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.

Present at the Creation

Perhaps it is my sagacious, wizened appearance, but after informing new volunteers that Nightwatch has been around since 1981, I get those who ask me, “And were you there at the beginning?”

Not quite, I have to tell them. I only began volunteering in 1986. But one person who was there at the beginning was Charles Nielsen. Charles dropped by our annual NightFest! celebration this past week, and in addition to dropping off a couple of contributions, he also left behind for our archives a few paragraphs from memory of how Nightwatch looked newly emerged from the womb. Here is what he wrote:

The start of Operation Nightwatch Portland

Dean Jones is an alumnus of Warner Pacific College in Portland, completed his studies there in 1954.

In the 1970s he was living in Seattle and was a leader in establishing an evening ministry to street people in Seattle.

In 1981 he scheduled a meeting in Portland to encourage such a ministry. It was probably in January that several people in the Portland area met to listen to Dean Jones and ponder what to gary v on streetdo. Charles Nielsen was a sociology professor at Warner Pacific College. He was invited by Rev. Gale Hency, alumnus of Warner Pacific College, and pastor of Church of God in Tigard, to attend that meeting.

Very soon several people, including Charles Nielsen, had regular planning sessions that quickly led to clergy volunteers to spend time in the early evening until about midnight on the street to respond to people there. Both male and female clergy did this, including at least two Catholic nuns. In those early months there was need for a place for clergy to check in and report at the end of their evening. For a few months there was an office provided at a place about adjacent to the Lotus Club on SW Third Avenue. This was before the age of cell phones so the person at the office had no quick way to be in contact with the clergy on the street.

A huge change took place when a pastor at the Presbyterian church on SW 13th became involved. His church provided a place for evenings three evenings a week, usually 8 p.m. to midnight. A place owned by the church in the block north of the church. That pastor also was able to secure funding, which helped Nightwatch to go beyond other donated funds.

The first paid staff person, as far as I know, was Rev. Gary Vaughan. He received a small stipend for many years, probably not even half time. He was very instrumental in working with the leadership team in decision-making, fund-raising, etc.

 And the saga continues . . .

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

Something’s not right.

This week, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released its annual Homelessness Assessment Report to Congress. The report states that since 2010, there has been a 25% decline in homelessness nationwide.

And immediately, agencies in the frontlines that themselves work with the homeless have reacted with mocking disbelief. There has to be something wildly inaccurate about that figure.

I appeal to our own experience at Nightwatch. Granted, the 25% stat trumpeted by HUD is a national average. Maybe Portland has a more evident homeless population than other places. But if homelessness had declined as much as 25% across the country, you would think that we would have at least experienced some decline in Portland. Or to have seen the numbers plateau. But the truth is, we are seeing greater numbers than ever. Whereas we averaged about 85 attending our downtown Hospitality Center a couple of years ago, our average is now around 100 (that’s over a 20% increase). The numbers are even more dramatic in SE. Within the past six months, we’ve seen an average jump in attendance from 60 people a night to about 100 (over a 65% increase).

As a consequence, our resources are being taxed like never before. A couple of weeks ago, we had accumulated enough contributions to our Blankets/Socks Fund for me to order 960 pairs of socks. In the past, we could have counted that amount to last us about three months. As of this writing, the supply is more than a third depleted. We’ll be lucky if it lasts us the month.

Furthermore, we haven’t had any blankets to distribute for months, and when a few do come in from concerned donors, they’re immediately snatched up.

Agencies critical of the HUD report have listed a variety of reasons why its conclusions may be so off-the-mark. For one thing, homeless people are notoriouslydilbert statistics hard to count. Someone merely looking for statistics may count the numbers on shelter rosters, but what about all those camping out in out-of-the-way places, eking out a place there precisely because they know that to make themselves too visible is to invite sanction? Furthermore, I doubt whether officials like those at HUD look seriously at something we’ve experienced from talking with some of our guests at Nightwatch. I call it the “revolving door” syndrome. I know of quite a few of our guests who have achieved housing, but the housing proved only temporary, as some circumstance would develop that would send them back onto the streets. (If there’s no follow-up with an individual by caseworkers once they are housed, that’s likely to happen.) Is HUD only taking credit for its successes in getting people into housing without also accounting for its failures in keeping them housed?

