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We occasionally celebrate redemption stories at Nightwatch. But I can’t remember when we ever met two on one night, as we did on Friday. And to have them presented to us within five minutes of each other was rather dizzying!

Riley had been the sort of guy over whom we could only shake our heads whenever he came up in conversation or we saw him stumble in to the Hospitality Center. Though loathe to admit it, I would have to confess we all had classified him “a hopeless case.” I can’t recall that we ever saw him sober. His drunkenness a “given,” it was only a matter of degree to which he was drunk. If he could barely maneuver, we had to ask him to leave. But we let him in if he was functional. After all, what could we do? It’s not as if he were going to change.

Besides, he had health needs and he needed to access our nurses. Neither were they minor needs. He had one of the worst cases of trenchfoot our nurses had ever seen. Riley wore a pair of high-laced boots, and he admitted that he had gone 47 days without removing them. The reason? Because he drank so much, he didn’t think that if he took them off, he’d ever be able to get them back on.

Riley’s condition was such as to finally be life-threatening—so life-threatening that our nurses got him to the hospital and, when he was admitted, consideration was made to put him into a hospice program. But the hospital decided on other treatment instead, and after several weeks, Riley was discharged to reappear at our Hospitality Center Friday night . . .

And he was a changed man! He was sober and looked fresh and vital. And when the shoot from cracked earthnurses examined his feet, even the slightest sign of discoloration was gone. Riley had his thanks to offer. He said he felt really good, like he was “himself again.”

Will is another of our regulars. Though he hasn’t had the same problems as Riley, Will’s been on the streets for a long time. He’s a pretty straight-arrow, and it seems like he’s often got a story of victimization to tell. He’s often asking me if we’ve got a backpack, or a sleeping bag, or a blanket, because his things are always being stolen by those on the streets who are younger and tougher than he is.

But as I came away from seeing Riley on Friday, someone said, “You’ve got to hear Will’s story!” I had never seen him so beaming. “I’m getting some money!” he said. “I’m getting off these streets!”

It seems that Will had just learned he was to be the beneficiary of a substantial inheritance. The family fortune originated with Will’s great-grandfather, who was a major bootlegger during Prohibition. Will was one of the few surviving heirs. He was to visit the bank and get the details on Monday.

Needless to say, both Riley and Will still have major challenges to face. We can only pray that Riley will not surrender to old self-destructive patterns now that he’s been given a second chance, and that Will will not similarly be exploited by opportunists now that he has a nest-egg, just as he was when he was on the streets.

But one thing their stories reminded me of on Friday is that there really are no “hopeless cases.”

That’s something we must remember, as it is our very mission at Nightwatch to offer hope so that redemption indeed might come.  

The Age of the Hobo is over. The Age of the Homeless is here.

The trouble with so much public perception of those living on the streets is that they still think that they’re all hobos.

You remember the hobo—if not from personal experience, at least from portrayals in popular culture. The Great Depression created a lot of hobos. They were typically young unemployed men who wandered the land looking for something better. When they weren’t traveling, they often clustered in camps along the tracks. They formed lines to feed upon thin gruel at soup kitchens in the cities, and if they were wandering the backroads, counted upon kindly individuals to provide them meals, perhaps in exchange for chores around their property.

With World War II, most railside camps disappeared, but it wasn’t the end of hobos.no hobo Especially after the war, many vets returned home who couldn’t cope. The same was true post-Korea and post-Vietnam. You very rarely found them in the countryside anymore, but the cities had them, self-medicating and picking through the garbage cans in downtown alleys. They often had more psychological issues than those who suffered the Depression’s economic deprivations, but they were hobos, nonetheless.

The Age of the Hobo ended in the 1980s. Three things brought it to an end: 1) massive cuts to federal funds that subsidized housing for low-income people; 2) a wholesale closing of state hospitals and other mental health facilities around the country; and 3) a fundamental restructuring of the American economy that sent most entry-level, low-skilled jobs overseas. While there still indeed may have been hobos to be found in urban America, the ranks of those who no longer had a place to live exploded in size to include many others. The Age of the Homeless has begun.

Sunday, I participated in a panel on homelessness hosted by the Westminster Presbyterian Church. I was there as the “agency guy.” The two others with whom I shared the panel had been invited because they themselves had personal stories of homelessness to relate.

Dominic was raised by his parents on a strict Christian commune in Missouri. When he indulged in some adolescent accesses, he was banned, left on his own. He wandered to Florida where he had a sibling and got a job, but a work-related accident resulted left him not only in medical debt but an addiction to prescription pain-killers. He made his way to Portland, and left on the streets, found that finding a way to survive was itself "a full-time job." After a wintertime raid on his camp in which authorities confiscated all his belongings, leaving him with nothing with six inches of snow on the ground, Dominic resolved he could no longer live this way. He met some folks at Westminster who put their faith in him and helped him out, and he has since gotten on his feet.

