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As is evident from all the turmoil in Washington, the way transitions are handled can be critical for for institutions—whether that institution is as enormous as the United States of America, or as modest as Operation Nightwatch.

Due to my impending retirement at the end of June, Nightwatch is indeed itself facing a major transition. And it is a transition that involves even more than the replacement of te Executive Director, since simultaneous with my retirement Mikaila Smith will be vacating her position as Nightwatch’s Assistant Director, leaving a complete vacuum of leadership at the top.

But back to talking about transitions in general:

The reason transitions are such sensitive times is two-fold.

First of all, every leader inevitably leaves a stamp of his/her personality upon whatever institution s/he serves. That’s especially true when the organizations are smaller and when the leader has been long-tenured. That "personality stamp" is present, for instance, in the leader's management style. All other members of the organization become used to that particular management style. Knowing how the leader reacts to circumstances and interacts with them personally, they know what to expect, as well as what expectations will be imposed upon them. They are rarely dealt any surprises. If a new leader is brought on board with an abruptly different approach, style and personality, much damage can be done. (Just ask any federal civil service worker today.)  Consider that I have been serving Nightwatch for the past decade and Mikaila has been at her job for the last five years. For those currently associated with Nightwatch, ours have been the only management models many of them have even known.

Secondly, whatever the mission of an institution, everything finally boils down to relationships. I may go to a job because I need the money, but sometimes even the change aheadmoney isn’t enough for me to stay if I can’t stand the boss or the others I work with. People will even avoid their own family gatherings if all they experience at those gatherings is a threat to their feelings of self-esteem and well-being.

We should know all about relationships, because relationship-building is the very raison d'etre for Nightwatch. From relationship-building comes trust—and as trust rescues one from isolation, so it ultimately leads to healing. But while at Nightwatch we normally think of relationship-building in the context of our interaction with our guests, it is really the thing that makes the whole web of staff-volunteers-guests-donors work. Most donors donate (this is especially true of major and/or repeat donors) because they somehow feel a special connection with Nightwatch. Likewise, volunteers volunteer because they are somehow nurtured by the experiences with others that touch them here. The challenge facing any new leader imported to fill the top spot of the organization is that no one as yet has a relationship with that person. And because that person is the one in charge of everything, the whole network can be on tenterhooks until relationships are established.

Feel sufficiently scared about Nightwatch's looming change? Sorry. I don't mean you to be. To the contrary, I offer this analysis as a means of reassurance. For the way catastrophes are avoided is to anticipate the pitfalls beforehand.

And I want to let you know that our Board of Directors is sensitive to all the potential pitfalls, and is working to see that the upcoming transition need suffer no more bumps along the way than it need to. In other words, it is determined in this transition not to set the stage for similar disruption and dysfunction as is now being played out in Washington.

The Board has been gathering resumes of applicants for the Executive Director’s position and will be doing so through the course of February. Then it will be conducting interviews in March, and by the time April comes around we hope to make an announcement so the relationship-building can begin.

Conservative, Republican columnist David Brooks wrote last week in The New York Times, “it is hard to think of any administration in recent memory, on any level, whose identity is so tainted by cruelty. The Trump administration is often harsh and never kind.”

Operation Nightwatch has historically not taken political positions, as from its inception it has not seen itself an advocacy organization. But all the political process is is a means for implementing values. And if the values being thrust upon you would seek to bully into submission the principles of decency and compassion, it would be a violation of those principles to remain silent.

It is still unclear how the politics of the Trump Administration will affect the poor and homeless whom we serve. But (as per David Brooks’ assessment) there is little sign they will have any heart for the marginalized and neediest. The executive order banning refugees is one indicator. The appointment of a man as Treasury Secretary who gained much of his fortune by foreclosing on the poor is another. There has been some speculation based on the public stances he has taken that Ben Carson’s stewardship of the Department of Housing and Urban Development will involve fewer programs aimed at actually getting the homeless into housing, and more warehousing of homeless people in overnight shelters.

In many respects I would be deemed an avowed liberal. But my liberalism comes from what I see is necessary to give a “fair shake” to others. What many don’t appreciate about me is that on a personal level I’m pretty conservative. I am not a libertine. I am frugal and hold highly the values of personal responsibility.  When I preach “inclusivity,” I believe that means including not only those of different races, backgrounds, religions, abilities and sexual orientations, but also those of differing opinions and points-of-view. My bottom-line experience with many political conservatives—a David Brooks, for instance—is that they really hold the same humane values I myself do. It’s just they believe in different avenues by which to see those values implemented. They believe, for instance, that the free market will ultimately benefit all, whereas I believe the free market is not enough. But at least—and here’s the crucial point—we can still civilly engage with one another because foundationally we hold some common ground.

