Operation Nightwatch
Serving Portland's Street Population Since 1981

The Nightwatch Mental Health Initiative

The Nightwatch Mental Health Initiative


On March 22, 2010, Jack Dale Collins, a homeless man with certified mental health issues was shot to death in Hoyt Arboretum by a police officer who maintained Collins had charged him with a knife. In the days before his death Collins had evidenced much agitation and distress over his life’s circumstances, and the March 22 incident was widely judged to be a “suicide by cop.”

Eleven days prior, Collins had even gone to the Portland Police Bureau to confess to a vaguely remembered crime he had committed decades before, and he explicitly requested mental health treatment. The officer who talked with him recommended a local community mental health clinic; however, there is no evidence Collins ever followed up on the suggestion.

Therein lies the (literally) fatal flaw in our current mental health delivery system for homeless and otherwise isolated low-income people: while services may exist, accessing them depends on the initiative of the affected person him/herself. Given the nature of severe mental illness—depression saps all initiative from an individual, while schizophrenia adds confusion and paranoia to the mix—expectations that the sufferer shoulder responsibility are hardly realistic.

Furthermore, even should an individual-in-crisis seek to visit a community mental health clinic, unless that crisis conveniently fits into the clinics' 9-to-5 weekday schedules, the individual is out of luck.

That leaves two default mental-health “providers” for the suffering to access during after-hours. One is law enforcement. The other is Operation Nightwatch.

We know, not only from the Jack Dale Collins incident but also from many others (the James Chassé, Jr., case no doubt being the most notorious), that encounters between security personnel and the mentally-ill do not often turn out happily. Police and jailers are simply not equipped to deal with those suffering severe breaks from reality.

But neither are we at Operation Nightwatch.

That’s why we have expanded our staff by bringing aboard an adjunct mental health professional to be present during Hospitality Center hours. Various surveys conclude that that anywhere from 20% to 50% of those on the streets are burdened by serious mental illness (as compared to 6% of the general population). Based on data from a 2007 national survey, as many as 250,000 homeless people nationwide are thought to have schizophrenia or manic-depressive disorder, a figure that swamps the in-patient number of 90,000 to be in all hospitals across the country being treated for their disease. But we don’t need statistics to convince us of the scope of the problem. We know from experience that mental illness is a common characteristic among our guests. (From our observations, as many as 60% of those who frequent our Downtown Hospitality Center fall on the “troubled” end of the mental-health spectrum.)

Our specialist, Kolin Busby, is available to intercede when crises arise, and to counsel our guests who routinely cope with mental illness in monitoring and assessing their conditions as an avenue of making referrals. 

When Jack Dale Collins in his desperation sought a policeman’s bullet to relieve him from his suffering, it was no doubt because he felt he had nowhere else to turn. He lacked a supportive community. He felt forsaken, abandoned, alone. As we’ve come to say at Nightwatch, he lacked more than shelter; he truly lacked a “home.”

But, by definition, what makes a “supportive community” is the effort to care for its members where they meet their deepest desperations. If Nightwatch is going to be the city’s default mental-health provider, then for the sake of our guests we need to do it well.

That’s what the Nightwatch Mental Health Initiative is all about.

[Read more: "One Challenging Night"]