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When four people die from hypothermia within ten days on Portland’s streets (a story newsworthy enough to have gained even international attention), you know that something about the system is broken.

The question is what that “something” is. For if you can’t accurately identify the problem, there’s no way you’re going to fix it.

I would point to two things:

1. The city’s inconsistent/contradictory/confusing approach toward the homeless and housing policy. We hear our guests expressing their frustration over this all the time. On occasions, they sent up camp somewhere and authorities look the other way. When police officers come by to check on them, it’s just to see that they’re doing okay. But then the city goes through a crackdown phase, and the very police officers that might have been checking on their welfare a week before are supervising a team to “sweep” their camp and get them to move along. Research psychologists have shown in lab tests that if you want to trigger an anxiety response in a subject, an ideal way of doing it is to be inconsistent and unpredictable in one’s interactions crime sceneso the subject is never sure when then next blow will come. (Indeed, this is a technique used to break down someone under torture.)

What does that have to do with people dying from hypothermia? Simple. The city is to be commended that the cold snap led it to open enough warming centers to keep its vow “not to turn anyone away. But folks on the streets need to be able to access those centers. And as Ree Kaarhus with Boots on the Ground PDX has said, “[P]eople on their own have often been moved so much by police or neighbors that they seek out isolated locations . . . to feel safe. But being on your own can be dire.”As for the city’s general housing policy, we have to ask how development has gone so off-the-rails that housing is becoming unaffordable to an increasingly large segment of our citizens. Whereas the city seems good at speaking a progressive agenda, one cannot help but feel that developers have a larger influence on decision-makers than the simple needs of those on the streets. Take the South Waterfront, for instance. That development was supposedly contingent upon its including a certain percentage of affordable housing. Whatever happened to that?

When there is not enough housing and temperatures dip low enough, people will freeze to death.

2. Our woefully inadequate mental health delivery system. The traditional model for ministering to those wrestling with mental health issues is based on the most illogical of assumptions: that it is the responsibility of the affected person to seek out treatment, when the very nature of mental illness often incapacitates one from taking that initiative. Even those living in economically stable circumstances have a hard time being the initiative-taker when they have mental-health needs; when they do seek treatment it is because they have the encouragement of a family member or close friend. But what about those who have no personal support-systems, such as those living on the streets? Their tendency is just to become more and more withdrawn and isolated until they can be lost altogether.

                If the system is to be truly responsive, it needs to turn itself inside-out. It needs to acknowledge that it is the treatment-providers who need to take responsibility for taking the initiative, and not putting that burden on those who are suffering. It’s not the folks on the streets who should be making their way to the therapists’ offices, but the therapists who should be going to where the afflicted find themselves on the streets.

 

If you’ve been keeping track of what we’ve been doing at Nightwatch, you’ll recognize that these two diagnoses are not something we recently arrived at. We’ve been trying to create a response to the victims of this broken system for a while now. Through our Mobile Hospitality Center we seek to serve those homeless clusters that may have become isolated, far from services. By bringing aboard a mental health specialist we are taking the initiative to meet people’s needs where they are, without requiring them to seek it out.

It’s certainly only a stop-gap. Nothing will even come close to being solved until there is adequate housing for everyone.

But if a stop-gap could have prevented four individuals from freezing to death and living to another day, we would have considered that a victory.     

With my impending retirement as Executive Director in June, I have entered a season of “lasts.” I recently celebrated my last Nightwatch Christmas party. I just supervised my last GiveGuide campaign. I’m about to work on my last grant proposal. And I will soon set to work planning my last spiritual retreat.

And as this is the time of year for annual reports, I have written my last annual report.

But as it is my last annual report as Executive Director, and my retirement date of June 30 will mark ten years almost to the day that I was hired for the Gary serving at MHCposition, I decided to take the occasion to review not only the last year, but the last ten years that comprised tenure at Nightwatch.

Since the report encompasses ten years, it’s long, so I won’t reproduce the entire thing here. If you would like to read it in its entirety, you can find it online by going to www.operationnightwatch.org/ANNUAL_REPORT_16.pdf. I will tell you that it’s not just a “puff piece,” only trumpeting the successes while downplaying the failures. As I learned a lot from our various failures, they are an essential part of the story too.

But there are some who won’t want to endure reading a thirteen-page document and will just want to “cut to the chase.” At the conclusion of these ten years, where does Nightwatch find itself? What, finally, is “bottom line”?

I lay that out in the report’s conclusion. And since that part of the document is not so long, I’ll reprint it here:

Nightwatch is strong. It is in fact the strongest it has ever been. While it is still not uncommon for me to encounter strangers who look blankly at me when I say I’m with Operation Nightwatch, we have gained a reputation and respect within the community that often leads others to seek us out for our expertise. We have a database of volunteers of over 1,000 individuals. Through our various sites, we serve over 450 people a week. Our budget has grown by 77% over the last decade, and whereas Nightwatch has had a financial history pocked with deficits, we have ended each of the last three years comfortably in the black. And as an institution we have established a stable staffing and governance infrastructure so that the whole thing is not likely to topple like a house of cards just because of one individual’s leaving.

