(Don't) Remember the Needy at Christmas

It’s at this time of year that I’m especially grateful for Nightwatch’s regular supporters, especially our  terrific little army of volunteers. I’m especially grateful because they not only do you have a heart for the homeless, but their concern for them is a year-round one and not one that has its beginning and end at Christmas.

 

It seems like this is a topic that I bring up every year at holiday time, so much so that I fear I’m becoming positively Scrooge-like in my curmudgeon-liness. But this is the time of year when so many seem to come out of the proverbial woodwork to ritualistically enact some kindness because . . .

 

Well, because this is the season of “peace on earth, goodwill to all,” I guess. But given the fact that so many of the good-deed-doers don’t seem particularly religious, I would attribute it more to the notion that engaging in some tightly-defined act of kindness has become as much for them a sentimental tradition of Christmastime as picking out a tree.

 

And none of this would be problem, of course, if the people doing the giving had a true appreciation of the needs of the ones they were “helping” in mind. But because their giving exists more as part of the package of their seasonal ritual than anything else, they really don’t.

 

For one thing, if they were concerned about meeting the true needs of the ones they were offering their Christmas treats to, they wouldn’t limit their giving to once a year.

 

Last week, I got a call from someone seeking Nightwatch’s help because he had compiled 2,000 gift bags to give out to the homeless on Christmas Eve. Two thousand gift bags! Here’s what immediately rushed through my mind: “That’s crazy! According to the official street counts, that’s about half of all the homeless people in the Portland metro area. We at Nightwatch ourselves only see a small fraction of them. How do you expect to track down all the rest—especially those who don’t want to be found?”

 

I could have also told him that giving out Christmas gift bags was probably the least effective activity he could have done, if he genuinely wanted to help the homeless. There are so many groups that descend upon downtown in the holiday season to give goodie bags to the homeless that in December it’s “burnt-over” ground. Our guests are always commenting about it: when and where to go to best sacks of treasures at holiday time. Why, they could produce a regular Zagat’s guide rating the places where the best goodie bags are given out (“St. Aloysius rates only 3 ½ stars because while the shampoo in their gift bag was redolent of honeydew, the soap had a strong antiseptic aroma”)!

 

And you know what our guests do with all the loot they accumulate from the various holiday gift bags they receive? They’re not going to carry around multiple bars of soap. They don’t need more than one comb at a time. Whatever duplicates they have, they toss. The contents of many holiday gift bags get thrown in the garbage. It’s not that our homeless friends are unappreciative. It’s just that, if you’re carrying around all that you have on your back, you can’t deal with much excess weight. They don’t need all that stuff.

 

We know it happens because we hand out our own Christmas stockings, and we retrieve what we can of the rejected items so we’ll have them to give out again as the year goes on. But if you’re not actively working with the homeless year-round, you’re not going to have the provision to do that. And I thought about the prospect of 2,000 gift bags. Judging from what it cost us to put together 200 Christmas stockings, 2,000 gift bags probably cost the donor around $8,000. If the donor knew what needs are most pressing among the homeless, he could have used that money to buy 800 homeless christmasblankets. Or, if he wanted to provide for them with a much longer shelf-life, it could have bought Backpack Beds for 80 people. Instead, much of that $8,000 was going to end up in the garbage. What a waste.

 

But while I was thinking all this while on the phone with the caller, I said none of it. Instead, I sought to be accommodating. “Well,” I said, “We’re not open on Christmas Eve. But our Downtown Hospitality Center will be open on Christmas night, if you’d like to come down and distribute some then.”

 

“No,” he replied. “It has to be on Christmas Eve.”

 

Hmm. So the needs of the homeless don’t even extend beyond Christmas Eve?

 

People receive encouragement from many sources to “remember the needy at Christmas.” That surely is better than not remembering them at all.

 

But that’s why I’m thankful for our regular supporters. Because they do remember them, not only at Christmas, but in the harshness of January, the greening of April, the warmth of July, and the cooling of October, as well.

 

Merry Christmas. And thanks to all of you who keep the light shining.

When the Weather Outside is Frightful

That was quite the wind storm we had the other night. It may have delayed our trips home due to downed trees or faulty traffic signals, only to find everything dark when we reached our destinations.

 

But at least we had some protection from the onslaught.

 

Ever think what having to face such weather must mean to someone living outside?

