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It was Comedy Movie Night, but Terry wasn’t in a mood to be amused.

As typically happens on such nights, I myself don’t get to see much of the movie. Instead, I’m walking around cleaning up messes and toting used coffee cups to the dishwasher. I was outdoors in our smoking area doing just that, when Terry came out. We were alone.

“Hey, Terry,” I said. “How ‘ya been doin’? I haven’t seen you for a while.”

And it was true. Terry and his faithful canine companion Buster had been regular fixtures at our Downtown Hospitality Center. But in the past few months, I had hardly seen them.

“I haven’t been doing too well,” Terry replied, his features drooping. Then he abruptly asked, “What do you know about [the name of a subsidized housing program].”

I’m always embarrassed to confess my ignorance. “Um, nothing, really,” I said.

Terry then went on to describe how he had called to get onto a housing wait-list, but as he got into an interview with the person on the other end of the line, he quickly was made aware there were so many technicalities involved with the process that he was way over his head. The interviewer tried to let him down gently, “Maybe you can call back when you have a caseworker to speak for you,” she said.

“But how do I get a caseworker?” Terry asked me.

It was true. Terry was stuck. If Terry were a veteran, he might be able to get a caseworker through the VA. If he were a substance abuser, he might be able to get a caseworker through a treatment program. If he had been hospitalized due to some life-debilitating condition, he might get a social worker on the hospital payroll advocating for him. But Terry fell into none of these categories.

It’s not that Terry was free from physical problems. Lately, he had suffered a fall in which he had damaged his right hand to such a degree that he could no longer make a fist, and lifting anything over five pounds was excruciating painful. This was just the latest of various mishaps he had suffered through his life; he described to me about a dozen broken bones he had had through his life, and now that he was in his forties, he could feel arthritis setting in.

“I can’t work anymore,” he mourned. “I’d apply for disability, but I’d wait for months and months, and they’d probably deny me—they almost routinely deny everyone’s first application, just to discourage people—then I’d appeal, and it would take who-knows-how-long for them to hear my case? And in the meantime, I don’t know how much longer I can take it out on the streets anymore. I have two daughters in Sandy that I try to keep in contact with, but I’m so ashamed. Their mother hates me, and she tries to get them to hate me, too. I feel so much like I’m on the edge all the time. That’s why I don’t come around much anymore. I feel such anger. If anyone gets in my face, I feel like I’m just going to explode. (NOTE: We have witnessed this in Terry from time to time.)

“And when I’m not angry, I’m just depressed,” Terry concluded. “Sometimes I feel like packing it all in. If it wasn’t for Buster, I don’t know what I’d do. That dog has saved my life.”

These last words of his concerned me. “Have you thought of going to talk to a counselor at [name of a community mental health agency]?” I asked.

“Can I do that myself? Don’t I need to be referred by someone?” Terry bounced the questions back to me.

Ignorance struck again. “Um, I didn’t think so. But I don’t know.”

“And where do I get a caseworker?” he asked.

Back to Square One.

Three observations in the wake of this encounter:

  1. Those whose response to the problem of homelessness is, “Why don’t these people just get a job?” have no idea what they’re talking about.
  2. The system we’ve constructed to deal with human needs is not widgets conveyor beltresponsive to a lot of people. The bureaucratic structures we’re created have sacrificed humanistic approaches for the sake of efficiency. In terms of numbers, such systems may be able to respond to the needs of more people, just like a conveyor can whizz hundreds of widgets through a factory; but get too concerned about production numbers and whizz that conveyor too fast, some widgets are inevitably going to fall off the belt and get crushed underfoot. How helpful is a “helping” system when those like Terry who need help don’t even know how to break into it?
  3. When at Nightwatch we developed the idea of bringing a mental health professional on board to be available during the hours our Hospitality Centers are open, we had originally had thought how helpful such an individual would be for our guests manifesting severe mental health problems, e.g. the kind of schizophrenia that leads to disruptive behavior. But how helpful it would have been that Comedy Movie Night to have someone less ignorant than myself to also talk a guy like Terry through the mental and emotional distress he was drowning in—and perhaps even help him negotiate through the System that was so flummoxing him!

How many books did you read last year?

One of the things I notice about even those who are sympathetic to the plight of the homeless is that they carry and an almost instinctual sense of superiority to them.

