some kind of connection to the community.

 

I lived in my car for 3 months and the only part that wore on my sanity was feeling different and looked down on by everyone that could see my situation. Physical needs weren't that hard to meet.

 

I was homeless a few years ago for a couple months. I was quite lucky in that I was very resourceful and street smart as well as clean and sober. I slept on the beach sometimes and in an underground parking lot other times. I eventually figured out the shelter system and that helped me get better access to food and resources. I remember getting help with free food like day old bread and free fruit/sandwiches etc as well as free clothes and I was grateful for all of it.

What I remember most though are the people who saw past the mental illness, past the skittish, scared girl and into the human being underneath. The hotel clerk who let me charge my phone and gave me free coffee, no strings attached; the police officer who told me about shelters instead of writing me a ticket; and the shelter worker who chatted with me about some silly show on tv. I always remember those people and when I now work with homeless and disadvantaged people I always look for their humanity even when it is hard to find.

 

It's community things that help best I find. I got put on a program for homeless teens where someone came and checked on me every week and took me to a community house thing. We'd do things like learn simple practical or social skills like learning how to cook and fix things or learning how to tie a tie. They'd talk to us and build up friendly relationships. They never tried preaching to us or anything, we were never forced to join in, we could spend the day just being there and watching everything if we wanted. But they treated us like people so everyone always did something.

I didn't really realise it at the time, but looking back that extreme amount of kindness helped a lot. People who didn't know me went out of their way to help me and make sure I was alright just out of the kindness of their heart.

 

My boyfriend was homeless for a period of his life because of an abusive parent. He was lucky enough to have friends and family that helped to pull him out of his situation, but it obviously had a huge impact on how he lives his life.

He always carries a few pre-made packs with toothpaste and a toothbrush, deodorant, disposable razors and shaving cream, socks, hand/feet warmers, etc. When he sees someone who needs help he gives them a pack and cash if he has it on him.

But the best and most truly invaluable thing he does for the homeless people he meets is he stops and has a real conversation with them. He listens and shares stories and treats them with respect and dignity. . . .

He always tells me that it's not the money people need, it's normalcy. A daily routine and normal social interaction. Brushing your teeth, combing your hair, saying hello to your neighbor, and spending your day doing normal things and feeling normal. Too many cannot find this normalcy and so they turn to drugs and alcohol to escape their reality. Because they think they'll never feel normal again.

 

Notice a common thread in what these folks are saying about what they most want and need?

A little human connection. A little caring—enough to spend time talking and sharing. A little hospitality.

So if you know folks who have the impulse to do something special for others during the holidays, and are inspired in that direction not just so they themselves can feel good in doing it, but actually would genuinely like to do good, I would do this: introduce them to Nightwatch.

I am feeling such a state of disorientation that I find it impossible to sufficiently put into words.

But with you, I probably don’t have to. Because you are probably feeling the disorientation too.

On the one hand, when I drive downtown to work, everything seems familiar. The neighborhood Starbuck’s is still on the corner. When I merge onto the I-5, the typical traffic tie-up is still there. Pulling up in front of St. Stephen’s the façade looks no different today than it did yesterday.

But every day since November 8, I have looked around and increasingly seen an America I don’t recognize.

I’ll be honest. I was raised in a social and cultural context that didn’t much tolerate differences. Racist language and attitudes were common in my family and within my friends’ families, as were jokes about Asians, homosexuals, the physically disabled and mentally challenged. (Interestingly, anti-Semitism wasn’t very present but that may have been because most of the dads had been veterans of the European theater in the war and knew all about the concentration camps.) Nonetheless, despite the intolerant attitudes expressed in casual conversation, I always sensed that an underlying feeling everyone knew they were indulging in something that really wasn’t right, that they were to aspire to something attitudinally better. I would go to school and my teachers would have us copy Emma Lazarus into our notebooks: "Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,/I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" This was America, we were taught. I would attend my family’s Lutheran church and have presented in the liturgical intercessions the petition, “For the peace of the whole world, . . . and for the unity of all, let us pray to the Lord.” And this, we were taught, was what Christianity was all about.

In short, though America and Christianity were by no means synonymous, they held a common ideal: helping the weak, reaching out and embracing the disenfranchised, treating all people with equanimity, fairness, and justice.

And now I look out and it’s as if zombie-America has taken over. You know the mythology of zombies: zombies are beings that once may monster in bedroomhave been our friends and acquaintances—maybe even our dearest loved-ones—but infected by a virus, while they may bear some physical resemblance to their former selves, have in their bearing otherwise become unrecognizable and dangerous. What kind of America has this become when individuals known for their explicit race-baiting get appointed to positions of power, when our President-to-be seems to ally himself with totalitarian bullies like Putin and Assad, when we seem willing to descend to the moral depths of the worst nation-states by saying good things about torture, carpet-bombing, and concentration camps?

What kind of America has this become when acceptance of differences is no longer the default attitude among most people, so that organizations such as Planned Parenthood, Street Roots, and others have to issue official public statements that they will remain safe-spaces for all, and not fall victim to the zombie-virus?

Operation Nightwatch has not issued such a statement—yet. I’d like to think that our guests will always know we will remain a place of open hospitality for them, no matter what anyone else around us does. We will always resist the virus—at least as long as I remain Executive Director here.

And that’s because we bear an inoculation to the virus. That inoculation comes from a saying that was programmatic to Nightwatch’s founding, a phrase that once graced every communication that emanated from this place. It comes from Matthew 25:40 and it goes like this:

“Even as you did it to the least of these, you did it also to me.”

You too may be experiencing the disorientation of now living in zombie-America.

But I know I can trust you too to keep the light shining.

