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.

What Does It Mean to Provide Hospitality in a Wired Age?

I don’t often find myself on the same wavelength as New York Times columnist Ross Douhat, but I do appreciate a seriously provocative thinker. Douhat can certainly be that (unlike many TV and radio pundits who, while they may enjoy being provocative, evidence little seriousness or even thinking).

A couple of Sundays ago, Douhat has a column entitled, “The Cult Deficit,” in which he raises a certain-sort-of-alarm about the demise of religious cults in our country. He begins,

Like most children of the Reagan era, I grew up with a steady diet of media warnings about the perils of religious cults — the gurus who lurked in wait for the unwary and confused, offering absolute certainty with the aftertaste of poisoned Kool-Aid. From the 1970s through the 1990s, from Jonestown to Heaven’s Gate, frightening fringe groups and their charismatic leaders seemed like an essential element of the American religious landscape.

Yet we don’t hear nearly as much about them anymore, and it isn’t just that the media have moved on. Some strange experiments have aged into respectability, some sinister ones still flourish, but overall the cult phenomenon feels increasingly antique, like lava lamps and bell bottoms.

Most of us easily remember those days when cults were very much in the news and many had fears that their impressionable children would be brainwashed to forsake their family by some charismatic “love-bombing” leader operating under some questionably religious guise. But the fact that we don’t hear so much about cults anymore is not that they’ve gone more deeply underground; most of them genuinely have disappeared.

And for all the anguish that cults caused a lot of people, we should consider this a good thing, right?

Not so fast, Douhat says. He quotes a couple of other social analysts, including Philip Jenkins, a prominent religious historian. And what Jenkins points out is that, historically, when fringe religious elements prove active, it’s typically a sign that the spiritual culture of a society as-a-whole is vibrant. What cults do is “push the envelope” of what’s generally an active spiritual searching within the general population. The disappearance of cults can therefore be a troubling sign—that a culture’s general sense of spirituality is stagnating.

The argument made sense to me. I was pastoring in the seventies, eighties, and nineties when cults were in the news. But it so happened that the spiritual scene in general was very active during those times. People were learning meditation. Yoga and martial arts emphasized their spiritual origins, not just the practical effects they can have in lowering blood pressure or making someone into a Seal Team 6 wannabe. Folks I knew were taking retreats in monasteries. Megachurches exploded on the scene.

If there is much of that going on anymore, it has certainly dropped off my radar. Even many megachurches are on the decline, with the result being they have surrendered much of their spiritual message (“How to Have a Powerful Prayer Life”) to a more DIY topics (“How to Be an Effective Parent”) in order to sustain themselves.

But now it’s my turn to be provocative. I’ll point a finger at a cause for the loss of such vibrancy. I think it’s not simply a coincidence that the energy devoted to spiritual questing declined exactly at the time when the age of social media began. Who needs real friends—such as those you might find in a spiritual community—when you can just compile your “friends” on Facebook? Those “friendships,” involving so much less complication, certainly entail a lot less work! And look! If you find one of your contacts posting a note about a compelling cause, you don’t have to commit yourself to anything—all you have to do is click to “like” it! To develop an authentic spiritual center requires devotion, self-sacrifice, and deferred gratification. How can that compete with the immediate endorphin-release provided by all the Internet’s bells and whistles?

With Nightwatch not existing in a vacuum, we have to deal with the same issues among those we serve. It might not occur to you that people who are homeless could be as plugged into the Internet as a suburban teenager. But you’d be surprised how many of them possess their own laptops and/or smartphones. For they don’t exist in a vacuum, either. The Internet and social media have today become the prime media for communication in our culture, and if they’re going to connect with computer game 1jobs, housing, health care, or anything else, it’s going to be through some digital form.

And that’s why one of the most popular services we provide is WiFi for our guests. Needless to say, 90% of their usage of it is for pure entertainment purposes, rather than looking for jobs, housing, etc. But why expect them to be any different from the rest of us? Isn’t that about how much we use our own computers for mere entertainment, too?

But the more our guests focus upon their digital devices, the less they necessarily interact with each other. A couple of weeks ago, we were scheduled as our monthly outing to go to the Corn Maze on Sauvie Island. Yet while we had more than a full roster signed up to go, when the day came only a couple showed up. I knew where the rest were. Many of our guests like to spend their days at the library where they can use the computers there to go online. And it requires much less effort to find your way through a vitural maze than it does to overcome inertia to walk a real one. (Having done both, I can testify that the latter is much more fun.) 

And that raises a huge quandary for us. We have always emphasized that the rationale for Nightwatch is to provide a place where those from the streets might be rescued from their social isolation. Yet building relationships, like going on a spiritual quest, requires effort. What does it do to our vibrancy when the endorphin-pull of the Internet’s bells-and-whistles only causes our guests to maintain their isolation? Is this what we're becoming: only a mass of self-isolating individuals occupying the same space?

