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Remember Friday evening? It was COLD! And in some places, treacherous too. Schools were closed that day, as were many other offices.

But we were on duty. Downtown we held our annual Christmas. While out where our Mobile Hospitality Center serves . . .

Well, here’s the proverbial “picture worth a thousand words”:

serving at mhc in snow

I wasn’t there myself, but enjoying myself at the Christmas party. The Mobile Hospitality Center is overseen by our Nightwatch’s intrepid assistant director, Mikaila Smith and a special hearty band of volunteers that she recruited.

But this picture of our guests having a hot meal while in the snow and ice . . .

Whoa! It makes me shiver just to look at it.

I present this picture for two reasons. First, to illustrate that "neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” shall keep Nightwatch from its appointed rounds (which is more than I can say about the Postal Service, which didn’t deliver to our house for two days this week, even though the street—at least for one of those days—was perfectly passable).

But secondly, I share it because when you consider it—that there are people so neglected that they are forced to take their meals in these conditions because they have no place out of the ice and snow—isn’t that notion blatantly ridiculous, if not outright scandalous? Especially at this time of year when, in one form or another, most (even in Trump Tower) are likely to get their annual exposure to this classic character:

                  "At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge," said the gentleman, taking up a pen, "it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir."

"Are there no prisons?" asked Scrooge.

"Plenty of prisons," said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

"And the Union workhouses?" demanded Scrooge. "Are they still in operation?"

"They are. Still," returned the gentleman, "I wish I could say they were not."

"The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigor, then?" said Scrooge.

"Both very busy, sir."

"Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course," said Scrooge. "I'm very glad to hear it."

"Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude," returned the gentleman, "a few of us are endeavoring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?"

"Nothing!" Scrooge replied.

"You wish to be anonymous?"

"I wish to be left alone," said Scrooge. "Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don't make merry myself at Christmas, and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there."

"Many can't go there; and many would rather die."

"If they would rather die," said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides—excuse me—I don't know that."

"But you might know it," observed the gentleman.

"It's not my business," Scrooge returned. "It's enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people's. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!"

Yet as scandalous as our current circumstances may be, the news with which we are greeted each day is that they are likely to become much worse. A year or two from now, who knows how many more will be eating in the ice and snow? That’s not even to mention what the numbers will be four years from now. We have an incoming Administration that will be run by billionaire corporate CEOs, elected by disaffected people misled into believing that to put businesspeople in charge would somehow make things better for them. But people don’t become billionaires because they have proven themselves good to those on the assembly lines or in the warehouses; they become billionaires by being good to their shareholders. If labor costs deplete profits, those costs will be cut. Despite promises made, jobs will be sent overseas or replaced with automation.

Traditionally, government has provided a flywheel to corporate capitalism’s worse excesses. That has been done through regulation (work safety, child labor, and minimum wage laws, for instance), and social welfare legislation to protect those who cannot be profitably put to work (disability, Medicare and Medicaid, etc.). But what happens when the captains of corporate capitalism are now running the government? Where are the checks and balances? Where will be the accountability?

Our guests know. And they are frightened. For if all worth—even human worth—is to be calculated by the bottom line where those who have clawed to the top are celebrated while those who suffer at the bottom are condemned, what hope is there for them? One of our guests wrote a poem last week reflecting his anxiety and shared it with me. It contained this line:

But what about the poor that need our sympathy

Oh God Donald where will be hunger’s leaves

This may sound like a message of gloom for Christmas. But I remind myself (as I would remind our guests and also remind you you) that the first Christmas also came during gloomy times. To be sure, it was because times were especially gloomy that the angel Gabriel appeared far from the centers of wealth power in a little podunk-place called Nazareth to announce to a peasant girl that she—not the daughter of Caesar—was the chosen one.

And she could come away from that encounter knowing that true Power upheld and sustained her as she proclaimed:

My soul magnifies the Lord,

   and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. . . .

   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

   and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

   and sent the rich away empty.”

Got that, Mr. Scrooge? Be watchful. For Christmas is the most subversive of times.