At Nightwatch we talk a lot about relationship-building. But what does that look like? What does it involve?

I would say that true relationship-building requires of an individual to follow at least these three instructions:

  1. Don’t be afraid.
  2. Make yourself vulnerable.
  3. Have patience.
  4. Listen.

Take an incident from about a week ago. Down the hallway of our Downtown Hospitality Center at St. Stephen’s, the church has some cardboard boxes that serve as receptacles for recyclable items—cans, newspapers, and the like. Hearing a ruckus from that direction, I went to investigate. There was a young man, Chandel, breaking apart the boxes. “Oh, I wish you wouldn’t do that,” I said. “Those are the boxes the church uses for recycling.”

“I need this cardboard to sleep on, man!” he came back at me, agitatedly.

“I understand,” I said. “But if you’ll just let those boxes be, we have a whole dumpster full of cardboard where boxes are already broken apart.”

“Just get out of my f---ing face, man!” Chandel said. “I need these! Christine lets me do this all the time!”

“Well, whatever Christine says, I would ask you leave them because the church uses the boxes. Come with me and I’ll get you all the cardboard you want.”

“That just doesn’t make any f---ing sense, man! Cardboard here, cardboard there. What’s the f---ing difference?”

“Here’s what I’m trying to say . . .”

“Just f---ing get out of my face man!”

“Now, you’re just getting too agitated to be here,” I said, retaining my calm. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave. And if you don’t leave, I’m just going to have to call the police.”

“Just call the f---ing police, man!” Chantel said, and started kicking the boxes, then throwing them around.

I backed off and gave him space. But when Chandel finally returned to the main room and I checked to see that he hadn’t left, I drew within earshot of where he was sitting and pulled out my phone. I pantomimed that I was dialing, then put the phone to my ear and started talking to a phantom police dispatcher on the other end of a dead line. “Hello, I’m calling from Operation Nightwatch, 1432 SW 13th Avenue, and we have a gentleman here who is acting disruptively . . .” I did this, of course, to purposely provoke a response. The response I anticipated was that Chantel, overhearing me, would pick up his things and leave.

But what actually happened was much, much better.

Chantel leapt out of his chair and came right at me. “You calling the police? You calling the police? Don’t do that! That’s just not cool man!” he said.

“Would you like to sit down and talk?” I asked.

“Just don’t call the police. It’s just not cool. It’s just not cool.”

“Would you like to sit down and talk?” I repeated.

“Yeah,” he finally said. “Let’s talk. But not here. Too many people around.”

“Okay,” I said. “Follow me.” And I led him to my office where I closed the door. It was now just he and I alone. On the walk to the office I could see in the expression on the faces of those we passed that said, “Oh, man, does he really want to be alone with this guy?”

But almost as soon as the door closed, Chantel opened up. “I’m just trying to get into a program, man,” he said. “I keep going up to the VA, relationshipsbut they have no room for me.” Then he rambled on about his methamphetamine addiction that he knew was killing him but he just couldn’t kick on his own. He spoke about growing up without a father and a mother who left him when he was young. He talked about carrying a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia and how he was always being stopped by the police but that the police knew he was a good guy. And he kept repeating that he just wanted to get his life together but he needed to get into a program. And as much as he tried, the programs just didn’t have any room for him.

It was hard to break through Chantel’s torrent of words, given his meth-high, but at last I said, “Listen, Chantel. I believe you’re a good person. I’m a good person too, and I don’t mean to give you a hard time. I know things are hard. And we’re here because we want to help you all we can. But if you get out-of-control we just can’t allow that. On those occasions we just can’t have you here, and we’ll have to ask you to leave. Okay?”

“Yeah,” he said. And we shook hands.

When I opened my office door, there were people in the hall looking our way, faces concerned. “How did things go?” one asked under his breath as I walked by.

“Just fine,” I said.

Because before we walked into that office Chantel and I didn’t have a relationship. And now we did.

Whatever the outcome of the presidential election, the plight of the people Nightwatch serves is likely to grow worse.

 On the one hand, we have an unrepentant narcissist (note: it’s probably in the very nature of narcissism to be unrepentant). Symptomatic of narcissism is a lack of empathy. It’s not likely we’ll find any relief from homelessness coming from him.

 On the other hand, we have a candidate who may not suffer from any lack of empathy, but has been tempered through years of public life in knowing how to play the political game. Politics necessarily requires compromise—and the question throughout her (not to mention her husband’s career) has always been how much she’s been willing to compromise principle in order to get ahead. If elected, she’s going to have active resistance from the opposing party. If she went so far as to propose an affordable housing bill to Congress, how much would she be willing to fight for it without backing day after electiondown?

 But let’s forget for a moment any specifics about the individual candidates. Here’s the real reason the plight of our Nightwatch guests—and all those on the margins—is likely to grow worse:

 This presidential campaign has been the ugliest, most divisive national campaign in our lifetimes. All rules of civility have been shredded. Instead of being careful to keep any debates on immigration, national security, and social inequality within the bounds of reasoned discourse, they have all been reduced to attacks on the personal. It’s as if all restraints upon the id have been loosened, and the trolls who used to be banished to the dark recesses of the Internet have been freed to spout their bilious rants on all the rest of us with full public approbation. In short, in the wake of this horrible campaign (whoever wins), what we may be left to reckon with is a temper infecting our society that will be worse than any bad President: one with the inclination, “So empathy’s dead? So what?”

 We’ve always considered Nightwatch a refuge for folks on the streets, a place where they might come to feel safe to relax and be themselves. But as we look ahead, we’ll do what we need to be a refuge for those who wish to exercise their empathy, too.