Maybe that’s because of the adjectives we typically employ in which to describe those without homes. We call them “poor;” we call them “unfortunate.” And while each of those may be true in some objective, economic sense, these are words that we’ve come to lade with other most emotional—and judgmental—connotations. If we allude to some character as a “poor soul,” don’t we really mean “pitiful”? Attach the further modifier, “unfortunate,” and aren’t we hinting that the person we’re talking about may just be on the other side of physical and mental competence to “hold it all together”?

This sense of superiority has a way of warping our interactions with the homeless, whether we condemn them out of fearfulness and insecurity, or reach out to them in open kindheartedness. If we count ourselves among the former, we’re likely to react from our perceived superiority with condemnation and bullying, while if among the latter, we manifest the belief in our superiority by patronizing attitudes and condescending behavior.

Since our volunteers who come to Nightwatch are naturally the kindhearted type, we see a lot of them possessing those patronizing attitudes when they first begin. If they stick with us to volunteer over a period of time, however, that attitude within them typically changes. Stereotypes of those who are mother teresa patronize quote“poor” and “unfortunate” are robbed of oxygen when they come to know our guests as individualsPoor? Yes, if it wasn’t for soup kitchens and shelters and the kindness of strangers, our guests would not be able to survive. Unfortunate? Yes, they are mired in circumstances in which, no matter how much they struggle to make a living, they will never—except with greatly subsidized help—be able to secure a home of their own. That is more than unfortunate.

But lacking in capabilities? To pity them because they hardly possess any more quality of mind, heart, and spirit than a denizen of the Humane Society, or to believe them otherwise to be somehow deficient in humanity proves to be grounded in nothing more than the grossest ignorance.

Take a look. On December 31 we ended the 100 Book Challenge in which our downtown guests were challenged to read 100 books during 2015. Any genre of book was allowed (even graphic novels would count); the only stipulation was that the book had to be at least 100 pages long.

Four of us passed the finish line. And I mean really passed it—one of our readers finished almost 200 books!

And I’ll let you judge the quality. Two of our participants turned in “10 Best” lists. Here is what they look like:

I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, Grace Jones Devil in the White City, Eric Larsen
The City and the Pillar, Gore Vidal The Accidental Tourist, Anne Tyler
Hillary, Hillary Clinton Lost Writing, George Orwell
Red DragonThomas Harris The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon
Not My Father’s Son, Alan Cumming World’s Fair, E.L. Doctorow
The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas The Constant Gardener, John le Carre
Vine, Christopher Rice Big Bad City, Ed McBain
The Fire Prince, Emily Glee Henry IV, part 2, William Shakespeare
One Second After, William Forstcher Spoon River Anthology, Edgar Lee Masters
The Bishop’s Heir, Katherine Kurtz Streets of Laredo, Larry McMurtry

So the next time you feel that nasty little “superiority” bug in your head tempting you to think condescendingly toward those on the streets or to treat them patronizingly, ask youself this:

When’s the last time you read Alexandre Dumas, Orwell, or Shakespeare?

Indeed, how many books did you read last year?

[P.S. Having taken the 100 Book Challenge myself, I drew up my own “10 Best” list which is found in a previous blogpost.] 

“We Are All Non-Conscious Racists.” That’s the title of an article from Psychology Today I remember reading in college, and it has stayed with me since. For while I don’t know whether its thesis is true for all people (though social psychological experiments suggest it is), I know it is certainly true for me.

I grew up in a very racially-charged environment where tribal mindsets were very present. Gary, Indiana, was a steel town and many of the folks who settled there were first- and second-generation immigrants from Eastern Europe who came to work in the mills. Because preserving ethnic identity was so important as a matter of survival in the Old Country, the various groups carried on the same tradition here—and “clubs” for the Poles, Serbs, Croatians, Greeks, Slovaks, and the like dotted the town.

But there was one thing that brought all these groups together: they were white. The Little Calumet River divided the black section of town from the white enclave of Glen Park (where I lived), and so I was told by my parents, when they were younger if a black person ever crossed the bridge over the Little Calumet after sunset, he would be shot.

And from the way my parents told the story, they did not disapprove. The “n-word” was regularly used around my house to refer to the blacks on the other side of the river, and I had it ingrained in me from birth that black people were lazy, untrustworthy, and menacing.