If I had $100 and I wanted to play philanthropist, would it be better to give the entire $100 to one person in need, or to give $1 apiece to 100 people in need?

As the Executive Director of Nightwatch, I have one answer to that question. But in speaking honestly to the general proposition, I would have to say that the answer is not that simple.

Indeed, the answer isn’t simple at all. It all depends on context. The context is basically whether you are being approached for help by one person or by 100 people.

If a hungry individual literally appeared on your doorstep seeking assistance, since his is the need that is immediate, the proper response would be to feed him. It wouldn’t be to tell him, “I gave at the office.” On the other hand, if you were plopped in the middle of a refugee camp where everyone was subject to deprivation and destitution, there would be problems with singling out only one person to lavish with your help while all others suffered. How would pick one out from all the others? What criteria would you use to make that decision? Can you think of any particular set of criteria that would be fair? (Most criteria that people use are not scientific, but subjective, and that’s definitely not fair.)

Jesus’ articulation of the Golden Rule was that we are to “love one another.” (Other faith traditions also have their own versions of the Rule, though maybe stated somewhat differently.) But “loving one another” can call for different responses at different times. And unfortunately, Jesus didn’t get into the finer points of that. He left it to us to figure out; and to do it well, we must always call to mind our immediate context.

Everyone who has seen The Blind Side loves the story. In it, Sandra Bullock, a comfortably affluent woman, comes to care for an impoverished black youth from a dysfunctional background, going so far as to adopt him into her home. As a result of her investing her life in this young man’s, he overcomes his considerable difficulties to sandra bullockactually be recruited into the NFL. In its context, Sandra Bullock’s is a good model.

But now I must speak again as the Executive Director of Nightwatch:

At Operation Nightwatch, Sandra Bullock cannot be our model. For our context is one where at any one of our Hospitality Centers we are serving 100 people a night. To sit down with one of our guests and listen to his story may be to find it positively heartbreaking. But guess what? If you sit down with the next guest and hear his story, it’s positively heartbreaking too! In fact we have a roomful of people with their own unique accounts of hardship and woe. So how can I be Sandra Bullock in this context? How could I decide among the 100 should receive all my attention, and possibly be fair about it?

It’s challenging working with our volunteers sometimes who’s hearts get pierced by the stories of one or another of our guests and compassionately want to take that guest home with them (either figuratively or literally). Often their experience is limited and from what they know, the individualistic Sandra Bullock-model is the only option for implementing the command to “love one another.” But say they take a guest home, and then they speak with another guest whose story also touches them. What are they going to do with him?

At Nightwatch, precisely because we have so many counting on us, we must take what resources we have and do our best to spread them equally and fairly among all of them. That’s simply the context we must honor.

There are drawbacks to this model, but there are no fewer drawbacks to any other. But in the end, Jesus didn’t demand that we be perfect. He only asked that we love.

How would you like us to bring the Mobile Hospitality Center and park it in your backyard?

I’d bet that you—even you, good-and-faithful Nightwatch supporter!—wouldn’t immediately leap at the offer. At the very least, you’d need some time to think seriously about it.

Well, this is what we have to negotiate whenever we want to take our Mobile Hospitality Center to a new site. And in many of these cases, we’re not dealing with sympathetic Nightwatch supporters. Indeed, the likelihood is that they haven’t even heard of Nightwatch. And it’s one thing to be asked to do something by well-known and –trusted organizations like the Red Cross or the Salvation Army, and quite another to be asked by some unknown entity that suddenly appears on your doorstep.

Currently, this is the situation we face as we seek to expand the outreach of our Mobile Hospitality Center by taking it out to East Multnomah County in the area of the Columbia Slough. We have identified this as an important site for serving because we know of folks who were driven to camp there when the Springwater Corridor was swept the beginning of September. We actually know these folks because we had been serving them in SE. But now they have relocated to a place where their needs are even greater. The Columbia Slough is an area where there are absolutely no services. What’s not been preserved as natural area is zoned commercial and light industrial, so there are only a bunch of undistinguished boxy buildings housing warehouses and corporate offices. For our friends camping out there, even the closest convenience store is about a mile away. What makes it further isolated is that Tri-Met has almost no presence.

