Ya Gotta See This!

Noel Chen has been our Program Associate for the past school year, and she has been another jewel in crown that's been this year's staff. Noel came to us as a work-study student from the University of Portland, and she became so attached to Nightwatch that even as thenoel 2 low-res work-study funds became exhausted she continued to make the hour-long bus trip to our downtown Hospitality Center from her campus.

Noel has great organizational skills to help the downtown Center run smoothly, as well as a tender heart for all those we serve.

That tender heart has motivated her to get involved in the campaign to adopt a Homeless Bill of Rights. For the cause she has put together a terrific short video which features three of our downtown guests. You've really got to see it:  http://youtu.be/b9uuTPKRpvs

"That Program In There . . ."

Thursday night I left the downtown Hospitality Center early. I often do that because I know I can surrender supervision to our capable Program Coordinator, Jackie McCook.

But I had just stepped onto the sidewalk and turned to head for my car when another fellow who was walking past joined me. I didn’t know him and I surmised that he didn’t know me (or for that matter, who I was), either. All he knew is that I had just emerged from Operation Nightwatch.

And spontaneously, as we walked along he said this: “That program in there”—nodding toward the building—“does so much more good than [another prominent homeless agency in town].”

Intrigued, I responded, “Oh? Why do you say that?”

“Well, you never see them with commercials on TV wanting you to give them your car,” he said. “They don’t nice to hearspend their money on that. They just help people. And you see how many people there are.”

We came to the corner and I was going one direction while he was going the other, so our conversation didn’t go much beyond that. As it happens, I think that other agency does good work, too (although, admittedly, having seen their commercials I have wondered how large a segment of their budget they devote to advertising).

There is no particular moral to this story. I just thought it would be nice to share the unsolicited affirmation of a stranger on the street.

Health and Hospitality

We had to call a cab to send Adam to the hospital the other night. I know Adam better than I know many of the other guests and when I saw him that evening, I noted that he didn’t look well at all. I was involved with other things and didn’t a chance to speak with him, but Adam himself had the good sense to visit Sean, our nurse-on-duty, in our medical room.

Sean’s assessment was pretty quick. “You need to get to the hospital,” he said.

But Adam resisted. His experience with hospitals had not been good. Especially as a homeless man, he felt that he was not treated adequately by hospital personnel, and never with any respect. He even had been banned from one hospital because his frustration over a delay in being seen led to angry outburst.

Sean was insistent (and Sean certainly knows how to be insistent): “If you don’t go to the hospital, you could die.”

Adam relented. The cab was summoned. Adam was sent on his way.

In getting Adam to the hospital, however, something more was at work than simply Sean’s insistence. stethoscope and blood pressure cuffFor Sean, after all, is a medical professional himself—why didn’t Adam just get mad at him?

What underlay the entire interaction was the reality of trust. Adam trusted Sean. He trusted Sean because he knew him. Adam had a relationship with Sean.

And this was exactly the vision we had for our Health Care Initiative when we launched it at Operation Nightwatch. Folks on the streets have many medical issues, as is illustrated by the fact that the average life expectancy of a homeless individual is 48 years old. The very availability of health care for the poor is of course a problem. But the experience of our guests with the health care system complicates the problem. Even at the overstressed community health clinics that serve the poor, so many patients are seen that our guests feel they’re treated only perfunctorily when they are seen. They don’t have any relationship with the professionals on staff, and don’t know whether they care or not. Consequently, many avoid the clinics, even when they’re feeling like the walking dead. They are made to feel all-the-worse by the indignity of it all. They figure, “Why bother?”

But by annexing a medical room to our Hospitality Centers where our focus is precisely upon establishing relationship, our notion was that by having built bonds of trust with our regulars at Nightwatch, a sense of that trust would also extend to the medical professionals who shared our space. A guest with a horrible hack of a cough might not be able to overcome all her reservations to make an appointment at a community clinic, but she would to walk down the hall to talk to her friend Sean.

Currrently we have two guests who are being shepherded by Sean through pregnancies who otherwise might be ignoring all prenatal care. We’ve sent others to the hospital, two of whom were suffering from such sepsis than Sean is convinced they’d have died otherwise.

This vision is alight.

