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[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.

The Nightwatch Board of Directors made a historic move this week. For the first time since Nightwatch’s founding in 1981, it voted to take a stance as an organization on an issue of political consequence. It agreed to add Nightwatch’s name to an amicus brief in a lawsuit filed with the State of Oregon challenging the city of Portland’s “anti-camping” ordinance. (This is the ordinance that makes it illegal for homeless people to camp in public areas.)

I personally was neutral on the issue. Given as outspoken I can be on some things, some might be surprised to learn that I possess something of a conservative streak. Or maybe that streak could more properly be labeled, “traditionalist.” While I can own up to being a “bleeding heart,” I always hope to make it clear that when I express myself on any topic I’m only speaking for myself and not necessarily for any group with which I may be associated.

And the fact of the matter is that Nightwatch has never been an advocacy organization. In the entire 35 years of its existence, though many worthy causes have presented themselves, Nightwatch has never climbed on anybody else’s bandwagon. One of the strong things that binds us together in an increasingly polarized world bound us together, I think, is that despite the far-flung beliefs held by Nightwatch supporters across theological, political, and socioeconomic spectra is that we haven’t taken any litmus-test positions on anything. One thing it is that holds us in common cause: the fundamental compassion in our hearts—from whatever belief-system it flows—to serve the suffering we see around us.

It’s been easier to preserve that unity and prevent polarization when we haven’t taken stands. And while I don’t know how controversial our siding against the city’s anti-camping ordinance will be among Nightwatch-ers, the source of my concern really lies in precedent now having been broken. We can no longer say that Nightwatch is not an advocacy organization. What other causes might now feel emboldened to appear at our door seeking Nightwatch’s imprimatur that might be more prone to raise hackles?

Yet I was not wholly against the Board’s decision to join the amicus brief. As I said, I was neutral. That’s because I do possess a strong sense of justice.

I do understand much of the motivation behind the enactment of such things as anti-camping ordinances. While some of it is irrational, based in ignorance (“Homeless people are dangerous!”), much of it is actually quite rational. For instance, when homeless camps arise, there arise hygienic and sanitation issues. Wherever groups of people congregate there is going to be waste. And without disposal options, there will be vermin and even disease. For weeks, we had an encampment literally right outside our doors at St. Stephen’s and we saw the dynamic there.

But simply passing a law that dictates, “NO CAMPING,” is no solution. For homeless people aren’t living outside on a lark. They have no choice. Push them out of one camping spot and they’ll only move to another. And it’s not because they delight in being difficult—it’s because they have no place else to go.

Anti-camping ordinances, in short, are stupid.

The ultimate alternative to anti-camping ordinances is to find housing for everyone living outside. But given the fact that’s not going to happen overnight, there are intermediate no camping noticeoptions, such as having designated areas where people can camp. And then to provide trash services and porta-potties to cover the sanitary issues. We know this is not an impossible task because the state/national parks, National Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management have been able to handle camping in their jurisdictions for decades. Designated areas can also be patrolled, for as these governmental agencies can attest, bring a group of people together and there can be tensions and rule-breakers that need to be tended to, as well.

But simply to proclaim “NO CAMPING”? That’s neither realistic nor fair. It’s really just a “solution” hatched from wishful thinking that you can tell people to stop being homeless and that will be enough to just make them disappear.

That’s obviously avoiding the real issue. The current crisis in homelessness has been created by public policy decisions, and it will only be solved by public policy decisions.

And for that, our Board would argue, it’s time for a stand to be taken.

So what do you think?

Chuck could be the poster-boy for our Mental Health Initiative.

He and I go back many years—way back to when our Downtown Hospitality Center was still operating out of Julia West House. And our history has been checkered. There I have been times I have had to be strict with him because his behavior has been so disruptive that he’s scared others around him. I’ve lost count how many times I have to “86” him, even to the point of sometimes having to threaten to call the police on him if he didn’t comply. Unsurprisingly, he would often react in anger. We’ve had stare-downs, he’s kicked and thrown things, used a dumpster full of foul language, and more than once he’s swung at me (though it’s obvious each time he’s pulled his punches—we’d both be shocked if he sometime actually connected).

And yet neither of us holds grudges. I don’t hold a grudge against Chuck because his mental illness is obvious. He paces. He vocalizes incomprehensibilities to himself. He’ll bang his head against the wall and swing at phantoms. I can’t blame a man for having a brain whose signals are uncontrollably garbled. And so even if I can’t allow Chuck inside the Hospitality Center because his presence is too disruptive to our other guests, I’ll say “hi” to him when I meet him on the streets, and if he’s not too overrun by his demons I’ll ask how he’s doing.

And Chuck seems not to hold a grudge against me because of those moments. Despite everything, he still recognizes that when I have to act strictly with him it’s because of his behavior, not because I have something against him as a human being.

There are even occasions when Chuck is calm and rational. Maybe his demons decided to take a vacation. Maybe Chuck’s just remembered to take his medication. Maybe it’s sunspots or electromagnetic fields. I don’t know and I don’t care. I just enjoy those times when we can have an ordinary conversation.