 

Katherine has been leading a weekly creative writing class for our guests for the past wind storm damagecouple of months. And though this little paragraph written by one of the participants was something he had done before last Thursday’s blow, it gives you a vivid sense of what it is like to “be there” hunkering down through an “ordinary” winter storm:

 

 

The space in which I had made to weather the night was like the inside of an angry bellows. The tarps would snap and fill with each frigid gust, the inside a runaway prairie schooner full of angst and frosty speeding air. Then nothing, the space empty of flow, collapsed in false pretense of calm. In the silence of its malice I hear my dog whimpering, just as another blustery chill assaults our makeshift shelter. I pull the dog in close and tuck the blankets tighter to ward off the little icy bites. I wait for warmth to find me again.

 

With Christmas carols in the air again, we might enjoy the romance of singing, “Oh, the weather outside is frightful . . .” But please remember at this time those who have to endure it regularly, for when the wind blows for them, there’s no romance at all—only hardship—and it can be very frightful, indeed.

Where Criticism Counts

Nobody likes to be criticized. Yet hidden in some criticisms is a baseline of implicit praise. These are the kinds of criticisms that rise because the critic sees in you someone capable and distinguished by good work, but who believes you’re not living fully into your potential and still capable of something more.

 

I didn’t at first think this was the type of criticism I was receiving when Ned encountered me during our recent cold snap. His voice had kind of a growl to it. “I don’t suppose you’re going to be open if it snows tomorrow night,” he said. “You guys always close down when it snows.”

 

“Our policy is to follow the lead of the Portland Public Schools,” I said. “If they declare a snow emergency and they close, they will be closed.”

 

“And that’s good enough?” Ned shot back.

 

“Well,” I responded, “we have to worry about the same things the schools do. If they judge the roads are going to be too dangerous for their staff and students, then those same conditions will put our volunteers at risk. I have to worry about the safety of our volunteers.”

 

 “And you don’t care about the safety of those of us who have to sleep outside? What love the snowabout us? Don’t you think that’s ‘dangerous’?”

 

“If the weather conditions are that bad,” I said (too glibly, perhaps), “the warming centers will be open to get people off the streets.”

 

 “Some of us don’t like to go into the warming centers,” Ned snarled.

 

“Well, that’s your choice,” I said.

 

And it’s here where Ned’s tone changed. “But you don’t understand!” The snarl had become a plea. “Have you ever been in one of those places? People’s dogs are barking. They got guys with PTSD screaming all night. There are fights and it’s just not safe. I won’t go and a lot of the other guys here won’t either.

 

“We come here,” Ned continued, “because it’s a special place. It’s not like anywhere else. You guys keep the peace. The volunteers are nice, but if you want to be left to yourself, then they don’t bother you, either. No one hassles you here. We can count on you to provide a safe place. It’s not like other places. And it’s not like being outside. That’s why we need you to be open.”

 

What do you know? There it was: a compliment hidden in a complaint.

 

I still couldn’t assure Ned that we would be able to keep the Downtown Hospitality Center open during all winter emergencies. Sometimes we have snowfalls where I can’t even get out of my own driveway. But I expressed my willingness to take Ned’s concerns under advisement, and see whether we could work out some alternatives to making too-facile decisions about closing the Center once the snow falls. Ned suggested allowing guests take over volunteer responsibilities if our regular volunteers couldn’t make it in; but when I pointed out to him that the reason Nightwatch was the orderly place he admired might be precisely we didn’t put guests in charge of things, he conceded that was probably true.

 

But maybe, I said, we could identify some on our volunteer roster who lived close enough to the Center that they wouldn’t have to risk their lives on the roads to serve in the event of an emergency. Or maybe there were those who have the four-wheel-drive vehicles that can get them to Timberline for skiing who would be willing to use that traction to Nightwatch instead.

 

When you hear directly how much Nightwatch means to those we serve, you certainly want to do all you can to fit that sterling image you have in their eyes.

Present at the Creation, Part 2

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Operation Nightwatch's founding days in 1981. I myself have not been around that long, but I related the testimony of Charles Neilson, a participant-witness who was there.

 

Most creation stories are triumphant by nature, as we tell them in retrospect, looking back from a perspective knowing what accomplishments have been achieved. And with that triumphant attitude there is the temptation to carry the false assumption that everything went brilliantly and there was a thrill in the air as things were initially hammered together. But it’s hardly ever that way.

 

Take, for instance, the story of the Continental Congress and our country’s road to independence in 1776. Influenced by the hagiographic paintings of the Congress declaration of independencedone years afterward, one imagines a bunch of noble elders engaged in eloquent discussion with one other, finally huzzahing their esteemed colleague Thomas Jefferson to pen a Declaration of Independence they all might boldly sign. In truth, the Congress—save for Benjamin Franklin—was largely made up of young men, and if there was a figure dominating the proceedings, it was not Jefferson, but John Adams, who was rather a hothead and could be insufferable to many. When it came time to sign the Declaration Jefferson penned, there wasn’t a lot of high-fiving. To the contrary, it was quite a sober event as each of the men affixing his signature to the parchment knew at that moment he was making himself a marked man: he was proclaiming himself a traitor to the British throne, an act that was punishable by death.

