- Written by Gary Davis
Jeffrey was excited to see me. He could hardly contain himself. ‘I’ve got someone for you to meet!” he said.
Jeffrey hadn’t been to the Downtown Center for a number of months and when he was there he invariably sought me out because he had a joke to tell or some witty observation to make. But this evening he was clearly excited about something else.
“Her name is Gracie,” he said when we were finally introduced. She was a mixed breed who, while she had some German Shepherd in her, was a very sweet and docile animal.
Jeffrey is very sweet and docile too—a “puppy dog” kind-of-guy—and I was glad he had finally found a friend. While loneliness is endemic to the streets, Jeffrey struck me as being particularly alone. I never saw him hanging out with anyone else, and his sense of humor may have just seemed too goofy for most people. I think that’s why he always sought me out. He was like the precocious kid in class, not knowing quite how to relate to his peers, always hangs on the heels of the teacher.
For the last couple of weeks, Jeffrey came to the Center faithfully accompanied by Gracie. Then on Thursday, when he approached me he was alone. “You may notice someone is missing,” he said, trying to sound casual.
“Uh-oh,” I thought.
Then he came right out with it: “Some guy led Gracie out onto the railroad tracks and she was killed by a train.”
“That’s so awful!” I said.
“Yep,” he said, still keeping up his front. “Sliced right in half.”
“Oh, Jeffrey, I am so sorry,” I said.
This is when the tears welled up. “This guy had it in for me.” He turned away, whether embarrassed by his emotion, or simply overwhelmed by the memory, I don’t know. But it was clear he had said what he needed to say. And he had gotten someone to listen.
But as he turned away, he had one more thing he had to say: “Some people are so evil!”
It surely is a hobby-horse of mine to emphasize that a true “home” is so many more things than merely a roof over one’s head, and that therefore those who are “home”-less lack many other resources that we take for granted in the emotional and spiritual refuge that “home” provides. And what Jeffrey made me aware of is the importance of having someone with whom to share one’s deepest sorrow with.
We intuitively know that the worst way of mourning is by being alone. That’s why when an acquaintance dies, everyone rallies around the family whose loved one was lost, bringing in meals, attending wakes, checking in the days after the funeral. But who is there when someone who is homeless who has suffered a grievous loss to offer their care, their concern, their support.
Jeffrey knew he had a place where there would be someone to mourn with him. Helping to bear another’s burdens is not like our dominant activities at Nightwatch—playing games, watching movies, handing out blankets and socks—but if anything, it is exactly the thing we are supposed to be doing.
This is exactly the kind of place we are meant to be.
"The Sum Total of Sadness"
- Written by Gary Davis
“Isabelle” is a short story by celebrated author George Saunders in which a teen-aged boy becomes enmeshed in the lives of his neighbors, a single dad and his severely handicapped daughter. The dad is a racist cop who can be brutal in his treatment of (especially black) suspects; from a hiding spot, the boy and his brother even once witness him killing one. But with his daughter, the cop is a different person altogether. He shows infinite patience and treats her with the deepest endearment and tenderness.
When the cop feels the boy is old enough to shoulder the responsibility, he arranges through the boy’s family to have him serve as caregiver for his daughter during the hours he is working. Naturally, being a teenager, this is a job the boy doesn’t want. As the boy confesses, “[When] we were young, ignorant of mercy, [we] called her Boneless or Balled-Up Gumby for the way her limbs were twisted and useless.” But in time spent with the daughter, he feels a bond growing between them and he becomes attached to her himself.
The father dies. The boy’s mother refuses to entertain the idea of taking the daughter into their own home, so she is institutionalized. The boy visits with his family, but then there is an incident where the daughter becomes so hurt by his family that she withdraws, never wanting to see them again.
Months pass. The boy has become a young man. He gets a job and a place of his own. And he can’t stop thinking about his neighbor who was once in his care. So he decides to take the risk of visiting her again.
I thought: What can she do, throw me out? So I went over. When she saw me her eyes lit up. She . . . and I talked until the sun rose and the halls filled with oldsters and lunatics hacking and grousing their way into consciousness. Then an ex-con with a head scar brought her a dish of eggs that looked like it had spent the night on a windowsill and I thought: Jesus Christ, enough is enough.