And particularly challenging for us as we seek to establish a beachhead there for our Mobile Hospitality Center is that we have no natural allies to whom to appeal—no churches, no civic organizations, no agencies, no residences.

No one lives in the Columbia Slough except homeless people.columbia slough

So here we are, wanting to take our Mobile Hospitality Center out to the Slough, but we have no networks to exploit in order to find a place to park it and set it up, and neither are there any nearby public sites (e.g. parks) that might serve the same purpose. That relegates us essentially to making “cold calls” on the businesses there to ask, “Could we bring our Mobile Hospitality Center out and set it up in your back yard?”

Needless to say, it is a delicate process. Mikaila and I have crafted a letter of introduction that begins like this:

You may not be aware of it, but you have some new neighbors. There are some homeless folks camping in the woods behind you within the Slough.

You may not know them, but we know them. They are refugees from the Springwater Corridor who had nowhere else to flee when the city engineered a massive sweep of the area at the beginning of September. They are good people. Among them is Sarge, a proud Marine veteran. We have known Sarge for years. He had been a tough-as-nails guy who ate, drank, and breathed the “Semper Fi” culture. When we last saw him after he had relocated to Slough, he was only a ghost of his former self. He is now in a wheelchair, which has to be negotiated through the mud and over the exposed tree roots of the trail to his camp. Furthermore, he now suffers from incontinence and other indignities following several surgeries. “My gut’s gone,” he said the last we spoke. “I suppose there’s not much life left in this old Marine.” What moves me, however, is how much the other homeless folks who share his camp minister to and take care of him.

We know these folks because Operation Nightwatch has been serving the street population of Portland since 1981. Over the three-and-a-half decades of our existence we have built a sterling reputation and have gained the support of such institutions as The Oregon Community Foundation, The Collins Foundation, the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, and the Spirit Mountain Community Fund. We have an excellent working relationship with the Portland police, who have in fact commended us in commenting that in offering our services, we “make [their] jobs a lot easier.”

In addition to operating two bricks-and-mortar Hospitality Centers where people can be fed, receive necessary items such as blankets and clean socks, and be tended to by those offering nursing and mental health care, we have a Mobile Hospitality Center which is able to serve homeless clusters especially in areas where services are scarce. That would certainly describe the neighborhood around the Columbia Slough. There is an absence of feeding sites. There is neither access to any other services should emergency arise. Even the closest convenience store is about a mile away. Given the disabilities of those like Sarge, that and the lack of adequate public transportation complicates the hardship they are already experiencing.

We would therefore like to respond to the local need by bringing our Mobile Hospitality Center to your area one night a week. As we work in the evenings, this would be after business hours, roughly from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m., so as not to interfere with any commerce.

What we seek is a site at which to operate on those occasions, and we would like to approach you about using your parking area. . . .

Would this be enough to move you at least to consider it if we asked to bring the Mobile Hospitality Center to your backyard?

We’ll see how it goes in East County. And we’ll keep you posted.

Just in time for the holidays, the San Francisco Chronicle has published “What's the best way to help the homeless? Former homeless people share their advice.”

I say, “just in time,” because this is the season when good-hearted people feel a special compulsion to help others by assuming projects targeting vulnerable people. The homeless can often be found within their bulls-eye.

I appreciate the impulse. However, what I often find about these endeavors is that they are molded around the givers’ notions of what the homeless need rather than what they really need. It seems to me all that good-hearted energy would be better spent if the givers first took this one simple step: consult the ones they wish to help as to what it is they themselves could really use.

Without that, the givers may walk away after distributing their goodies feeling good about what they’ve done, but the question hangs as to whether they have really done good.

