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.


"I Don't Know How You Do It"

“I don’t know how you do it.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say that to me. They’re referring, of course, to working night-after-night, week-after-week, with the sorts of folks who come to our Hospitality Centers. Not only can the challenges they suffer from—homelessness, mental illnesses, addictions, and so many other factors that relegate them to society’s margins (e.g., lack of education, dysfunctional habits, and troubles with the law)—seem insurmountable, but many of them also have, as a matter of survival, adopted behaviors that can be off-putting. Some growl; others whine. While many express gratitude for what we do, others can be aggressive and demanding, as if they are entitled to a blanket, or socks, or a sandwich. Meeting the limits of a lifetime of frustration, they sometimes explode in paroxysms of anger and cursing.

Given that overview, maybe you yourself are even tempted now to say it: “I don’t know how you do it.”

As I say, I’ve heard it many times. But last week was the first time I had heard it from a guest!

In this particular case, I think it was this guest’s way of saying, “Thank you.” For he patience is a form of wisdomhimself has not been an easy person to get along with, and I’ve had the hardest time establishing some rapport. Without going into the specifics of his story, I will say that, though he is a young man, he has experienced a lot of hardness in his life that has embittered him deeply. While those experiences haven’t driven him to drink or drugs, he has developed an addiction to his anger. As a result, he has alienated many, guests and volunteers alike. As for myself, I give him distance when I feel he needs his distance, but otherwise try to treat him as well as I treat everyone else.

I do so because I know that behind his anger is a whole lot of pain. And I do so because I know that he’s not at Nightwatch to please me. On the contrary, I’m at Nightwatch to provide a safe space for him.

His typical behavior toward me has been essentially to ignore me. Therefore, when he does say something to me, I consider it be of great significance. And the fact that he would come to me last week and say this very thing: “I don’t know how you do it”? Behind it may have perhaps been an expression of the difficulty he feels sharing the Hospitality Center with others who can be very demanding. But I saw it more as an expression of self-awareness of exactly how demanding he could be, and his appreciation that someone still hung in with him and cared.

It was the closest he was going to get to “Thank you.”

But for him it was close enough.

And that’s how I can continue to “do it.”

Our Mentally-Ill

You’ve probably seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, filmed at our own Oregon State Hospital. Under the stern eye of Nurse Ratched, life there appeared stark and grim.

Having done my own clinical pastoral training at Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts, I can testify that in reality, state hospitals were even worse than depicted. “Warehouses for the crazy”—or “snakepits”—is what they were once called, and that about summed it up. With only hard edges everywhere, “food” that was basically salt, fat, and carbs, smells that could gag, and a staff that likely found jobs there because no one else would hire them, state hospitals were the sorts of place that if you weren’t completely insane when you entered, you certainly would have achieved that status before very long. (I felt a little crazy myself after having only worked a few months there.)

Nevertheless, in the wake of “reform” that shut down most of the nation’s state i used to be your neighborhospitals, the alternative hasn’t been better. Even after my state hospital experience, I’ve come to question whether it hasn’t been worse. That’s because the “alternative” to the state hospital system has essentially been nothing. Community mental health agencies were supposed to take up the slack, dispensing necessary medications to those who would come in to get them; but that counted on the mentally-ill, unsupervised, to take the initiative in seeking the agencies out. Guess what? That hasn’t worked very well. As a result, you find many of the mentally-ill on the streets (or after they’ve acted out, in jail).

We have direct contact with them at Nightwatch (thank goodness for my state hospital experience!). Saturday night, we had one woman with severe schizophrenia lock herself in a restroom, unwilling to come out. Another guest approached me, eager to tell me that he had finally figured out who he was: “the physical manifestation of Christ,” against whom 3000 evil spirits were out to get him. Another guest who has a history of delusions, including that of a fantasy pregnancy, while speaking to our nurse suddenly began mewling baby-talk.

It’s simply criminal the way our society has come to treat its mentally-ill. If a family was discovered to have consigned one of its members to eating out of garbage cans while being shoeless and otherwise barely clad, someone would be arrested for abuse. Even a pet-owner would be cited for treating an animal as callously as our culture-as-a-whole treats its mentally-ill.