The Importance of Keeping Order

I've had several conversations with our guests recently where there seems to have been a common theme. In each case, the conversation has been initiated by them; and in each case, they have come to me to express their gratitude over how we run things at Nightwatch.

One occasion came in the wake of our having to ask a particularly disruptive guest to leave the Hospitality Center. More than one person approached me afterwards to thank me. "He was spoiling things for everyone!" they said.

Another came to me just this past week to tell me how much he appreciated the careful and systematic way in which we distribute our Backpack Beds. Though he himself had not yet received one, he liked the way we required he go through a screening process when our new batch of Backpack Beds arrived. We were going to ask for some ID, I told him, interview him to assess he was truly living outside, and photograph him for our files so we'd have it on record that he was indeed the rightful owner of the Backpack Bed we issued him. "I've got no problem with that," he said. Then he went on to express his irritation with groups seeking to help the homeless that make no effort to screen their clients at all. "’Ya see ‘em come down to Old Town with pick-ups loaded with new coats or somethin', and they just throw ‘em out to whoever comes along. Then they drive off.

"Well, ‘ya know where a lot of those coats are goin', don't 'ya?" he went on. "So many are takin' 'em just to sell for drugs. ‘Ya see summa them just walking off with armfuls of the coats, and 'ya know they' re not takin’ all of 'em just to wear."

Lately, because of some issues we've been having over the use of the rest rooms downtown, we’ve commissioned bathroom monitors to note who goes in and to keep them to a 5-minute time limit. I didn’t feel good about taking that step because it seemed like a practice one implemented with children, not adults. However, we were seeing too many people upset because they had dire needs to use the toilets while the rest rooms were being tied up interminably by some who planted themselves there with no apparent conception of time.

My own preconception was that our guests would not be happy with the bathroom monitors precisely rest room signbecause they would feel we were treating them as children. But was I wrong! The vast majority of them thanked me. One said, “I only wish more programs we attend would do this.” Plenty of times they themselves had had the knowledge that “when you gotta go, you gotta go,” and they didn’t need to have someone hogging the facilities, blocking their way.

The common sentiment being expressed by our guests in all these instances is their appreciation for order. And should such an appreciation on their part be a surprise? For consider: if anything characterizes life on the street, it is disorder. There is nothing to structure the day, and whatever “rules” there are can be very fluid. The laws of nature often have more precedence than the laws of civil society, the strong dominating the weak in very much a “survival of the fittest” sort of way. One never knows after successfully struggling through one day what the next one might bring. Where will they eat? Sleep? Use a toilet? Clean themselves up?

As it happens, The New York Times last week published a column by David Brooks in which he speaks of the need for order in individual’s lives as something we don’t often take seriously into account. “If you’re reading this,” he begins, “you are probably not buffeted by daily waves of physical terror. You may fear job loss or emotional loss, but you probably don’t fear that somebody is going to slash your throat. . . . We take a basic level of order for granted.”

Brooks focuses on the need for order in many countries of the developing world, which are “not just grappling with poverty[, but] are marked by disorder, violence and man-inflicted suffering.” He quotes Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros, authors of a book called, The Locust Effect:

The relentless threat of violence is part of the core subtext of their lives, but we are unlikely to see it, and they are unlikely to tell us about it. We would be wise, however, to not be fooled — because, like grief, the thing we cannot see may be the deepest part of their day.

“We in the affluent world live on one side of a great global threshold,” Brooks goes on. “We tend to assume that the primary problems of politics are economic and that the injustices of the world can be addressed with economic levers. . . . But people . . . on the other side of the threshold . . . have a different reality. They live within a contagion of chaos. They live where the primary realities include violence, theft and radical uncertainty. Their world is governed less by long-term economic incentives and more by raw fear. In a world without functioning institutions, predatory behavior and the passions of domination and submission blot out economic logic.”

“The primary problem of politics is not creating growth,” Brooks concludes. “It’s creating order. Until that is largely achieved, life can be nasty, brutish and short.”

The only thing that Brooks overlooks is that disorder and chaos are consigned simply to the experience of the poor in the developing world—they are also part-and-parcel of the lives of the poor on our own streets.

