We're Not Just Talking Hobos Anymore

Between bouts of being in bed battling a cold, I spent most of this week finalizing a grant proposal to help fund a new project for Nightwatch—and that’s to extend our outreach beyond the metropolitan area to the town of Woodburn.

Allow me to say something about our outreach: we don’t come up with these proposals by sitting around the office dreaming, “What would be neat to do next? I know—let’s go to Woodburn!” In all of the episodes in which we’ve expanded our operations—in SE, in St. John’s/North Portland, and in Vancouver, we’ve only gone because people in those communities approached us. We went because our help was sought. We went because we were invited.

The same is true with Woodburn. Some months ago, I got a call from one of our former volunteers who had since moved to Woodburn. She saw homeless people in her community and she wanted to do something. But upon investigating what services were available in her community itself, she found that there was no agency or organization—not a single one—geared to meet homeless needs.

At first, I found this hard to believe. Woodburn has grown into a good-sized town. How could they not have developed any organized response to their homeless? But looking into it myself, I found it was true. The closest shelter to Woodburn is in Mt. Angel, 6.5 miles away, and it is primarily for migrant workers. In fact, the Mt. Angel shelter is only shelter in the Willamette Valley between our metro area and Salem!

And as I dug deeper, I learned more about the state of homeless services in logo willamette valley low-resnon-urban areas in general. Woodburn is the rule, not the exception. Small towns just don’t know what to do their homeless. I imagine that may be because small towns may still have a retro mentality of what homelessness is all about. The time used to be that “homelessness” meant the hobo passing through town, and there really was no need for services beyond giving him a handout if he appeared at your door. Well, not only has homelessness changed, but so has the kind of community cohesion that supported the “hobo-at-the-door” routine; the mental hospitals have closed and the “new suburbanites” have come to ring the small towns with their subdivisions.

Just take a drive to the coast and note the towns you pass: McMinnville, Sheridan, Willamina, Scappoose, St. Helen’s. None of them have organized services for the homeless. Now start at Astoria and drive down the coast. Astoria has a small rescue mission. But other than family shelters in Lincoln City and Newport, you’ll find nothing. If you’re a homeless individual, you’re out of luck.

So the need is apparent. But what’s also clear is that if residents of all these towns asked for Nightwatch’s assistance to do something about it (like Woodburn has), we would be overwhelmed.

Thus the rationale behind the grant proposal. We want to take the opportunity as we respond to Woodburn of using the experience as a “pilot project” to develop a totally new approach to outreach. Obviously, no response to a locality’s desire to help its homeless is going to work unless the locals take the responsibility of doing it themselves. But they may be intimidated to take anything on because of their lack of experience and training. Those are things Nightwatch can provide.

We’re calling our new approach to outreach “the franchise model.” In working with Woodburn, we’ll develop a training package that can be used by those in localities similar to Woodburn, through which we’ll help them get their program on their feet, then we’ll retreat to have them carry it on their own.

Sometimes you hear people complain about the homeless folks they see on Portland’s sidewalks, saying, “Portland attracts the homeless because of all the giveaways it offers.” To an extent, that’s true. But turn that statement inside-out and this is what it is also saying, “Portland attracts the homeless because they find no one helping them in their own communities.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if each community would take care of its own?

The Bird With the Broken Wing

Annie reminded me a small bird, hobbled with a broken wing. She was a slight woman, barely a hundred pounds, probably in her thirties (though I find it difficult estimating the age of those on the streets, as the hardness of that experience has such strong prematurely-aging capabilities). Her arm was in a sling, and it was that which prompted our conversation.

It had been a month-to-the-day that she had broken it, she said. It had been a nasty break, but a surgeon had done a good job mending it. Now she was saddled with doing daily physical therapy exercises on her own so the arm didn’t heal in a bird with broken wingmalformed manner.

“We really need to get off the streets,” she said, referring to herself and her boyfriend. “In a few weeks, the weather will change and . . .” Her voice trailed off, but I knew where she was going.

“But to do that, I need to get a job. I’d like to go back to waitressing. A few weeks ago, I was going to get a job in a dentist’s office, but then this happened.” She nodded toward her disabled arm.