And of course, that belief was easy to maintain because we didn’t know any black people.

When things changed for me was when I entered seventh grade. To overcome the segregation of Gary’s schools, federal courts ordered black students to be bussed to my junior high school. Sitting behind me in homeroom was one of them, Bill Lomax. I never appreciated at the time how anxious Bill must have been, occupying that spot in a sea of overwhelmingly white faces, many of whom probably looked disparagingly upon him. But though I may have been unappreciative of his courage, I did soon recognize other things about him—he didn’t fit any of the stereotypes of black people with which I had been raised. And if that was true for Bill, could it be possible it as also true for the others who rode the bus into school with him?

And given that this was the period in our history when I would then return home from school and watch news accounts on TV where black protesters in the South were being assaulted by fire hoses and police dogs, I thought, “This isn’t right.” And it was also the time in my personal life where I was so upended by a spiritual conversion that I began looking more closely at the content of the faith I was raised in, and I realized that the old Sunday School ditty actually meant something: “Jesus loves the little children/All the children of the world/Red and yellow, black and white/They are precious in his sight/Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

Many decades have passed since. I am no longer a person who carries a tribal identity. Indeed, I think it’s important for me to broaden my understanding of other groups, peoples, and cultures, for I have inevitably benefited from it by becoming a less narrow person. A good friend in seminary who is Taiwanese takes credit for being the matchmaker who brought my wife and me together. When I took a sabbatical in the Middle East, it was the welcome of Muslim families that taught me everything I know about hospitality. I owe them a lot.

And yet I still know myself to be a non-conscious racist. How? It’s because of the way I catch myself from time to time. While driving near my home in Lake Oswego, seeing a black man walking down the street, the unbidden thought will pop into my head, “What’s he doing here?” That kernel of racism that was planted in my head when I was young is something I’ll carry until I die. I cannot help being a non-conscious racist. All I can do to counteract it is to be a very conscious anti-racist.

With this weekend on which we celebrate the memory of Martin Luther king brothers or foolsKing, Jr., we will likely hear again his “I Have a Dream” speech, his dream being that we would judge people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. That’s a message well to be broadcast these days, when politicians vying for high office seem themselves not averse to doing just the opposite, appealing to voters’ baser tribal instincts.

And as an antidote, I would propose Operation Nightwatch. As I know from my experience, stereotypes about other people can only breathe in an atmosphere where you have no direct experience of those people. A good counter to any non-conscious racism would be come to Nightwatch. Aside from our Board, which is still embarrassingly un-diverse (NOTE: we’re working on it), in every other aspect—from our volunteer-base to the ones who come through our doors to be served—the tribal is broken down. To be sure, I believe that the population you’ll find at our Hospitality Centers on any given evening is as diverse any gathering you’ll find anywhere else in Portland.

In this, I at least find it an antidote for me. Because of that, it’s another reason that, while our guests often say “Thanks” to us, I can justifiably say “Thank you” back to them.

It’s 2016. Here we go: another Presidential election year!

So as a public service, I thought I’d briefly lay out the official policy positions each of the major parties’ presidential candidates have taken on homelessness.

Republicans

Donald Trump - Nothing

Ted Cruz - Nothing

Marco Rubio - Nothing

Jeb Bush - Nothing

Chris Christie - Nothing

Mike Huckabee - Nothing

Carly Fiorina - Nothing

Ben Carson - Nothing

John Kasich - Nothing

Rand Paul - Nothing

Rick Santorum - Nothing

Democrats

Hillary Clinton - Nothing

Bernie Sanders - "It is unacceptable that so many Americans are living on the streets. We must increase affordable housing and work to reduce homelessness among veterans.”

Martin O’Malley – “End Veterans homelessness with a Housing First approach; integrate employment and housing strategies to end homelessness.”