A couple of weeks ago Chuck dropped by my office in a rational state. Because he had been at a low-point in his cycle we had banned him from the Hospitality Center and he asked whether he could return. I said he could under the proviso that he had to be intent on following our direction; if we determined he was acting too disruptively and we asked him to leave, he would have to agreeably comply. He was very grateful and shook my hand.

He didn’t last two nights. When asked to leave, he threw his coffee on the floor and spewed a barrage of invective.

It’s the Chucks among our guests that I care for more than anyone else. When we promote Operation Nightwatch as a organization whose mission is to rescue the mental health symbolmarginalized from their social isolation, when we say that our Hospitality Centers are designed as places for those who otherwise have no place else to go, who are more marginalized and socially isolated, who are those most-pressed with no place else to go than those struggling with mental illness? But our Hospitality Centers are group settings. Though the motivation behind a mentally-ill person’s bad behavior may not be malicious—nor even within their control—that doesn’t make it any less disruptive to all the other people around him. We have to consider the obligation we have to all the others there to provide a safe and peaceful space.

And yet how much more socially isolating it therefore becomes when we tell those with mental illness that there’s not even a place for them at Nightwatch. They’re banned from everywhere—even our space—left on the streets with their demons. Alone.

All I can say now is that we are continuing to wrestle with this issue. I don’t have any solutions to it right now. But I think bringing a mental health professional on board as part of the Mental Health Initiative will help us move toward one. And we’ll continue to wrestle until we fully become what we say we are—a place for everyone who has no place else to go.

At the invitation of a local church, I’ll be speaking there in a couple of weeks with the topic of “A Day in the Life of the Homeless..” So I’ve been thinking about. What exactly is a day like in the life of a homeless person?

Certainly I could speak about the harshness of sleeping out in the elements—or, should an individual take refuge in an emergency shelter, what the regimented life is like there. I could talk about waiting in line at soup kitchens and spending time in the library simply because it’s a place that’s warm and dry. I could talk about the daily effort to gain some cash by collecting cans for their deposit value, or by standing on a corner selling Street Roots. I could also talk about what it’s like to live under the disapproval of all passers-by, and what that does to one’s self-esteem.

But what strikes me as to what dominantly characterizes each day in the life of the homeless is a pervasive feeling of boredom. What does one do with oneself after the shelters shove everyone out in the morning and before the library opens? How about after the library closes and there are hours to go before one can go to sleep?

I’ve had the privilege in my career of going on a couple of sabbaticals. On one I hiked the landscape of Israel/Palestine. On another I traveled on my own around the U.K. I was on a limited budget, so I mostly stayed in hostels that typically didn’t open their doors about 4 in the afternoon (and then pushed everybody out about 9 in the morning). They were, in fact, something like homeless shelters. And I remember days when I visited a town, saw everything there was to see, and found that it was only 1 in the afternoon. With three hours remaining until I could access the hostel, what was I to do with myself? I was limited from entering many indoor sites because I was hauling a big pack on my back that many shops and museums didn’t want to deal with. I didn’t know how to master all that empty time. So if the weather was decent I would find a park, lie out under a tree, and take a nap; if it wasn’t, I’d huddle under the protection of a bus shelter and wait for the hours to pass.

Here’s the thing: when we think about all physical things that must make life miserable in a day in the life of a homeless individual, we are only scratching the surface of his/her misery. There’s an entire existential dimension that even more fundamentally makes his/her life miserable.

When I look at the birds or the squirrels that inhabit my backyard, I can see that their entire life-cycle consists of little more than eating, sleeping, and lonely homeless manreproducing. But certainly humanity consists of something more than that. Human beings don’t merely seek to exist; they seek to live. And life for us means sensing one has a meaning and purpose; it means connecting with others and with one’s environment in fulfilling relationships. When such does not happen, it leads to despair. Animals don’t feel despair. They don’t commit suicide or surrender to addictions because they feel a gigantic hole within. But human beings do. Human beings need meaning and purpose. And loneliness can kill.

That’s really what a day is like in the life of the homeless—it’s all about coping with the aimlessness and purposeless of each passing hour. 

In his book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond writes this about the importance of “home”:

The home is the center of life. It is a refuge from the grind of work, the pressure of school, and the menace of the streets. We say that at home, we can “be ourselves.” Everywhere else, we are someone else. At home, we remove our masks.

The home remains the primary basis of life. It is where meals are shared, quiet habits formed, dreams confessed, traditions created. . . .

Civic life too begins at home, allowing us to plant roots and take ownership in our community, . . . and reach out to neighbors in a spirit of solidarity and generosity. . . . What is a nation but a patchwork of cities and towns; cities and towns a patchwork of neighborhoods; and neighborhoods a patchwork of homes?

America is supposed to be a place where you can better yourself, your family, and your community. But this is only possible if you have a stable home.

In short—as Desmond goes on to say—homelessness reduces those who experience those who were otherwise “born for better things.” 

And this is not just on one day, but every day.

Nightwatch is “Night”watch because from the beginning our founders recognized that while the emptiness experienced within those we serve may be ever-present, its consuming demons can be especially ravenous in the slow hours of the evening, the loneliness time of day. 

So when the sun goes down, that’s why we seek to keep a light shining.