Teresa's daughter ended up on the streets because of an eating disorder. In her obsession with body-weight, she began taking methamphetimines and became an addict. As a young attractive female, her addiction made her ripe for exploitation. She barely escaped a human trafficking ring. Yet in her need to survive, she couldn't escape indulging in other criminal activities. In time she was arrested, convicted, and imprisoned. She has claimed, "Prison is perhaps the best place I can be."

Neither Dominic nor Teresa meet the definition of "hobo."

It seems that everybody recognizes that homelessness is a problem. But if the problem is to be solved, it first needs to be understood properly—and the problem is that the thinking of most is still molded by the woefully outdated belief that every homeless person is a hobo. “Why don’t they all just get a job?” is therefore a common complaint. 

Well, first of all, with most of the widget-producers having moved to China or Mexico, the commute could be a real killer. Secondly, with a substantial number of people on the streets coping with mental illness, PTSD, anger management, and other dysfunctions, they’re likely not even to make through the hiring process. And finally, even if they could secure an entry-level, minimum-wage job, with average one-bedroom rental rates in Portland being $1137/month, a paycheck alone doesn’t guarantee housing. Those on waiting lists for existing low-income housing in the metro area already number in the hundreds.

Obviously, we’re far past the time when homelessness is going to be suitably solved by simply passing a down-and-outer a plate of food for doing chores around the estate. The Age of the Homeless will only be brought to its end through major policy changes on federal, state, and local levels. (It is, after all, major policy changes that created it.)

What’s left to be resolved is whether we have the will to make them.

The annual Memorial Service has been one of Nightwatch’s longest traditions, the first one having been held only a couple of years after our founding in 1981. The choice back then was to host it during the week before Easter because of the season’s promise: Easter brings the message of resurrection, while Passover (which usually coincides) celebrates freedom reading of namesfrom bondage. Besides, springtime is itself the fecund display of new life bursting forth all around us.

A video that recently appeared on YouTube featured various homeless people reading aloud mean tweets against the homelessness that have been posted on Twitter. Among the postings:

  • “I hate the homeless. I don’t feel sorry for you. If you want change, let me throw it at you as hard as I can at your dirty face.”
  • “Maybe if homeless people took care of themselves  and looked pretty, we would want to help them. I don’t help yellow teeth.”
  • “I never understand why homeless people smell of piss., when you can literally piss anywhere.”
  • “I was enjoying a latte when I saw a hobo girl across the street. I almost vomited.”
  • “I wonder if homeless people go to heaven.”

3 leadersTo then watch the reactions on the readers’ faces is heart-breaking.

In the memorial service we offered an affirmation. It might not have been able to encounter all the meanness the ones we had lost had encountered in their lives, but it at least asserted to any who cared that they indeed—as much as any of the rest of us—had an invitation to heaven:

Leader: Sisters and brothers in our community last year are no longer with us today. We gather on this day to remember and to bless them. We bless their names. We bless their friends and loved ones. We give thanks for their lives and memories.

All: They were newborn children once, their cries the same as children throughout the ages. They brought us laughter, joys and sorrows. We shared their tears. Their voices were the same as ours in every land and tongue.

Leader: We affirm that they are a part of us still because we are one creation. We are one extended family, one humankind, one earth-kind. We affirm that their lives had value, that they have value still.

All: We affirm that life is sacred and all being holy, the work of the Divine Creator. Wecandlelighting 2 affirm that death holds the same finality for all who live, yet life endures. We affirm that genuine love is endless, steadfast and sure.

Leader: We acknowledge that violence and fear grip parts of the world today. We recognize that these things lurk also in our city, in our neighborhoods, in our souls. We pray that peace may reign instead, that darkness be overcome by light.

All: Here in these brief moments of time and with one voice, we affirm life. We remember. We bless. And we give thanks. Amen.

 

 

 

What is the meaning of life?

You are mistaken if you think I can provide an adequate response to that in a blog post. A Zen master might be able to give an answer to such a profound question in the space of a few words, but that capability is far beyond me.

But I can give a (relatively) brief answer to a variation of that question: what is it that gives life meaning?

I would say that all living things gain their purpose from making a contribution. That’s true from the lowliest insect to those of us at the top of the food chain. When it comes to the simplest life-forms, the contribution they seek to make is commensurate with their simplicity: what they seek to do is merely propagate their species. As is said about the butterfly, in its larval/caterpillar form its only function is to eat, and once its emerged from its cocoon, its only purpose is to mate. Once that’s done, mission accomplished; I suppose the butterfly, having succeeded in those simple goals, would then consider itself to have had a fulfilled life. But unbeknownst to it, what beauty it also provides to us along the way!

