What an interesting week this has been.
When I first went online at the beginning of the week, I found this newly-posted slam on Nightwatch’s Facebook page:
This organization is enabling destructive and abusive campers to overtake a low income neighborhood and pollute a creek. The camp they are supporting and continually re-establishing at 92nd and Flavel is keeping the camp residents in a giant crab bucket - no one gets better, sober or housed.
Relationships aren't good if they are abusive relationships.
We very rarely get slammed. So receiving this one set me back on my heels.
Imagine my reaction then when later in the day two more irate messages were left, both by different people but essentially the same in content and tone.
Hmm, I thought. Was Nightwatch being made the target of an orchestrated effort by those in Lents to get us to leave? But having been going there for six years and setting up our Mobile Hospitality Center in exactly same place, why now? We always had seemed to have cordial relations with the neighbors there before.
Then I got a call from our liaison with one of the churches we partner with in Lents. Known as someone who was committed to Nightwatch, she reported that she was getting harassed by her neighbors for her involvement.
Then a threatening message was left on our voicemail. And emails of protest from Lents citizens began appearing in my inbox.
Sure seemed like an orchestrated effort, all right.
What seemed to prompt people’s ire was that an encampment had arisen in the last couple of weeks within spitting distance of where our Mobile Hospitality Center sets up Friday evenings. Those in the encampment were not very circumspect in their activities. There was a lot of drug usage, and with drugs came little care for the upkeep of the camp, meaning waste was spread everywhere. There were also allegations that some of the campers were particularly menacing to passers-by, so locals were afraid whenever they made the trek to and from the local MAX station.
And the contention was that Nightwatch was responsible for all this; that the camp had been set up where it was because they were drawn by the services Nightwatch offers at the site two hours a week (the phrase used by some who got in touch with us is that we held “Friday night street parties for addicts”; and that if we just moved, the camp would move with us.
All this, despite the fact that we have been going to that site for six full years without any issue (no camp seemed to have followed us there six years ago!). And despite the fact that the Johnson Creek watershed has been a chronic site for homeless camps for years.
When you come under attack like this, it’s very easy to become defensive and see those who are attacking you as your enemies. But that’s not fair when it comes to the residents of Lents. They have had an anger that has been festering in them for years because they feel that when it comes to gaining the ear of the city, no one listens. Lents is a blue-collar neighborhood, of modest and low-income. A good number of its people are living just this side of homelessness themselves. And they have a right to gripe if the city doesn’t respond to their needs the same way it would when being confronted by the needs of those living in Eastmoreland or the West Hills. The folks in Lents have for a long time thought their neighborhood was being treated as dumping ground.
And you know what? They’re right.
The presence of a whale of an RV prominently emblazoned with the name, “Operation Nightwatch,” on it has just offered them a lightning rod for all their frustration.
We don’t want to see homeless encampments in Lents—or anywhere, for that matter. We just go there because that’s where they happen to be located. And the reality is that, until a comprehensive housing policy is funded and employed—as well as the same justice practiced toward the poor as it is toward the well-heeled—Lents is where you’re going to find them.
I’ve responded to some of our emailers from Lents, and opening a simple dialogue has helped us appreciate each other’s point of view. And we’ll be meeting in another week or so with our partner churches in Lents that help us Friday evenings with volunteers and food to talk about how we might sensitively address their fellow neighbors’ concerns.
Because if we’re ever going to get a handle on truly addressing this messy monster we call “homelessness,” it does no good to adopt an adversarial stance.
For our partners, the people of Lents, and the campers too are really neighbors, all.