But here’s the real bottom line: we have saved lives. Literally. We have seen guests come through our door who, without proper attention, would have been dead within a week. But with the ministrations of our staff and nurses, and a call for a cab to get them to the ER, we are able to welcome them back some weeks later looking like they’ve been resurrected. And then we have the testimony of guests like Kelly, who struggled with many personal crises that were further complicated by her alcoholism; having sat with her, talked with her, emotionally supported her, she returned some time later, sober and restored, to give hugs and say, “Without you guys, I wouldn’t be alive today.”

When I was offered the Executive Director’s position ten years ago, I had actually felt quite ambivalently about it. I knew I could do the job. I just wasn’t sure I wanted it.

But God works in mysterious ways. Once I started working, I knew I was exactly in the place I was meant to be.

Thanks be to God—and thanks to all Nightwatch staff, Board members, volunteers, and supporters—for the privilege and the honor.

When Carrie Fisher died this past week, the immediate remembrances of her were of her identity as a movie star, especially of her in the iconic role of Princess Leia in the Star Wars saga.

And of course, how could any of us not remember that role? To the adolescent boys for whom the Star Wars mythology became bred into their DNA, Princess Leia appealed to their every fantasy. Who, after all, couldn’t remember that outfit she wore as the slave of Jabba the Hutt? On the other hand, to young women, the Leia was an early feminist hero. When they were little girls aspiring themselves to become “princesses,” they only models they had were Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. But in Leia they had a princess who could hold her own with any man—strong, independent, and courageous. Princess Leia was certainly not a figured you’d find pining away while humming, “Someday My Prince Will Come.”

But Carrie Fisher was a real person. She was not Princess Leia. And after the initial jolt of learning about her death, some of other things that made her life noteworthy were carrie fisheralso remembered.

Particularly, Carrie coped throughout most of her life with mental illness. She was quite open about it. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 24, she fell for a time into addiction. But as she documented in a couple of autobiographical works, she persisted until she successfully made it through rehab, and had since become an inspiration to many others similarly struggling. (Indeed, Carrie wrote a regular advice column in Britain’s The Guardian newspaper, and the last one that went to press before her death addressed a reader’s concern about being bipolar.)

No, Carrie Fisher the real person was not Princess Leia. But she was equally strong, independent and courageous.

Because of individuals like Carrie who have been willing to go public with their experience, we have come to have a greater understanding of mental illness. We know that it’s not uncommon, and that anyone can have it. Even a celebrity and a daughter of celebrities. We look at someone like Carrie Fisher and can say, “Mental illness does not make someone a bad person or a scary person or an irredeemable person. Rather, this person is enduring something difficult and painful. They require our patience, our support, and our respect. It does no good to condemn them. To be sure, if they are going to make it, they need the encouragement of folks like us to get them through.”

Nice sentiments. But when you consider the high percentage of those on the streets who are also mentally-ill, where is the understanding afforded them? Is our understanding only reserved for those who have the money to afford the private care and the rehab visits, not to mention the network of family and personal-support-systems to love them through the process, rather than for the poor souls whose suffering is only compounded because they have none of these? “Oh, we would never condemn someone who has an illness beyond their control!” some might protest. But why then the common condemnation of the homeless? Is it simply because they’re poor?

Our love to you, Carrie Fisher. But may our love also extend to those as close to us as our streetcorners who need our support.

Remember Friday evening? It was COLD! And in some places, treacherous too. Schools were closed that day, as were many other offices.

But we were on duty. Downtown we held our annual Christmas. While out where our Mobile Hospitality Center serves . . .

Well, here’s the proverbial “picture worth a thousand words”:

serving at mhc in snow

I wasn’t there myself, but enjoying myself at the Christmas party. The Mobile Hospitality Center is overseen by our Nightwatch’s intrepid assistant director, Mikaila Smith and a special hearty band of volunteers that she recruited.

But this picture of our guests having a hot meal while in the snow and ice . . .

Whoa! It makes me shiver just to look at it.

I present this picture for two reasons. First, to illustrate that "neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” shall keep Nightwatch from its appointed rounds (which is more than I can say about the Postal Service, which didn’t deliver to our house for two days this week, even though the street—at least for one of those days—was perfectly passable).

But secondly, I share it because when you consider it—that there are people so neglected that they are forced to take their meals in these conditions because they have no place out of the ice and snow—isn’t that notion blatantly ridiculous, if not outright scandalous? Especially at this time of year when, in one form or another, most (even in Trump Tower) are likely to get their annual exposure to this classic character:

                  "At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge," said the gentleman, taking up a pen, "it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir."

"Are there no prisons?" asked Scrooge.

"Plenty of prisons," said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

"And the Union workhouses?" demanded Scrooge. "Are they still in operation?"

"They are. Still," returned the gentleman, "I wish I could say they were not."

"The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigor, then?" said Scrooge.

"Both very busy, sir."

"Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course," said Scrooge. "I'm very glad to hear it."

"Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude," returned the gentleman, "a few of us are endeavoring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?"

"Nothing!" Scrooge replied.

"You wish to be anonymous?"