Of course, it may be that this stunning silence on the issue just needs to be put into perspective. Perhaps the issues the candidates are addressing are much larger than that posed by the homelessness crisis in this country, and so their lack of concern is justified. So let’s put some numbers to the issues being debated and contrast them with homeless figures:

  • Number of Syrian refugees involved in terrorist attacks worldwide: 0
  • Number of guns confiscated from non-criminals by the federal government: 0
  • Average number of people camping outside the Downtown Hospitality Center every night: 8
  • Average number of homeless people served by Operation Nightwatch each week: 450
  • Number of homeless people in Portland according to the 2015 Street Count: 2759
  • Number of homeless individuals in the United States in 2015: 578,424

Well, at the candidates have their priorities straight!

encampments outside downtown centerIn truth, the political bloviating—not to mention the sheer demagoguery—evident in this presidential race is nothing less than shameful. We don’t simply have a homeless crisis anymore. As far as the lack of housing goes, we are living in a state of emergency. “Tent cities” used to be hidden. Now you can’t help seeing them, they’ve become so ubiquitous. Right outside our Downtown Hospitality Center a cluster of tents occupies streetside at the corner of 13th and Clay. Another village of homeless campers popped up to ring the cul-de-sac where our Mobile Hospitality Center serves on Friday nights. And whereas we tend to think of tents as temporary structures and that these folks will therefore one day pack their things up and disappear, let’s be realistic: this is where these folks live. For what’s the alternative for them? What conceivable housing is suddenly going to be tent city at SE cul de sacoffered them to relieve them of tent living? If ordered to pull of stakes here, therefore, where are they going to go? 

Los Angeles is trying to address the homeless crisis within its city limits, having committed $30 million in the next year to meet the needs of its 26,000 unhoused people. However, an economic analysis released this week revealed that what would be required to truly alleviate homelessness in LA in the next ten years would be a mind-boggling $1.85 billion!

And the city of Portland has said it is seeking to spend $20 million in our city. How realistic is that?

We honestly are living in a state of emergency. And it’s frightening that the Presidential candidates don’t acknowledge that. For let’s face it: with the size of the problem and the dollars that would need to be invested to solve it, an organization like Nightwatch can do no more than serve as a hospice for those who are the victims of these wholly monstrous circumstances.

Nonprofits will not abolish homelessness. Neither will city or state governments on their own. The problem is just too large. It will require nothing less than an investment of federal proportions.

So if you’re concerned about those tent cities popping up everywhere, see this Presidential election year as an opportunity. Hold the candidates’ feet to the fire. (They all have a chance to redeem themselves.)

And forgetting about all the bluster, simply take their priorities into account come Election Day.

Because people have asked, from the 114 books I read in 2015 as part of Nightwatch’s “100 Book Challenge,” here is my personal Ten Best list. Aside from Number 1, the books are in no particular order.

A note about my criteria in picking the list: I took the opportunity of the Challenge to read a number of classics that I always knew I should have read, but never got around to. I decided not to consider any of them as part of the Top Ten, as I thought it would be unfair competition. What were the chances that any contemporary books written in the past few years could stand up against those that typically are numbered about the “Top Books of All Time”?

With that said, here is my very subjective list:

 

a constellation of vital phenomenaA Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

No other book in the past year touched me as much as this one. The setting: wartime Chechnya. The cast of characters is complex, at first seemingly unrelated to one another, but by the end you find that their lives have all along been interwoven with each other in the most tangled ways. There has been a trend of “post-apocalyptic” novels in the past few years. Chechnya—off most Americans’ radar screens—is a real-life apocalyptic setting, yet as we learn, life goes on. (Spoiler alert: that’s the meaning of the title of the book.)

 

station elevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Interestingly enough, this novel falls into that aforementioned “post-apocalyptic” category. A virulent flu epidemic has wiped out much of the world’s population, and with the resulting infrastructure collapse, the survivors has resorted to no-tech lifestyles once again, gathered in little clusters with no overarching authority to guarantee their safety or well-being.

In structure, Station Eleven is uncannily like A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. Once again, there is a broad cast of characters, and once again their stories seem all disconnected from each other—until you find that they’re not. Once again, a masterfully realized story.

 

between the world and meBetween the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Once in a great while a book comes along that picks you up and shakes you awake. Ostensibly a letter written by an African-American man to his teenage son, the winner of this year’s National Book Award did just that to me. In it, Ta-Nahisi Coates reckons with how a minority person’s life is shaped when the society he lives in is shaped by an unrecognized/unacknowledged racism.

Here’s how I was shaken: I have come to the sixth decade of my life and my notion of racism is still supremely naïve. “Overcome racism?” I always thought. “All we need to do is be nice to one another.” No. When a person of color is automatically looked at with a distrustful/disdainful/suspicious eye—sometimes even to deadly effect—it affects the psyche in a way a person of majority privilege like me can barely comprehend.