I have an invitation for any bureaucrat for whom the homeless are only reduced to a statistic: come on down and volunteer at Nightwatch, get to know them personally, and then assess what’s going on.

Then I’d like to see how the story might change.

"Life at the Hospitality Center"

We used to publish a regular column in our newsletter titled, “Life at the Hospitality Center.” It consisted of excerpts from the nightly log we kept downtown, and we printed it for public consumption to give readers who had never been to our Center a glimpse of what went on there. The entries could have been encounters that were heartwarming or challenging—or sometimes just routine—but, put together, we hoped they conveyed some of the flavor of the place.

We’ve been unable to print the column lately, simply because of space limitations. There have been so many other things to report in newsletter’s few pages, there hasn’t been any room left for it. So in the tradition of “Life at the Hospitality Center,” I thought I’d offer a few vignettes of one particular night downtown, this past Saturday night, October 25, 2014:

  • Earlier that day, I had received a phone call from a concerned parent in Olympia. He said that his daughter had left home some weeks before and headed off to Salem, but the last he heard she was in Portland and that she was coming to Nightwatch. Though his daughter was 33 years old, she was developmentally-delayed and he was worried about her welfare. He would be driving down to Portland later in the day, and would we keep an eye out for his daughter, in case she should show up at the Hospitality Center?
  • 7:00 p.m. The Hospitality Center opens. The father shows up. His daughter, however, doesn’t. H promised to check in later.
  • A young man whom we had excluded earlier almost a year ago for threatening behavior shows up at the door. He would like to know whether his exclusion has expired and whether he can come back in. I invite him back into my office. While his previous behavior had certainly warranted his exclusion at the time, I had subsequently learned more details about the incidents that led to it. Himself a mentally-challenged individual with limited coping mechanisms, his bad behavior apparently had been an overreaction to instances where he himself had felt bullied and mistreated. As in our conversation we now relived the relevant incidents, his agitation levels again rose. Suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, he had a hard time just letting them go. Finally able to talk him through it and get him to calm down, I got him to come to an understanding with me: 1) we would each “let the previous incidents go,” if heguitarist at DHC would abide by the rules and behave himself while at Nightwatch, 2) if he felt someone offending him, instead of taking action himself, he would immediately seek out my intervention. (And needless to say, in welcoming him back to Nightwatch, it would only be under probationary conditions.)
  • I took a stint monitoring the restrooms. (We put a 5-minute-limit on restroom usage.) While on duty, one of our regulars updated me on his legal involvements. He’s got a suit pending against the city because the police had confiscated everything he had with no compensation. Not a priority for the courts, they’ve been delaying a hearing for a couple of years. A new date for early November has been set, but our friend would not be surprised if that date would also be deferred. (Would the courts be paying more attention if he weren’t poor?)
  • The 33-year-old woman from the Olympia finally shows up! Her aunt happens to call, and through her, a connection is made with her father. He shows up and father and daughter connect. They leave together. Yeah!
  • Briefly interrupting our conversation in the hallway was a young woman with a bruised face. “Have you seen (name redacted)?” she asked. “Tall, dressed in leather?” “No,” I admitted. “I haven’t seen anyone like that back here.” “Well, if you do, you can tell him he’s on my sh-t list,” she said and stormed away. “Take a look at those bruises, and you’ll know why,” commented my conversation-partner once she had left.
  • Toward the end of the evening I headed to the kitchen to begin clean-up. Suddenly, a loud protest and wail from the main room. I went out to see a woman pursuing a man who was barreling out the door. Once he was gone, she returned inside, hysterical. “He can’t leave me! I’m pregnant!” she choked between sobs. Disturbingly, for as upset as she was, no one seemed to pay her any attention except Katherine and myself. As I felt the woman would much more benefit from a woman’s attention than my own, I deferred to Katherine, but Katherine’s ministrations were also rebuffed. We subsequently gave her the space she needed, and she eventually calmed. (Although, of course, her pain remained.)
  • Back in the kitchen, I’m wiping down the counters while one of our new volunteers, a student at Ecola Bible School in Cannon Beach, is sweeping the floor. She pauses for a moment and says, “Can I ask you a question?” “Sure,” I say. Her question is heartfelt: “How do you do it every night?” she asks. “Deal with all their needs, I mean, and not let it get to you?” I see the burden she’s carrying—not unusual in a new volunteer who has not had much previous exposure to a needy population—and I proceed to give her a very long answer. But I end by saying this: “You just have to learn not to take the weight of everyone’s story with you once you leave this place, because it will overwhelm you. Becoming overwhelmed, you will become debilitated. And becoming debilitated, you will then become no good to anybody. While you’re here at Nightwatch, give it 100%. But once you go home, you’ve got to let it go.”
  • I leaving the kitchen when a guest intercepts me. “Thanks for doing this,” he says. “I’m new here, and I just wanted to tell you that I appreciate what you’re doing.” “Thanks for coming,” I respond. “It’s not like I have anyplace else to go,” he says. “ Well, that’s exactly what Nightwatch is for: for those who have no place else to go.”