. . . So I . . . moved her in with me. Now we’re pals. Family. It’s not perfect. Sometimes it’s damn hard. But I look after her and she squeals with delight when I come home, and the sum total of sadness is less than it would have been.
That’s a wonderful line: “the sum total of sadness is less than it would have been.”
And in reading it, it occurred to me that’s what we seek to do at Nightwatch. We have no pretensions of changing the world. That’s way out of our hands. But to give a guest the chance to share something in a conversation he’s had bottled up because he’s had no one who’ll listen to him; to hear a couple of our guys laughing over a board game because a crazy roll of the dice has overturned the direction of who’s winning; to have a guest emerge from foot care declaring that he now feels “like a million bucks” . . . .
Well, that might not result in changing the world, but I have to think that in such small things, the sum total of sadness in our world has nonetheless been diminished.
And I have to think that over time, such small things all add up. . . .
So that’s my wish for you today—that in your encounters, whether through Nightwatch or just in your daily rounds, you may act so that the “sum total of sadness” in our world is somehow “less than it would have been.”
Please: Not Another Whack in the Head
- Written by Gary Davis
I love Portland.
When I was younger I was afflicted with wanderlust. I was restless, always wanting to see new things, have new experiences, see the world. That probably came from my growing up in Gary, Indiana, our family limited in what it could see and do by living on a blue-collar income. But I read, and I watched movies and TV shows filmed in exotic places, and I knew there was a whole wide world out there bigger than Gary that I felt compelled to explore.
But this year marks the 30th year since my wife and I moved to Portland, and since then we’ve visited other places (almost all of which I’ve enjoyed), but it’s hard for me to envision living any other place than here. With its easy access to mountains and ocean, with its greenspace and culture—both that which is traditional and that which is uniquely our own city’s—there is so much beauty and stimulation, who would want anything more?
And yet I got into a conversation with a couple of our guests a couple of weeks ago, and when one of them said, “I can’t wait to get out of this place, to go somewhere else,” and the other readily agreed. On top of everything else, the one who expressed these sentiments said he was a Portland native, born and raised here.
To say that I was shocked to hear someone say this would not be a completely accurate description of my emotions. More appropriately, I might describe my reaction as feeling aggrieved. How could someone feel so negatively about my beloved city?
But of course, I’m not homeless.
And while I was tempted to come to Portland’s defense (e.g., “You think you have it rough as a homeless person here? You should try some other city where there are no resources directed toward homeless needs at all!”), I learned long ago that you can’t deny people their feelings. If our guests felt that Portland was a pretty awful place for them as homeless individuals, I should rather ask myself why, despite the way the city has sought to address homeless needs, they would still feel that way.
No doubt, a large element of our guests’ attitude is due to the fact that while there has been no end to talk about providing housing for the homeless, it hasn’t been matched by commensurate action. Yes, the city has celebrated the number of people they have gotten into housing, but it hasn’t been at a fast enough rate to meet everyone’s needs, and demand far exceeds supply.
But I think something else is afoot. I think that precisely because the city talks so much about doing something about homelessness, but then fails to follow through on meeting the expectations it raises, it subjects our guests to such disillusionment—such smothering of a hope that might sustain them—that it’s almost worse than the city making no pretense of caring about the homeless at all.
Let’s face it. City policy toward homeless people has been wildly inconsistent over the past few years. In one moment, the police are cracking down on people sleeping in doorways. Then the city decides its okay for homeless folks to camp on city property. Then the city decides it’s not okay anymore, and announces all unauthorized encampments will be subject to sweeps. I myself do my best to remain up-to-date on current city policy, as guests will ask me if and when they can camp somewhere, and it’s hard enough for me to keep up. For our guests themselves, it must subject them to psychological whiplash.
The city is no doubt unaware of this, but what it’s doing in its pendulumic swings in homeless policy is taking a page out of psy-ops manuals that inform torturers how to break prisoners. After roughing up the subject for a while, take the diametrically opposite approach—offer him a cigarette, tend to his wounds—then when he thinks you’ve softened toward him, whack him even harder than you did before. They’ve proven it with lab rats in the administration of food versus electric shocks, and many a child has grown up with life-long emotional dysfunctions because of growing up under parents they could not know from one moment to the next whether they would be nurturing huggers or abusive monsters.