The problem with the new leadership in the White House is that it is difficult finding any common ground on which to engage. Reason is impossible because reason requires the acceptance of provable objective facts. And an appeal to values is futile when your conversation-partner is devoid of any moral compass whatsoever. Unless one fits into the very constricted worldview of the narcissist, there is really very little possibility of profitably engaging with him at all.

So there’s really only one option left—and that is to resist.

Of course, resistance can take many forms—taking to the streets, writing letters to the editor and to Congress, raising a ruckus on social media. But it seems to me that the resistgreatest way to resist a regime characterized by cruelty, one that is “often harsh and never kind” is to embody extra kindness oneself and to counter cruelty with extravagant displays of compassion. Hate, after all, is never overcome by hate. Unless we believe that love will triumph—and not “love” in any abstract sense, but the kind of love in which we put our own lives on the line for others—we only become part of the problem ourselves.

Nightwatch’s logo has never been more relevant—that of the light shining in the darkness. The darkness has rarely been darker. But we shall resist in seeing that light shine on.

I hadn’t seen Ray for a while, but there he was Thursday at our Downtown Hospitality Center. Before I could say anything in greeting, he burst forth, “I’m in housing now!”

Hey! That’s great!” I said. “Nearby?”

He gave me the address, then told of first being introduced to the place. “They warned me when they were taking me there that it was pretty small,” he said. “But when they opened the door and I looked in, it looked like a palace to me!”

Ray then went on to say that getting into housing was only a start. He was going to save up from what he got from day labor and “I’m going to get a new car. Well, not a new car, but a car that’s at least new to me. And then once I build my credit up, I hope I can move on to another place.”

Every time we hear that one of our guests has gotten off the streets and into housing, it is a little victory. But allow me to reiterate here: for many, housing is not enough.

“Housing First” has become the governing principle in addressing the issue of homelessness nationwide. The concept is that, for whatever other issues a person might be coping with—addiction, mental illness, lack of education, etc.—provide the stability that comes with housing them first, then address the other needs. And studies have shown that the “Housing First” approach has worked much better than others that have preceded it.

But in many cases, whether one stays in housing depends on that subsequent follow-through. Karen Lee Batts, who recently died from hypothermia in a downtown parking revolving doorgarage, had been in housing. But then she started behaving erratically, had missed her rent payments, and was evicted. The “revolving door” for housed homeless people being made homeless again is not uncommon; many of our Nightwatch guests themselves have been part of that story.

A story this week on NPR’s “Morning Edition” described how it happens. Profiled was a woman who was moved from LA’s Skid Row into housing but was having trouble staying there because she couldn’t keep up with the rent. Being a high-school dropout who had “almost no work experience and a criminal record,” she could find no one to hire her so she could cover her expenses. While people may be put into housing, “the problem . . . is that at the same time there aren't enough resources for people who need long term or even permanent assistance, the ones who simply can't bootstrap it.”

I think Ray’s going to make it. But not everyone will until we take seriously the need for better mental health intervention, more accessible addiction treatment, and an investment in job- and life-skills training.

We can’t simply write off the Karen Lee Batts-es of our world. The door between homelessness and housing needs to stop revolving.

Our recent “Snowpocalypse” affected Nightwatch in a way that was unprecedented. It caused us to shut down our Downtown Center for an entire week. (Mikaila soldiered on, however, keeping the SE Center open.)

I did the decision-making day by day. But each day, the reports the reports of weather and road conditions continued to be bad. Indeed, on a couple of days there were explicit restrictions by the Department of Transportation not to go out on the roads unless absolutely necessary.

One could argue that serving homeless people in such harsh conditions was itself a necessary task. But here are the things I had to factor in:

  1. Volunteers. If we opened, would we even have any volunteers? And what about our super-responsible volunteers who might in fact feel compelled to make their way die winter diedowntown? Would I be asking them to risk themselves on hazardous roads, jeopardizing their safety?
  2. The actual good we would be accomplishing for our guests themselves. Food deliveries were suspended, so we would have nothing to feed them. And the city had opened warming centers where they would be able to stay all night. If our guests knew Nightwatch was open would they choose us over the warming centers, where at our 11 p.m. closing we would just have to put them outside again? Closing our Hospitality Center might work toward their own safety, directing them to the warming centers rather seeking refuge with us.

This is what reason told me. And it was by following reason that I made my decisions.

Ah, but how my heart warred with my head! I kept thinking of our guys out in the cold and the feeling kept gnawing at me, “Surely, you should be doing something!”