Every white person needs to read this book. 

 

out on the wireOut on the Wire: Uncovering the Secrets of Radio’s New Masters of Story by Jessica Abel

This book is the “ringer” of the bunch. It describes—in graphic novel form, no less!—how the great shows of “narrative radio” are produced. As a fan of This American Life, RadioLab, and The Moth (all of which are featured herein), I was not only fascinated how all those shows were put together, but was inspired by them. Reading this book has made me think about doing my own podcasting. If a book can influence my behavior in such a way, it belongs on a 10 Best List!

 

those who wish me deadThose Who Wish Me Dead by Michael Koryta

I could say that this book is nothing more than a thriller. And to the extent that it has no greater purpose than to entertain, that would be correct. But what a great thriller it is! Nothing drags in this one. A young teenage boy witness a “hit” in his New Jersey hometown and to protect him he is sent under an assumed identity to an Outward Bound-like program to learn wilderness survival skills near the Yellowstone country. Naturally, he is tracked down and he must contend not only with the killers, but with the wilderness (including a growing forest fire!).

It’s a page-turner, sure. But what makes a great thriller is great villains. And this book has two contract killers who are brothers who are as chilling as any I can remember.

 

bad countryBad Country by C.B. McKenzie

“Desert noir.” A hardbitten Native American private eye meeting the dark underbelly of society as he investigates murders on and off the rez. Are Mexican cartels involved? Or is it something else?

This is a first novel, and I look forward to more from this rich storyteller.

 

william sloane coffin holy impatienceWilliam Sloane Coffin: A Holy Impatience by Warren Goldstein

An excellent biography of the man who was chaplain at Yale University when I was there. Coffin gained national attention—and controversy—as a leader in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the time, and the author quite reasonably as second only to Martin Luther King as the spokesperson for prophetic Christianity in the second half of the 20th century.

Coffin was a complicated man. A former CIA operative who became an anti-war activist. A Yale blueblood who was constantly challenging the Establishment. A inspiration to untold numbers (including myself), whose personal life was often a mess.

And it’s some testimony to Coffin that while the author obviously worked with Coffin’s cooperation, the author presents Coffin honestly with all his flaws.

 

eating dirtEating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber and Life With the Tree-Planting Tribe by Charlotte Gill

The chronicle of a year in the life of a professional tree planter in British Columbia. Logging companies employ tree planting crews to move in after they have clearcut an area, and the work is rugged and sometimes dangerous (grizzly beats, anybody?).

I enjoy learning about subcultures that I previously had possessed no knowledge of, and the author can be quite lyrical in describing mountains in the mist while at the same time communicating the backbreaking exertion that’s required of her every day. And if there’s one lesson I drew as I came away from the book, it’s that I was not made to be a professional tree planter in British Columbia.

 

fourth of july creekFourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

In rural Montana, a social worker meets a cross-section of some of the most dysfunction families in America. But as it turns out, the social worker is no stranger to dysfunction himself. He could use his own social worker.

He takes special interest in the child of a backwoods survivalist-type, whose isolation from society is likely as much a benefit to society as the backwoodsman sees it for himself. But as things develop we learn that this scary-seeming fellow as much inhabits a world of gray as does the social worker.  There are no heroes here, just people coping with the circumstances dealt them trying as best they can to get by.

A great exploration in the depth of character.

         

destiny of the republicDestiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President,  by Candice Mallard

What do you know about James Garfield, the 20th President of the United States? He was a barely a blip on my own radar. All I knew before reading this book was that he came from Mentor, Ohio (I know this because I often visited my cousins who live in Mentor) and that he was assassinated early in his term.

As it turns out, Garfield was a good man—no political hack, he was scholarly but personable, idealistic and practically incorruptible—and if he had lived might have become one of our great Presidents. The man who shot him was not the man who killed him. The shooter was a certifiable madman, suffering from delusions, and the bullet wound if inflicted in our own day would have been eminently survivable. But caring for the wounded President was an egomaniacal quack, and over the weeks following the attack something superficial became septic. The President suffered a long torturous death.

A well-written historical vignette of a true tragedy.