Psychological abuse can have as long-term effects as physical abuse. And I think what is alienating a lot of Portland’s homeless sons and daughters from their own city is that from all the inconsistent and confused mixed messages they’re constantly being dealt they’re feeling psychologically abused.
I actually have a lot of sympathy for those responsible for making city policy. They have many constituencies to satisfy. Theirs can’t be an easy job. And any policy should always be considered only provisional, as changing circumstances may require its modification. But there’s been an unfortunate ham-handedness in the way policy changes have been abruptly thrust on the public, making them each feel lack a whack across the head.
That’s not good.
That does damage.
Because I love Portland, I know the city can do better.
The Vision Realized
- Written by Gary Davis
Below are two pictures of guests at our Mobile Hospitality Center. There are a number of minor differences between them, and one major one.
Can you guess what the major one is?
The minor differences are mostly surface. One is sharper than the other. The lighting and focus are not identical.
Those things aside, however, the pictures are basically the same. A crowd of guests has gathered. What has brought them? Have they come because they know they will be fed? No doubt. The intended purpose of the Mobile Center is to go to those areas where homeless services are few. Some of those who show up at our site may have not had a good meal all day--or longer. Similarly, because of the lack of services, those who seek out our Mobile Hospitality Center because they need socks, or warm clothes, or a blanket. We provide these, too.
But notice in both pictures that the guests are simply standing in line with a "gimme" attitude, ready to take what they can get and head off. No, they are sitting down, hanging out, relaxing--kind of like if they were at home, if they had homes of their own. That's what we mean when we talk about Nightwatch hospitality. The mission of Nightwatch is not really focused on people's needs, as it is on the people themselves. We don't see those who come to us as simply mouths to be fed or bodies to be clothed, to feel we have satisfied in our accomplishment when only those things are achieved. People are a rich blend of thoughts, emotions, histories, and experiences, and they are not honored unless those parts of them are honored too. And when folks feel those aspects of themselves are honored, they see there is a place for them.
And that's what those who are homeless so often suffer, along with everything else with which they have to cope--that there is no place for them.
That's the core vision of Nightwatch. Which brings us to the MAJOR difference between the two pictures:
Only the second one is real. The first is a Photoshopped fake.
No subterfuge was meant by the first one. It was created several years ago as part of our campaign to raise funds to put a Mobile Hospitality Center on the road. We wanted potential supporters to envision what a potentional Mobile Hospitality Center could do, and what it could be. Back then we were calling it "a Hospitality Center on Wheels." And the picture said, "Look at this! You know the good work we do at our Hospitality Center downtown? With a Mobile Center we could go and do the same thing wherever homeless clusters in the city may be found."
The second picture is a still taken a new short video, produced by Blackstone Edge Studios and now available for viewing on YouTube, featuring the Mobile Hospitality Center in action. And together with the first picture, you know what it says?
Everything we had envisioned for the Mobile Hospitality Center when it was only a dream has since come to pass!
Take a look at the video. I tell you as one who wasn't even involved in the project (the idea for the video came from Board member John Hoover, and Mikaila is the star of the show) that it really is inspiring.
The Poverty Industry
- Written by Gary Davis
Though I’m not yet retired, I am a member of AARP. And one of the services notice AARP provides is to educate older folks about the scams that scummy people perpetrate against those who are vulnerable. Indeed, con artists identify the old, the young, the poor, and the struggling as particularly easy “marks.” When you’re young, you don’t know enough not be taken in by a flim-flam artist’s enticements; when you’re old, your faculties are just not working at capacity to question dubious claims; when you’re poor and destitute you’re so desperate that you’re willing to jump at anything that looks good.
But isn’t it the case that, particularly because these folks are so vulnerable, when we hear of some small-time crook taking advantage of them, we feel that person to be low as to be deserving of the lowest reaches of hell?
But what if the scamming of the poor, weak, and vulnerable happens on a wholesale, corporate level?