“Of course,” she continued, “there are so many positions I can’t apply for. Nothing that starts before 8 a.m. You need to show up clean on the job. And the showers that are open to us aren’t open early enough in the morning for me to get washed and dressed to make it to work any earlier than that. I still have a couple decent sets of clothes, thank God for that. But I have to guard them carefully so they don’t get stolen, too.”

Annie then went on to describe how many times thieves had taken their things. It required her to sleep on her purse and keep tucked in her bra whatever little cash she and her boyfriend possessed. “But our other things? You know how it is when you’re camping and you’re breathing the fresh outside air, how it puts you into a deep sleep? People come in the middle of the night and grab our stuff and we don’t even know it until the next morning. We now have everything packed in an extra-large suitcase, so if anyone tries to take it, we at least will be making it harder on them. Of course”—she nodded again at her helpless arm—“it’s a bitch for us to move around, too.” She smiled ruefully.

Some of our younger volunteers have told me that when they tell their families that they’re working with an organization the serves homeless people, their families can get very upset. They worry about safety. The stereotype is of the drug-addled, the alcohol-fueled, the psychopath. There is no room in the stereotype for people like Annie. They have no idea of how, once someone falls in the crevice of homelessness, it is so difficult to claw one’s way out. Just the simplest things—a broken arm, the unavailability of clean clothes or a shower—can keep one sliding to the bottom forever.

“You’ve been so much help to me,” Annie remarked upon leaving—although given the obstacles she faced that we could do nothing about, I thought she was overly generous in her assessment. “Once I get on my feet, I hope to volunteer.”

I would like to see that, Annie. I would love to see you fly.

The Right Not to Be Bothered

I was thrilled to receive a call from someone at the Portland Film Festival saying that they were looking at the possibility of opening a venue to show their films to a homeless audience and would we be interested? “Absolutely,” I said, barely controlling my excitement. “Our guys love watching movies and to see something rather than a ragged old shoot-‘em-up, it would be quite the experience to see something new, fresh, and possibly a world premiere! And to have their opinions sought afterwards by the filmmaker . . . well, they’re hardly honored with the opportunity of having their opinion sought on anything.”

So we got a movie scheduled for last Friday at our Downtown Hospitality Center—“Find Your Way,” which tells the story of several street musicians—and now I got to be the evangelist spreading the news to our guests. Our Downtown Center was going to be site for the Portland Film Festival Friday night!

“Aw, Jeez!” said John, rolling his eyes.

“Um,” Bill measured his response. “I think I’ll play chess.” (Every night Bill plays chess.)

It was not quite the reaction I was expecting.

I related this story to Sharon, my wife. And although I didn’t exactly say this, I’m sure I injected my narrative with this tone: “What’s the matter with these guys? Here I go, planning something special for them, and it’s almost as if they resent it that I movie portland film festival low-resbothered.”

Sharon certainly detected the tone. And she said, “Well, you’re always saying your mission is to create a place where your guests can feel ‘at home.’ And you know how it is when you come home and you derive comfort knowing it’s a place where you can relax and settle into a comfortable routine and just not be bothered by anything else. Your guys have established their routine. They’re comfortable with it and they don’t want to be bothered. You need to consider the possibility that you’ve succeeded. The guests have come to feel very much at home.”

I hadn’t really thought of it that way. The old adage goes, “A man’s home is his castle.” Maybe a contemporary way of putting it is, “A home is where you have the right not to be bothered.”

I’ll remember that the next time I try to get our guests aboard a train that’s going in a direction that’s thrilling to me. And enjoy the success that’s already been created.

Why Some Homeless People Will Not Go Into Shelters

“Are you guys a shelter?” the ninth or tenth caller in a week asks me with essentially the same question.

“No, we don’t put up people overnight,” I say.

“What do you guys do, then?” he asks.

“We essentially serve those on the streets who don’t go into shelters,” I respond.

“What do you mean, ‘don’t go into shelters’?”

And then I explain. While it’s true that there are many more homeless people than there are available shelter beds, there are a number of folks—I’d say a significant number—who wouldn’t abide going into a shelter even if there were a place for them..