In short: what does it mean to provide hospitality in a wired age?

I don’t have an answer for this. As we are all just finding our way in this new electronic culture that has come to dominate all we do, I’m not sure that anyone does. Everything—from spirituality to hospitality—is being re-defined. And unless there is some apocalyptic disaster that shuts down the entire grid where we can come to discover one other again, there is no turning back.

If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

Change Happens

At Nightwatch, we are not out to change people. Yet change happens. And it may not only happen to our guests.

Corene is a former volunteer who is now enrolled at George Fox University. She recently had to write an essay about something that changed her outlook on life, and she appealed to her memories of serving at Nightwatch. She shared the essay with us, and this is an excerpt:

In October of 2010, I took a job in a medical office in The Pearl district of Portland. Parking in this area is very scarce, and often I would have to park many blocks away from the building that I worked in. I found myself walking under the I-405 bridge almost daily to get from my car, to work, and back. The underside of bridges naturally attract the transient population due to the large overhead protection that the bridge provides. . . .

 

One day . . . [when] I was walking from the office I could see . . . a block away . . . an older homeless gentleman, heavily draped in ripped and dirty clothing, coming my way. I quickly and intentionally crossed over to the other side of the street and clutched the pepper spray that I had ready in my pocket. As he passed on the other side of the street, he smiled at me. In that moment, I made the decision to educate myself in regards to this population in hopes of driving out the fear that I had.

 

I scoured the web that afternoon and found an organization named Operation Nightwatch. . . . I didn’t know much about what they did or what they stood for, but I signed up for my first Thursday night shift for the following week. [In] an orientation beforehand[, t]hey emphasized that they were invested in providing for the community of people who did not have means to support themselves. This investment was not only in their physical needs, but also in their emotional and social needs. The Nightwatch program was akin to a coffee house. It was the only organization at that time that was open after dark and gave people a refuge for a little while longer into their night. Anyone was welcome to come and get hot coffee or tea and socialize, play games, or listen to music. Volunteers not only helped with serving the coffee up, but were encouraged to sit and talk with guests or startcorene a board or card game.

 

By January of 2011, I was devoted to this community and was volunteering once to twice a week and wanted to go further in helping. The organization was starting up a “Street Team” to take coffee and socks out into nearby areas to let people know about this organization and invite them to come. . . .

 

Going out on the streets and reaching out to people was much different than serving those who came into the dwelling place. The people we encountered were generally very hesitant about our offers and suspicious. They did not completely trust us. Slowly, but surely, as we saw people on a more regular basis, and they began to open up more. Most guests were very thankful for the hot coffee and warm socks, but most importantly, they were grateful for the conversation. When I was just serving coffee, I would always get polite, verbal thanks. When I was focused on talking and listening with guests, that is when I would see their eyes light up with appreciation. There was a hunger for socialization, and a thirst to have their voices heard. . . .

 

I grew up in a very rural town in the middle of Washington state. This was a community where everybody knew everybody, and we all helped each other if anyone was in need. Because of the tight-knit community, there was not a homeless population. I had only seen transients from a distance when visiting the larger cities, which was a scarce occasion. Since I had such an amazing support system, I speculated that anyone who was homeless was there by choice because they burned their bridges with anyone who would take care of them. I also assumed that those bridges were most likely burned due to self-inflicted addictions or mental conditions that they refused to get help for.

 

Looking back at my younger self and my way of thinking, I am ashamed. I was completely terrified the day I encountered the homeless man under the bridge and chose to race to the other side of the street. I was convinced that he would try to harm me in some way. I was seeing him not as a human, but as a species or animal that I was programmed to avoid. I am glad that I looked at that homeless man as I was crossing the street. By seeing his genuine smile, I had the realization that I was being prejudiced in that moment. I saw the soft eyes that were reminiscent of my grandfather. It was as if he knew my fear, and, instead of being hurt, he wanted to show me the love I refused to give him. Although it was hard to own up to the shame I felt, I was glad that God had put on my heart to face my fears instead of continue with my old way of thinking.

 

The fears didn’t dissipate the day that I decided to volunteer with the homeless. In fact, I can remember the day I first pulled in front of Operation Nightwatch’s building. There was already a line down the block waiting to get in. Weary-looking men and women, wearing backpacks and dragging carts, lined the walkway. I made sure my car was locked at least five times and zipped my coat up to my chin. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I suspected that it was going to be the worst. I had realized that I needed to change my way of thinking, but that change had not yet happened in the least. I had an internal struggle within myself all the way up to the door.