"I wish to be left alone," said Scrooge. "Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don't make merry myself at Christmas, and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there."

"Many can't go there; and many would rather die."

"If they would rather die," said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides—excuse me—I don't know that."

"But you might know it," observed the gentleman.

"It's not my business," Scrooge returned. "It's enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people's. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!"

Yet as scandalous as our current circumstances may be, the news with which we are greeted each day is that they are likely to become much worse. A year or two from now, who knows how many more will be eating in the ice and snow? That’s not even to mention what the numbers will be four years from now. We have an incoming Administration that will be run by billionaire corporate CEOs, elected by disaffected people misled into believing that to put businesspeople in charge would somehow make things better for them. But people don’t become billionaires because they have proven themselves good to those on the assembly lines or in the warehouses; they become billionaires by being good to their shareholders. If labor costs deplete profits, those costs will be cut. Despite promises made, jobs will be sent overseas or replaced with automation.

Traditionally, government has provided a flywheel to corporate capitalism’s worse excesses. That has been done through regulation (work safety, child labor, and minimum wage laws, for instance), and social welfare legislation to protect those who cannot be profitably put to work (disability, Medicare and Medicaid, etc.). But what happens when the captains of corporate capitalism are now running the government? Where are the checks and balances? Where will be the accountability?

Our guests know. And they are frightened. For if all worth—even human worth—is to be calculated by the bottom line where those who have clawed to the top are celebrated while those who suffer at the bottom are condemned, what hope is there for them? One of our guests wrote a poem last week reflecting his anxiety and shared it with me. It contained this line:

But what about the poor that need our sympathy

Oh God Donald where will be hunger’s leaves

This may sound like a message of gloom for Christmas. But I remind myself (as I would remind our guests and also remind you you) that the first Christmas also came during gloomy times. To be sure, it was because times were especially gloomy that the angel Gabriel appeared far from the centers of wealth power in a little podunk-place called Nazareth to announce to a peasant girl that she—not the daughter of Caesar—was the chosen one.

And she could come away from that encounter knowing that true Power upheld and sustained her as she proclaimed:

My soul magnifies the Lord,

   and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. . . .

   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

   and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

   and sent the rich away empty.”

Got that, Mr. Scrooge? Be watchful. For Christmas is the most subversive of times.

If I had $100 and I wanted to play philanthropist, would it be better to give the entire $100 to one person in need, or to give $1 apiece to 100 people in need?

As the Executive Director of Nightwatch, I have one answer to that question. But in speaking honestly to the general proposition, I would have to say that the answer is not that simple.

Indeed, the answer isn’t simple at all. It all depends on context. The context is basically whether you are being approached for help by one person or by 100 people.

If a hungry individual literally appeared on your doorstep seeking assistance, since his is the need that is immediate, the proper response would be to feed him. It wouldn’t be to tell him, “I gave at the office.” On the other hand, if you were plopped in the middle of a refugee camp where everyone was subject to deprivation and destitution, there would be problems with singling out only one person to lavish with your help while all others suffered. How would pick one out from all the others? What criteria would you use to make that decision? Can you think of any particular set of criteria that would be fair? (Most criteria that people use are not scientific, but subjective, and that’s definitely not fair.)

Jesus’ articulation of the Golden Rule was that we are to “love one another.” (Other faith traditions also have their own versions of the Rule, though maybe stated somewhat differently.) But “loving one another” can call for different responses at different times. And unfortunately, Jesus didn’t get into the finer points of that. He left it to us to figure out; and to do it well, we must always call to mind our immediate context.

Everyone who has seen The Blind Side loves the story. In it, Sandra Bullock, a comfortably affluent woman, comes to care for an impoverished black youth from a dysfunctional background, going so far as to adopt him into her home. As a result of her investing her life in this young man’s, he overcomes his considerable difficulties to sandra bullockactually be recruited into the NFL. In its context, Sandra Bullock’s is a good model.

But now I must speak again as the Executive Director of Nightwatch:

At Operation Nightwatch, Sandra Bullock cannot be our model. For our context is one where at any one of our Hospitality Centers we are serving 100 people a night. To sit down with one of our guests and listen to his story may be to find it positively heartbreaking. But guess what? If you sit down with the next guest and hear his story, it’s positively heartbreaking too! In fact we have a roomful of people with their own unique accounts of hardship and woe. So how can I be Sandra Bullock in this context? How could I decide among the 100 should receive all my attention, and possibly be fair about it?

It’s challenging working with our volunteers sometimes who’s hearts get pierced by the stories of one or another of our guests and compassionately want to take that guest home with them (either figuratively or literally). Often their experience is limited and from what they know, the individualistic Sandra Bullock-model is the only option for implementing the command to “love one another.” But say they take a guest home, and then they speak with another guest whose story also touches them. What are they going to do with him?

At Nightwatch, precisely because we have so many counting on us, we must take what resources we have and do our best to spread them equally and fairly among all of them. That’s simply the context we must honor.

There are drawbacks to this model, but there are no fewer drawbacks to any other. But in the end, Jesus didn’t demand that we be perfect. He only asked that we love.