They all have their reasons. But rather than my outlining them to you, listen to the voice of someone whose “been there.” Kevin Barbieux has been homeless on-and-off for many years and keeps a blog called, “The Homeless Guy.” Here is what he writes:

You check in to a homeless shelter and hope for the best. But the ‘best’ is not offered at shelters ... After a long period of processing and standing in lines...shelter you'll finally be assigned a bed. You'll find this bed is located in a large warehouse type room with many other beds—more than likely they will be bunk beds, or army cots, (ever try to sleep on an army cot?) You will be in a room with anywhere from 25 to 150 other homeless people, and not all of them will be ready to go to sleep. They will be talking, laughing or yelling, getting into fights (verbal and physical) making noises, the mentally ill will be trying to wind down from their constant hallucinations. As is practiced in many shelters, you'll be required to undress, give your clothes over to shelter personnel to be placed in a closet, you'll have to wear hospital scrubs. You'll be given one thin blanket, regardless of the temperature, you may, or may not be issued a pillow. If you like the cold, you'll sleep well, if not, you could have problems ... After a couple hours, most everyone has settled in to sleep, and you'll get some sleep. But then you'll be awakened, sometimes rudely, at 5 a.m. at most shelters. 5 a.m. every single morning.

In short, homeless shelters are not as “sanitized” as you see them portrayed on TV. (FYI, prisons aren’t, either.)

Shelters are not homes. Homes are places defined by relationships that make us feel us feel welcome and secure. While Operation Nightwatch doesn’t put up people overnight, we do seek to provide a place where, at least for a few hours a few evenings a week, our guests can feel “at home.”

In Praise of Sofas

Allow me to sing the praises of sofas—specifically, the sofas we have at our Downtown Hospitality Center.

Or rather, let one of our downtown guests sing their praises. He was a young man who was attending for the first time a couple of weeks ago.

We had shown a movie that night (“Public Enemies” with Johnny Depp), and when it was over and I was putting the equipment away, the fellow came up to me and after making some compliments about the movie, he said, “And it’s great to have someplace comfortable to sit! Something with soft edges. You know, we don’t get that much. We go to other places, and it’s always hard chairs. And you know, homeless people are under a lot of stress. You can’t relax in a hard chair. Thanks for doing this.”

I drew satisfaction from his words because I myself had been a strong advocate for the sofas. When we moved to St. Stephen’s several years ago, the church had a collection of sofas where the current ones sit, but they had definitely seen their day. They were worn and splattered with innumerable indelible stains. One with a missing leg was propped up by bricks, another by a stack of books.

Inevitably, the church decided those sofas needed to be given a decent funeral and sofasmeet their undertaker at the dump. But the question rose whether the sofas should be replaced. By that time, the feeding programs at St. Stephen’s had expanded considerably, and simply ridding themselves all bulky furniture would certainly be easier on them when they had to prepare the space for hungry people with tables and chairs. Fortunately, they asked my opinion. “Please, don’t get rid of sofas altogether,” I pled. “That’s one of the things that makes this place the special place it is. Just think about it: how many opportunities does someone on the streets have just to have a comfortable place to sit and relax? Their world is mostly a world of hard surfaces: ground, sidewalk, park bench, soup kitchen chair. When do they have a chance to experience something upholstered and soft?”

Then I went on to speak of the complications street folks suffer from sleep deprivation. This is a malady long unrecognized, but I’ve long maintained from my observations that 100% of those on the streets are sleep deprived. (I was gratified to read an article this week on The Atlantic web site that this is a problem that is finally getting some attention from others.) What an asset sofas would be in this regard!

The good folks at St. Stephen’s were a soft-sell. With the help of a grant from the Hillsdale Community Church, they obtained some well-made, wonderfully cushy sofas that, while making you have soft thoughts just by looking at them, also are likely to stand the abuse of many years.

When he was a young man, George Orwell (best known for 1984) suffered poverty and homelessness for some time, an experience he detailed in his memoir, Down and Out in Paris and London. At one point he says this:

 “[O]ne could enumerate scores of minor evils — to name only one, discomfort — which is inseparable from life on the road; it is worth remembering that the average tramp has no clothes but what he stands up in, wears boots that are ill-fitting, and does not sit in a chair for months together.”

We have no pretensions at Nightwatch of changing the world. But if we can address just some of those “scores of minor evils” that bedevil our guests, our mission has been achieved.