Unknown by many is the fact that the sandwiches that we serve at our Downtown Hospitality Center—except for those made by our Tuna Team—are prepared by a severely autistic young man with Tourette’s. He is accompanied by his mother and a hired caregiver. The only thing that separates this young man who makes the sandwiches from our guests who eat those sandwiches is that he has someone who loves him.

All Nightwatch can provide is a little light in the darkness. We do not provide therapy. We cannot cure. But at least we’re there, to show that someone cares.

Reflections of a Nightwatch Guest

It's a rare opportunity when you get a chance to hear directly from one of our Nightwatch guests.

Harold Nelson regularly comes to our SE Hospitality Center. He also attended his first spiritual retreat with us in June. At the end of the retreat we invited all our participants to write an evaluation of Nightwatch to give us a sense of how we were doing and if they felt there was anything we needed to improve. Harold's evaluation stood out for its sincerity and articulateness. (We shared it with you a few weeks ago.)

Someone suggested we ask Harold go on camera and read his peace. Believing that to be an inspired idea, we took the idea to him and he was more-than-happy to volunteer.

Before we turned the camera on, we told Harold he was free to ad-lib if he wanted to, and he did go off on a couple of riffs you may enjoy. 


The Great Depressed

Last week I had a flashback to the time I once spent on a sabbatical in Palestine. Remarkably, what stirred the memory was not the awfulness on the news of what is currently going on in Gaza.

Rather, what prompted it was a pile of trash I saw scattered in a doorway on way into the office one morning , the detritus left by someone who had obviously used the spotrough sleepers to sleep the previous night. The sleeper himself was gone, but he had left the litter of his stay behind. “At least he could have picked up after himself,” was the thought that immediately flashed to my mind.

And then I thought of Palestine.

The Palestinian people as a whole are desperately poor. David Hare in his play Via Dolorosa describes the border between Israel and the Palestinian territories as being the only place in the world where you can literally cross the street and step from a modern technological society into a Third-World country. He is not engaging in hyperbole. It’s exactly like that. I vividly remember my first day in East Jerusalem when my Israeli cab driver refused to drive me to my hotel on the Mount of Olives because it was a Palestinian neighborhood and I had to take out all my gear and haul it myself there. Once I crossed the former “Green Line” everything changed: whereas the well-paved Israeli streets were canyoned by condos, everything beyond was potholed and worn. The yards of the homes I saw held piles of discarded things—rusted 50-gallon drums, car chassis, and random litter. It was like a Middle-Eastern Appalachia.

The link between the mental connections I was making—homeless site, Palestine, Appalachia—was trash. But not trash in-and-of-itself. The connection was the common tendency of impoverished people across cultures to be careless about picking up their trash, carelessly leaving their discards wherever they were finished with them. We see this even on a micro-scale at our Hospitality Centers where guests might depart with a half-eaten sandwich and a barely-sipped cup of coffee left at their places without walking them to disposal spots ten feet away. (Not that all guests do this, any more than all poor people live surrounded by their own garbage—while on my sabbatical I stayed with a number of Palestinians whose homes, while lacking many things, were kept immaculately clean.)

Animals instinctively do not foul their own nests. So as I continued on my way to the office, I asked myself, “What would make this contrary behavior so common among those who are poor? To not take care of oneself and the environment that’s an immediate extension of oneself is the symptom of a depressed person . . .”

Bingo! An “aha!” moment!

Arriving at my office, I went online and googled “poor” and “depression.” What popped up as the top search result? “Depression Disproportionately Affects Those In Poverty, Report Finds.” The study by Gallup and Healthways indicated that twice as many of those below the poverty line reported themselves as having depression as those who were not. Whether it was poverty that caused the depression or depression the poverty could not be determined. The fact is that it affected one-in-three poor people. Furthermore, the study demonstrated that, of all illnesses suffered by the poor, depression hit them far more than any other.

The “aha!” moments kept coming. For all my years at Nightwatch, I hadn’t considered that for all else that our guests were suffering, a good number of them were needed to cope with it while slogging through the sloughs of depression. This created a new understanding. It would certainly color the way I would now approach them. They certainly needed listeners, and more patience than even I had previously granted.

And it further stressed to me just how vital a place like Operation Nightwatch is. Feed someone who is poor and get him into a shelter, and you’re doing a good thing. But it is not enough. Not when we see they’re still fouling their own nests.

What they need to know is that they are not alone.

What they need to know is that someone cares.