Just like all of the above.

Volunteers of the Year, 2014

Quick! Think of Nightwatch!

What’s the first mental image that comes to you?

Odds are, unless you’ve been actively involved in the “front lines” recently, it wasn’t of the Mobile Hospitality Center, or our burgeoning centers in SE and North Portland. Furthermore, it probably wasn’t of our computer lab, our flu immunizations, or karaoke night. If it’s been long since your feet have crossed the Operation Nightwatch threshold, your first mental image would have been of sharing coffee and sandwiches over a game of cards at our Downtown Hospitality Center (and maybe even had a background image of Julia West House!). Or if you had an involvement with some of Nightwatch’s specialized ministries, maybe you summoned up pictures of foot care or Birthday Night.

Your images of Nightwatch will not have been inaccurate—we still continue the Downtown Center, foot care, and Birthday Night; it’s just that your images will have been partial and incomplete.

For the truth is, this just isn’t your father’s Nightwatch anymore.

It’s not even your older sibling’s.

There’s been a lot that has expanded and transformed Nightwatch over the last few years. Simply put, we’ve become a lot more proactive. Instead of simply opening the doors of our Downtown Hospitality Center and waiting for our guests to come to us, we began looking more intently into the needs of those we serve, and projecting the efforts we might make to be more responsive to them. As surveys showed that the epicenter of Portland’s homeless population was shifting beyond downtown, we began reaching out to the neighborhoods in which they might be found. As we saw the great gaps that existed between our guests’ health needs and the “System’s” ability/willingness to cover them, we sought to attend to those needs ourselves by bringing nurses on board as regular volunteers.

Our Volunteers of the Year for 2014 are two individuals who have been instrumental in nurturing the “new Nightwatch” into being. Sean Meehan is a registered nurse who volunteers of the year 2014originally volunteered to assist with Saturday morning foot care. Seeing how we were struggling at the time to establish a stable network of nurses to serve our guests’ other health needs, Sean took it upon himself to help. Putting his expertise into practice, he also developed proper protocols for service, filled our medical inventories with the supplies we needed, supervised student nurses who came to us, and trained new nursing volunteers. When our health care initiative was sputtering, Sean single-handedly built a firm foundation for it and made it work. Because of Sean, we now have nurses on-duty at our Downtown Hospitality Center every evening it’s open, a nurse dependably serving in North Portland every-other-week, and another about to take on regular duties with our Mobile Hospitality Center.

Jeff Kirchem serves faithfully as our cook, week after week, at our SE Hospitality Center. The cook is a crucial role to fill in SE because, unlike downtown where there are plenty of feeding programs for those on the streets, services in SE Portland are woefully lacking. When people come to our SE Center, they come to us hungry. Simple sandwiches and cookies won’t do. They need a full, hot meal, as it may be the only meal they get that day. And the crowd that needs it may number 100 or more! Jeff is the one who feeds these masses. Every Saturday afternoon when he arrives in the kitchen of our SE Center, he takes inventory of the ingredients he has available and every evening concocts something wonderful so that all of our guests go away satisfied. It’s hard to imagine there could be a program in SE without Jeff.

Sean and Jeff are really wonder-workers, and simply to call them “Volunteers of the Year” seems hardly sufficient.

So if you haven’t been to Nightwatch for a time, stop by and take a look what’s going on. Thank Sean and Jeff yourself for all they’ve done and are doing.

And just see how much your mental image of Nightwatch might change.