Last Thursday night, it felt so good to be back in the groove again, getting the Downtown Center ready to open again after our forced hiatus. But I have to admit I harbored a little fear too: maybe in having been faced with our closure over the past week our guests would have given up on Nightwatch? Maybe they were mad at us for having left them in the cold. Or maybe it would have taken only a week for them to have developed new Thursday habits.

So that partially explains why my heart leapt when I went out on the sidewalk just before opening and met a crowd of our old gang of guests patiently waiting to be let in. What mostly explains it, however, is that I just felt so glad to be reunited with them. I had missed them.

“Hey, so you decided to be open tonight?” one called out in a good-natured way, obviously ribbing me.

“Yeah,” I said. I couldn’t help sounding apologetic. “But we knew the warming centers were open. We hoped you would all go there.”

"We did,” came the response. “But it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t Nightwatch.”

There it was, the very incarnation of Nightwatch’s Statement of Purpose. You’ll find that Statement on the home page of our Web site where it says:

Whereas other agencies exist to provide services such as housing, food, and clothing to the homeless, low-income, and mentally ill, ONW’s unique vision is that these populations also suffer from simple social isolation. Our simple mission is to reach out to them, nurturing relationship.

If I had only remembered that myself, I wouldn’t have needed to feel so fearful.

For that’s what we do. That’s who we are.

While shelter is important, so is the feeling of “home.”

When four people die from hypothermia within ten days on Portland’s streets (a story newsworthy enough to have gained even international attention), you know that something about the system is broken.

The question is what that “something” is. For if you can’t accurately identify the problem, there’s no way you’re going to fix it.

I would point to two things:

1. The city’s inconsistent/contradictory/confusing approach toward the homeless and housing policy. We hear our guests expressing their frustration over this all the time. On occasions, they sent up camp somewhere and authorities look the other way. When police officers come by to check on them, it’s just to see that they’re doing okay. But then the city goes through a crackdown phase, and the very police officers that might have been checking on their welfare a week before are supervising a team to “sweep” their camp and get them to move along. Research psychologists have shown in lab tests that if you want to trigger an anxiety response in a subject, an ideal way of doing it is to be inconsistent and unpredictable in one’s interactions crime sceneso the subject is never sure when then next blow will come. (Indeed, this is a technique used to break down someone under torture.)

What does that have to do with people dying from hypothermia? Simple. The city is to be commended that the cold snap led it to open enough warming centers to keep its vow “not to turn anyone away. But folks on the streets need to be able to access those centers. And as Ree Kaarhus with Boots on the Ground PDX has said, “[P]eople on their own have often been moved so much by police or neighbors that they seek out isolated locations . . . to feel safe. But being on your own can be dire.”As for the city’s general housing policy, we have to ask how development has gone so off-the-rails that housing is becoming unaffordable to an increasingly large segment of our citizens. Whereas the city seems good at speaking a progressive agenda, one cannot help but feel that developers have a larger influence on decision-makers than the simple needs of those on the streets. Take the South Waterfront, for instance. That development was supposedly contingent upon its including a certain percentage of affordable housing. Whatever happened to that?

When there is not enough housing and temperatures dip low enough, people will freeze to death.

2. Our woefully inadequate mental health delivery system. The traditional model for ministering to those wrestling with mental health issues is based on the most illogical of assumptions: that it is the responsibility of the affected person to seek out treatment, when the very nature of mental illness often incapacitates one from taking that initiative. Even those living in economically stable circumstances have a hard time being the initiative-taker when they have mental-health needs; when they do seek treatment it is because they have the encouragement of a family member or close friend. But what about those who have no personal support-systems, such as those living on the streets? Their tendency is just to become more and more withdrawn and isolated until they can be lost altogether.

                If the system is to be truly responsive, it needs to turn itself inside-out. It needs to acknowledge that it is the treatment-providers who need to take responsibility for taking the initiative, and not putting that burden on those who are suffering. It’s not the folks on the streets who should be making their way to the therapists’ offices, but the therapists who should be going to where the afflicted find themselves on the streets.

 

If you’ve been keeping track of what we’ve been doing at Nightwatch, you’ll recognize that these two diagnoses are not something we recently arrived at. We’ve been trying to create a response to the victims of this broken system for a while now. Through our Mobile Hospitality Center we seek to serve those homeless clusters that may have become isolated, far from services. By bringing aboard a mental health specialist we are taking the initiative to meet people’s needs where they are, without requiring them to seek it out.

It’s certainly only a stop-gap. Nothing will even come close to being solved until there is adequate housing for everyone.

But if a stop-gap could have prevented four individuals from freezing to death and living to another day, we would have considered that a victory.