When I started to talk and serve these men and women, it didn’t take long for my hard heart to be chipped away at. The more I came, the more that they trusted and opened up to me. One gentleman in particular always stays fresh in my mind. His name was Saul. When I first met him, he told me he was “Saul with the scales on his eyes, not the bad king.” He told me of how he had been in the service, but was treated badly when he reentered society. He had been abused by the system and felt he couldn’t fit in socially or financially. He had a family and lit up as he talked about them, even though he hadn’t seen them in a long time. I get weepy thinking of all the faces that remain so clear in my mind and the stories behind them.

 

I had been completely off in my way of thinking. I was not just being cautious and trying to protect myself; I was dehumanizing these beautiful people. There was a married couple who frequented Operation Nightwatch almost every night I was there. The man had eyes filled with pain and worry; I can still see those eyes vividly. One night, the man sat down at the piano, and proceeded to produce the most haunting and beautiful music I had ever heard. I didn’t recognize the tune, so I asked around if anyone else did. Come to find out, this was his original music. This instance reminded me that every child of God was born with amazing gifts. I was overwhelmed with the joy that came from experiencing these gifts through this unlikely couple.

 

Since I had this new found joy, it was a privilege to join the Street Team. My husband had not yet been as exposed to this type of work and was terrified, almost angry, that I would put myself in a position where I could possibly be harmed. I wasn’t afraid at all by this point. I knew that God had led me to this place in my life and would continue to protect me and my son. My pregnancy actually proved as a bonding topic, especially with the women I met. When I first went out, I was only a few months along. I didn’t think I was showing any physical signs of pregnancy, but a woman came up to me and asked about my baby. She was about thirty years old, and she had long hair and tattered clothes. She confided in me that she was trying to get clean of drugs, so that she could get custody of her own children back.

 

By the time I was put on bed rest and had to retire my duties with Operation Nightwatch, heart had been changed. Work had been done in my mind, and I was happy about that. I was sad to not be able to be hands-on and face to face with these amazing people any longer. I continue to follow their efforts and victories through Facebook and am so excited for what is happening! I am so thankful I was led to an organization that is so genuine and true.

No One Under 21

When you enter our Downtown Hospitality Center, you are "greeted" by a sign that says, "No One Under 21 Permitted."

 Not much of a greeting, is it?

And lately I've had a number of our newer volunteers ask me the rationale for it--especially since, as students, a number of them are themselves under 21.

Their question is a reasonable one, and it deserves an answer.

First of all, I assure them that the rule applies only to guests, not to volunteers (an individual needs to be at least 18 in order to volunteer). And I also tell them that we only keep the rule at our Downtown Center, not at any of our others. And even at our Downtown Center, there is only a specific sub-population among potential guests that the rule is aimed at: street youth, i. e., homeless adolescents who often hang out in clusters or "street families," basically for self-protection but who also can be subject to undisciplined teenage impulses. For instance, small children who might be brought in by their parents because they had no place else to go certainly wouldn't be turned away. (As a matter of fact,, a family with two toddlers came through our doors last week and we worked with them to see whether we could get them shelter for the night.)

And the issues with street youth that have led us to adopt our enforcement policy are basically these:

 1) Mixing street youth with older homeless folks can be like mixing oil and water. There is typically tension between the two populations. Street youth--especially since they tend to hang out in clusters --have been known to bully and exploit their more vulnerable elders, stealing from them and even beating them up. There is an age-divide there with a lot of bad blood. That no one under 21doesn't help when we're trying to create a peaceful haven from the streets at Nightwatch.

 2) The fact is, Portland provides a number of good services for homeless youth. Outside-In is only three blocks away. New Avenues for Youth is right around the corner. These are services non-youth cannot access because the agencies have an opposite rule from ours--in Outside-In's case, "No One OVER 25." Thus, when youth come to Nightwatch wanting a sandwich or a blanket, resentment builds among our older guests (see #1), "Why are you taking taking OUR things? We can't go to Outside-In and take YOURS." (It's because there are not similar services for young people outside downtown that we do not enforce the same age - exclusionary rule at our other Hospitality Centers.)

 3) Finally, as anyone who has spent any time around adolescents knows. teenagers bring with them a different kind of energy. For one thing, the nature of adolescence is that the opinions of one's peers matter more than at any other time of life. Consequently. teenagers tend to clump. If one teenager came into the Center, his friends would probably be in his wake. And clumps of teenagers tend to be louder, cruder, busier. In allowing them into the Hospitality Center, we would therefore likely be affecting its entire atmosphere in a manner precisely from which our regular guests are seeking refuge (again, see #1).

I hope our No One Under 21 policy downtown, once explained, does not seem unreasonable to anyone. But one thing I do know: it has helped us keep the peace.

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?