 

And as it happens, I’m currently reading of another kind of creation story, the enjoyable The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. Kavalier and Clay are stand-ins for Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, the real-life creators of Superman, who introduced the whole genre of comic book superheroes. amazing adventures of kav and clayWhen Superman was first published (as Kavelier and Clay’s prime character, The Escapist), he pretty immediately became a phenomenon, the comic books inspiring a radio show and movie serials, and later a TV series and Hollywood blockbusters. But Siegel-Shuster/Kavalier-Clay were just a couple of naïve Jewish kids, living out their fantasies in ink and paper. They had no idea how to negotiate with publishers, agents, publicists, and movie producers—with the result being that they signed away all their rights and made hardly any money from their creation at all. Who would have known what long-suffering and messy tribulation the creators had to endure, given the icon Superman has become today?

 

Reading between the lines of Charles Neilson’s account, one can get the sense that the beginnings Nightwatch were pretty messy, too. The folks who gathered to get something started here in Portland didn’t really know much about what they were doing. They had a vision, but they were clergy, nuns and professors—no one who had any experience launching an organization like this. There were so many decisions to be made. How would the organization be structured? Where would they secure resources? Who would be in charge? And the truth is, Nightwatch struggled for a very long time. The budget was miniscule. The director could not be paid full-time. I’d be surprised if the nuns on board didn’t encourage all the rest to draw comfort from St. Jude, “the patron saint of lost causes,” as for years Nightwatch only survived because of “the goodness of strangers” and foolhardy dedication of a committed cadre of “never-say-die” volunteers.

 

As I told a group of folks in Woodburn who have sought our guidance to establish a Nightwatch-like outreach in their own community, “Over our 33 years, we made hundreds of mistakes. But we like to think we learned from them. In seeking to start something yourselves, you’ll no doubt make many mistakes, too. My hope is that, in gaining something from what we’ve learned in our experience, they just won’t be the same mistakes.”

 

So, yes, now the organization that stumbled into existence 33 years ago is helping to birth another “Nightwatch” in another community, one that we will take pride in seeing take on its own life and adopt an independent life of its own. As I have assisted as midwife to the birthing, I can testify that—as in all births—there has been some messiness to it. The anxiety inherent in undertaking a new adventure is ever-present as the Woodburn folks have had to make so many decisions and get so many things put into place before they can begin. And that anxiety will likely last for a while until they find the confidence that comes from learning the best routine to respond to the needs that confront them, and they can find a firm footing of their own.

 

samantha signing

But I have to admit that though it is certainly too soon to be triumphalist about this particular creation story, I felt an undeniable thrill when the group came to a consensus defining its name, “Tuesday’s Table” (since they’ll be operating on Tuesdays), agreeing on its leadership, and finally signing a consultancy agreement with Nightwatch (under which we’ll work with them for the next 9 months-to-a-year).

 

Like all founders/creators, they were taking a risk—that proverbial “leap into the unknown.” And while it may be too early to ascertain that the leap will end in triumph, triumph certainly could never come unless that leap were made.

From Marie

My name is Marie Harp, and I’m the intern here at Operation Nightwatch.

Sometimes, I think it’s hard to describe what interning here entails. In the last three months, I have passed out clothing, cooked spaghetti, done fundraising research, fought with the office’s ancient computers (the computers won), dug through huge bins in a desperate hunt for socks, done security checks, made gallons of coffee, and listened to guests talk for hours at a time. I’ve learned how to defuse an argument and how to break a chokehold should diffusion fail (thankfully, this is not a skill I’ve needed to use).

Above all, I have learned so much about people and how frustrating and wonderful marie 1 smallthey can be. Though many guests—and volunteers—have given me a hard time, I still feel privileged to have met them. Out at the mobile center, where people cluster around heaters in the winter and enjoy the block-party atmosphere in the summer, there is a feeling of relaxation I have never found anywhere else. At the end of many nights, I leave with a grin plastered on my face. Though it’s hardly all fun—try scrubbing down a full-sized RV sometime—it is still the best work I have ever done.

I may be a glorified errand girl, but I’m a glorified errand girl working for a great organization with a group of incredible people, and that makes it more than worthwhile.