It’s not many books that get my blood boiling from the very first pages of its Introduction, but I just finished reading a pre-publication copy of a volume called The Poverty Industry by Daniel L. Hatcher, formerly with the Children’s Defense Fund who now teaches law at the University of Baltimore. And what Mr. Hatcher describes is a giant scam in which state governments with the assistance of private consulting firms (which themselves make billions off the deals) rip off federal government funds earmarked for public welfare programs to use for their own designs. What Mr. Hatcher reveals is that, whereas fingers are often pointed at poor folks lining their pockets with welfare dollars, it’s the state houses and the suites of corporate America that are really raking in the dollars for their own benefit.
Here’s an example, the vignette with which Mr. Hatcher opens his book:
Alex was taken into foster care at age twelve after his mother’s death. Over a six-year period, he was moved at least twenty times between temporary placements and group homes. Soon after losing his mother, Alex learned his older brother might be able to care for him, but then his brother died. There were also hopes that Alex could go to live with his father, but then his father died as well.
Unknown to Alex, he was eligible to receive Social Security survivor benefits after his father died. These funds could have provided an invaluable benefit to Alex, supplying an emotional connection to his deceased father and financial resources to help with his difficult transition out of foster care.
But without telling Alex, the Maryland foster care agency applied for the survivor benefits on his behalf and to become his representative payee. Then, although obligated to only use the benefits for the child’s best interests, the agency took every payment from Alex. The agency didn’t tell Alex it was applying for the funds, and didn’t tell him when the agency took the money for itself. Alex struggled during his years in foster care, left foster care penniless, and continued to struggle on his own. And after taking Alex’s funds, the agency hired a private revenue contractor to learn how to obtain more resources from foster children.
When I was a sociology major in college I engaged in a study of an aspect of organizational dynamics academics label, “the complexing phenomenon.” The essence of this "phenomenon" is that organizations originally designed to serve others in fact tend to direct less of their energy and fewer of their resources over time toward the mission for which they were founded, and instead devote more and more of them inward toward efforts aimed at their own self-preservation. This phenomenon is common, and all organizations with a mission (such as Nightwatch!) have to be ever-vigilant to guard against falling victim to it. But what Mr. Hatcher demonstrates is that current institutions directed to serve the public welfare have taken the "complexing phenomenon" a giant step further: much beyond simply channeling more of their own resources toward their institutional self-preservation, as Alex's case illustrates, they are actively exploiting the very people entrusted to their care in order to bolster their own coffers. Not only are foster care agencies accessing the individual funds of their clients, but courts are financing themselves by piling fine upon fine upon their indigent prisoners (even charging for access to court-appointed lawyers, in violation of the 6th Amendment), and nursing homes are pumping their residents with stupor-inducing psychotropics so they can cut back on staff while bringing in more residents toward the end of obtaining greater federal funds.
The ordinary citizen may not be aware this is happening, but among government wonks it is happening in plain sight. State legislatures have passed regulations Mr. Hatcher quotes from the public record that dictate in black-and-white that “no more that 17.5% of federal funds received for public welfare shall be directed to clients,” yet no one is calling them to account for it. When Mitt Romney was governor of Massachusetts, his so-called “Massachusetts Miracle” where he balanced the state’s books only got balanced in this way—by siphoning money away from that which was earmarked for the poor. Similarly, our new vice-presidential candidate, Mike Pence, has been celebrated for paying Indiana’s bills, but he did it exactly in the same way, from money given to the state that was meant for the poor. And this is not to say Republicans have a hammerlock on the practice. Jerry Brown has engaged in similar actions in California. And what’s been going on in Oregon also occupies a place in the book.
There is certainly enough here to outrage any reader, no matter where the reader stands on the political spectrum. Conservatives who believe government does not work will be fortified in that belief, because there is certainly plenty of evidence here that the government agencies commissioned to serve the public welfare are indeed NOT working toward their intended purposes. On the other hand, left-wing critics will find much ammunition here as well, as much of the dysfunction can be attributed to private companies that have invaded the welfare establishment to make billions (hence the title of the book, The Poverty Industry), who have come here because they see there is profit to be made.
The ordinary citizen may not be aware that all this is happening, but with the publication of this book, there’s no excuse now. This book deserves a wide readership.
Find it. Read it (the Kindle edition is only $2.99). And be prepared to feel your blood boil.