Human beings also have a drive to propagate their species, but as complex creatures their needs to make a contribution typically go far beyond that. Indeed, if a human life were simply focused on eating and mating, it would likely be judged by observers a life of dissipation, and to the individual him/herself, one that was definitely lacking in something. We simply need to see our lives having a greater impact than that. We want to make our mark. Precisely because we recognize in our fellow humans (as well as ourselves) those who have a range of needs, we find our fulfillment keys upon doing something through which we feel we are making some kind of difference, leaving something significant behind. So we build. We create. We seek to do something lasting to alleviate the suffering or lift up the lives of others.

At Nightwatch, we are fond of saying that “homelessness is more than mere ‘house-lessness.’” What we mean by that is that the needs of the homeless extend far beyond simply have shelter, food and clothing. When one is poor and uprooted, he lacks many other things (rarely taken into account) that make life human. Lower life-forms might be perfectly satisfied with food and shelter; human beings’ needs are much more complex than that. Human beings need to be loved and appreciated.

To be fulfilled, they also have to feel they are making a contribution.

But what opportunities are offered to the homeless and the poor to allow them to feel they are doing something significant for others, something they can leave behind?

Last week, when I was greeting guests at the door of our downtown Hospitality Center, one of them pulled me aside. “I’ve got something for you,” he said, and reached into his pocket to pull out a crisp ten-dollar bill. Handing it to me, he said, “Here. I want you to use this to do good for somebody else.”

Ten dollars might not be much to us (although I will say from my experience pastoring churches, I’ve seen well-to-do people act as if putting a ten-dollar-bill in an offering plate was making the supreme sacrifice). But I probably needn’t say how much $10 ten dollar butterflywould mean to any one of our guests. It could mean a day’s meals, for instance. And knowing that, while my initial impulse was to refuse the gift, saying, “Oh, no, I couldn’t take it. You need it as much as anyone else here,” I arrested that thought, and said, “Thank you. I can assure you, we’ll use it for good things.”

Because I knew to refuse the gift in this case would be to reject the giver, and his need to make a contribution.

And while, like the butterfly, our guest may have enjoyed the satisfaction of his contribution without fully understanding how it appeared to others, it was a thing of beauty.

 

It’s doubtful that the founders of Operation Nightwatch, when they brought all the pieces together 33 years ago, conceived of us as being part of the public health establishment. But that’s exactly what we’ve become.

Back then in 1981, all that comprised Nightwatch was a group of volunteers that went out onto the streets to make a human connection with the oft-neglected, engaging them in conversation and hearing of their woes, frustrations, and needs. Today, our involvement in public health is apparent through the volunteer nurses we have serving at our Downtown Hospitality Center every night it’s open. Our nurses can see up to 35 guests a night, offering foot care, tending to minor wounds, ministering to health complaints, and doing assessments and referrals, judging whether a guest may require the intervention of more specialized care. Some a guests have presented quite serious conditions, having neglected their health for a long time, and it’s fair to say that by getting them to the hospital we’ve actually saved some lives.

But beyond what our medical professionals provide, over the last several months I’ve become aware of our place in the public health establishment in yet another way. For some reason, we’ve recently been seeing more guests at our Downtown Hospitality Center suffering from severe mental illness. Depending on the severity of their illness (and whether they’ve been taking their meds), they can provide a real challenge. Many are fearful due to their perception of a world out to “get them,” and though the threats mental health statsthey perceive are objectively insubstantial, they are very real to them. As a result, they can also be unreasonable in other regards, and sometimes belligerent (though rarely violent). 

And they come to Nightwatch. Why? The answer to that is simple: where else are they to go? 

I have thusly been reminded of the true scandal of mental health services in our country. “Inadequate” doesn’t even begin to describe the situation. When major federal funding cuts were made to mental health programs in the 1980s—and never restored, no matter what political party was at the helm in Washington—facilities were closed and former mental health patients were literally dumped on the streets. In most cases, if a family isn’t wealthy enough to pay for private in-patient psychiatric services for its tormented spouse, son, or daughter, they’re on their own.

And on Portland evenings, Nightwatch becomes the default mental health provider.

Not that we have much to offer—we are not trained therapists or licensed psychiatrists—but this:

A new study out of Brigham Young University presents compelling evidence that social isolation can significantly shorten a person’s life span. To put the conclusion into perspective, the study concluded that to left abandoned and alone “was as great a health risk as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and being an alcoholic.” And with all else that those with mental illness have to contend with, is there any other group-as-a-whole, precisely because of their unusual behavior, that is more socially isolated?

Yet of course, even without recognizing the physical health benefits, providing a human connection as an alternative to social isolation has been Nightwatch’s mission from the very beginning. It’s what sent those first volunteers out onto the streets 33 years ago to seek out those camped out in the doorways and on the loading docks.

Which means, though the founders may not have recognized it, we have really be part of public health from the start.