We’ve always asserted that the mission of Operation Nightwatch is to offer hospitality. But is not offering the security of a space bounded by the principles of order itself an integral part of hospitality? Without order, fairness and justice cannot be exercised, the strong will assert their will over the weak, and the bullies take over.

Who wants to be on the side of the bullies?

And what sort of reception would we be providing our guests if we did therefore did not offer them a space where they could feel safe, secure, unexploited, free from fear (and able to pee when the need came upon them!)?

This is what we’ve ever sought to create at Nightwatch: not an extension of the chaos of the streets, but a haven from them. For as David Brooks says, “In every society, order has to be wrung out of exploitation. Unless cruelty is tamed, poverty will persist.”

No Monopoly on God

Our annual spiritual retreat is coming up in June and in preparation I’ve been reading a book by a British journalist entitled, Faith in Dark Places. In it the author, David Rhodes, speaks of an inner-city that runs an “immersion experience” for those who want to learn about homelessness. As part of the experience, participants must spend a day alone on the streets themselves. They must leave wallets, IDs, cellphones, and all other personal paraphernalia behind, and are issued only £1 (about $1.65) to meet whatever needs they might confront.

Afterwards, the participants are asked to reflect on the encounters and insights they had that day. Rhodes quotes what this woman wrote:

The first few hours seemed very artificial, almost exciting. I explored the city aa though I was a sightseer, even though I have lived here all my life. I did a bit of walking and eventually my legs began to ache. I suddenly realized that the day had been planned to run from mid-morning to early evening: spanning two meal times. I began to feel a bit uneasy.

I bought a carton of milk and a small chocolate bar and sat on a bench in the city square to rest. I watched the people going past. They all seemed to have somewhere to go and things to do and it made me feel a bit useless. Nearby, other people were sitting drinking or begging. They made me uneasy so I walked some more.

Finally I just had to sit down. It had got hotter and my mouth was very dry but I had long spent my £1. The only place I could find to sit was on some church steps. There was a beggar there as well but I was past caring. He asked if I had twenty pence for a cup of coffee. I could have laughed. I told him I had no money on me. . . .

We got talking and I was surprised that the man was quite educated. He smelled faith in dark placesa bit with that ripe smell of old sweat and his hands were dirty. I remember the nicotine on his fingers and his dirty nails. After a time I actually began to enjoy our conversation. A while later someone stopped and gave him a couple of coins. He got up to go and get another drink. As he stood up his old beer can fell over and rolled across the pavement but it was empty.

I called out goodbye and he shouted something I didn’t catch and was gone. I felt a bit lonely on my own. I wondered what God thought of my friend and his beer cans. I looked at my watch: still four hours to go before we were allowed back. What a crazy way to spend the day.

I thought about walking some more to kill time when I suddenly realized my friend was soming back carrying a plastic cup of coffee.

We shared the cup and talked some more. What was I doing? Where was I from? I felt oddly embarrassed to say I was praying about the city and that I was from a church, but he didn’t seem surprised.

For a few minutes he was silent. Then he turned to me and said: “Most of us on the streets believe in God, you know.”

I mumbled some sort of approving words trying not to sound patronizing but they didn’t come out right and he wasn’t listening anyway. He was looking out across the street. Maybe looking out across his life. He had a thoughtful, distant expression on his face. He looked very sad.

“Yes, we believe in God,” he said quietly. “We’ve got no one else to cry to in the night.”

We at Nightwatch discovered a long, long time ago that those we serve are as much spiritual creatures as any of the rest of us. That’s why we hold our spiritual retreats—they have never been designed as attempts at conversion because we know that, for as much as we might be able to teach them about God, from their experiences they have just as much to teach us about God in return.

I have always been disturbed by those who take aim at the homeless as a population in particular need of having the gospel preached to them, as if homelessness itself was some kind of moral shortcoming. There’s an implicit arrogance in that attitude, as if, along with everything else the comfortable and well-to-do get to enjoy, spiritual knowledge is exclusively their province, too. Believe me, I can tell you that from my own experience of having served middle-class congregations before becoming Nightwatch’s Executive Director, people at all of society’s levels have both an equal wisdom to share, as well as an equal need to be reminded of the gospel over and over again.

For at one time or another, all of us need Someone to cry to in the night.