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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.     

With my impending retirement as Executive Director in June, I have entered a season of “lasts.” I recently celebrated my last Nightwatch Christmas party. I just supervised my last GiveGuide campaign. I’m about to work on my last grant proposal. And I will soon set to work planning my last spiritual retreat.

And as this is the time of year for annual reports, I have written my last annual report.

But as it is my last annual report as Executive Director, and my retirement date of June 30 will mark ten years almost to the day that I was hired for the Gary serving at MHCposition, I decided to take the occasion to review not only the last year, but the last ten years that comprised tenure at Nightwatch.

Since the report encompasses ten years, it’s long, so I won’t reproduce the entire thing here. If you would like to read it in its entirety, you can find it online by going to www.operationnightwatch.org/ANNUAL_REPORT_16.pdf. I will tell you that it’s not just a “puff piece,” only trumpeting the successes while downplaying the failures. As I learned a lot from our various failures, they are an essential part of the story too.

But there are some who won’t want to endure reading a thirteen-page document and will just want to “cut to the chase.” At the conclusion of these ten years, where does Nightwatch find itself? What, finally, is “bottom line”?

I lay that out in the report’s conclusion. And since that part of the document is not so long, I’ll reprint it here:

Nightwatch is strong. It is in fact the strongest it has ever been. While it is still not uncommon for me to encounter strangers who look blankly at me when I say I’m with Operation Nightwatch, we have gained a reputation and respect within the community that often leads others to seek us out for our expertise. We have a database of volunteers of over 1,000 individuals. Through our various sites, we serve over 450 people a week. Our budget has grown by 77% over the last decade, and whereas Nightwatch has had a financial history pocked with deficits, we have ended each of the last three years comfortably in the black. And as an institution we have established a stable staffing and governance infrastructure so that the whole thing is not likely to topple like a house of cards just because of one individual’s leaving.

But here’s the real bottom line: we have saved lives. Literally. We have seen guests come through our door who, without proper attention, would have been dead within a week. But with the ministrations of our staff and nurses, and a call for a cab to get them to the ER, we are able to welcome them back some weeks later looking like they’ve been resurrected. And then we have the testimony of guests like Kelly, who struggled with many personal crises that were further complicated by her alcoholism; having sat with her, talked with her, emotionally supported her, she returned some time later, sober and restored, to give hugs and say, “Without you guys, I wouldn’t be alive today.”

When I was offered the Executive Director’s position ten years ago, I had actually felt quite ambivalently about it. I knew I could do the job. I just wasn’t sure I wanted it.

But God works in mysterious ways. Once I started working, I knew I was exactly in the place I was meant to be.

Thanks be to God—and thanks to all Nightwatch staff, Board members, volunteers, and supporters—for the privilege and the honor.

When Carrie Fisher died this past week, the immediate remembrances of her were of her identity as a movie star, especially of her in the iconic role of Princess Leia in the Star Wars saga.

And of course, how could any of us not remember that role? To the adolescent boys for whom the Star Wars mythology became bred into their DNA, Princess Leia appealed to their every fantasy. Who, after all, couldn’t remember that outfit she wore as the slave of Jabba the Hutt? On the other hand, to young women, the Leia was an early feminist hero. When they were little girls aspiring themselves to become “princesses,” they only models they had were Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. But in Leia they had a princess who could hold her own with any man—strong, independent, and courageous. Princess Leia was certainly not a figured you’d find pining away while humming, “Someday My Prince Will Come.”

But Carrie Fisher was a real person. She was not Princess Leia. And after the initial jolt of learning about her death, some of other things that made her life noteworthy were carrie fisheralso remembered.

Particularly, Carrie coped throughout most of her life with mental illness. She was quite open about it. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 24, she fell for a time into addiction. But as she documented in a couple of autobiographical works, she persisted until she successfully made it through rehab, and had since become an inspiration to many others similarly struggling. (Indeed, Carrie wrote a regular advice column in Britain’s The Guardian newspaper, and the last one that went to press before her death addressed a reader’s concern about being bipolar.)

No, Carrie Fisher the real person was not Princess Leia. But she was equally strong, independent and courageous.

Because of individuals like Carrie who have been willing to go public with their experience, we have come to have a greater understanding of mental illness. We know that it’s not uncommon, and that anyone can have it. Even a celebrity and a daughter of celebrities. We look at someone like Carrie Fisher and can say, “Mental illness does not make someone a bad person or a scary person or an irredeemable person. Rather, this person is enduring something difficult and painful. They require our patience, our support, and our respect. It does no good to condemn them. To be sure, if they are going to make it, they need the encouragement of folks like us to get them through.”

Nice sentiments. But when you consider the high percentage of those on the streets who are also mentally-ill, where is the understanding afforded them? Is our understanding only reserved for those who have the money to afford the private care and the rehab visits, not to mention the network of family and personal-support-systems to love them through the process, rather than for the poor souls whose suffering is only compounded because they have none of these? “Oh, we would never condemn someone who has an illness beyond their control!” some might protest. But why then the common condemnation of the homeless? Is it simply because they’re poor?

Our love to you, Carrie Fisher. But may our love also extend to those as close to us as our streetcorners who need our support.