For instance, CNN ran a storyof a church in New England that has its members knit hats and scarves for the homeless to distribute during the holidays. "Our church is always looking out for some way of reaching out that engages people, that has people doing more than just writing a check," the church’s pastor is quoted as saying. Fair enough. But mentioned in several parts of the story is how “brightly colored” the knit items are. Pictures confirm it.The knitters no doubt projected themselves into the places of homeless people and thought, “I love bright colors. Especially if I were surrounded daily in such depressing conditons, I would want to wear something bright and cheery!”

But allow me to give a reality check. We at Nightwatch happen to receive donations of a lot of knit items during the holidays—and there is an inverse relationship between the colorfulness of a hat or scarf and the desire of our guests to want it. Most certainly, most of our male guests (and most of our guests are male) don’t want pastels or colors. The black and navy blue watch-caps are what go first, and if a hat or scarf is too busily bright, no matter how warm it might be, they might prefer to go cold rather than wear it.

Before engaging in any project to “help” the homeless, is it too much simply to ask what might really be most helpful?

So the San Francisco Chronicle has done a favor to everyone. It has asked for us. And here are some of the responses the paper gleaned from people on the streets:

 

When people ask homeless what do you need, they are thinking about objects, things like hats, sock and gloves or any other things useful in routine life. These objects make a small difference.

But the most important things are not objects. Things that make most impact and helps someone are non-objects.handout

  1. Dignity
  2. Kindness and understanding
  3. Encouragement

 

People don't realize that the toughest part of being homeless isn't going without food. Of all the struggles, food is the easiest. Other things, like bathing, sleeping, shitting, are a little tougher, but you learn to take care of your needs fairly quickly. It's the time that gets you. You're outside, somewhat uncomfortable, maybe asking for handouts, being told to move along, get a job, etc, for hours and hours. Feeling totally useless messes with your head. The idea of getting wasted is very appealing. You start to resent "housies." Other homeless people are the only ones you relate to. It becomes a trap. If you don't have a safety net out there you eventually lose any desire to rejoin society.

So just about any low pressure activity would be really helpful for homeless people to snap out of their rut and build some kind of connection to the community.

 

I lived in my car for 3 months and the only part that wore on my sanity was feeling different and looked down on by everyone that could see my situation. Physical needs weren't that hard to meet.

 

I was homeless a few years ago for a couple months. I was quite lucky in that I was very resourceful and street smart as well as clean and sober. I slept on the beach sometimes and in an underground parking lot other times. I eventually figured out the shelter system and that helped me get better access to food and resources. I remember getting help with free food like day old bread and free fruit/sandwiches etc as well as free clothes and I was grateful for all of it.

What I remember most though are the people who saw past the mental illness, past the skittish, scared girl and into the human being underneath. The hotel clerk who let me charge my phone and gave me free coffee, no strings attached; the police officer who told me about shelters instead of writing me a ticket; and the shelter worker who chatted with me about some silly show on tv. I always remember those people and when I now work with homeless and disadvantaged people I always look for their humanity even when it is hard to find.

 

It's community things that help best I find. I got put on a program for homeless teens where someone came and checked on me every week and took me to a community house thing. We'd do things like learn simple practical or social skills like learning how to cook and fix things or learning how to tie a tie. They'd talk to us and build up friendly relationships. They never tried preaching to us or anything, we were never forced to join in, we could spend the day just being there and watching everything if we wanted. But they treated us like people so everyone always did something.

I didn't really realise it at the time, but looking back that extreme amount of kindness helped a lot. People who didn't know me went out of their way to help me and make sure I was alright just out of the kindness of their heart.

 

My boyfriend was homeless for a period of his life because of an abusive parent. He was lucky enough to have friends and family that helped to pull him out of his situation, but it obviously had a huge impact on how he lives his life.

He always carries a few pre-made packs with toothpaste and a toothbrush, deodorant, disposable razors and shaving cream, socks, hand/feet warmers, etc. When he sees someone who needs help he gives them a pack and cash if he has it on him.

But the best and most truly invaluable thing he does for the homeless people he meets is he stops and has a real conversation with them. He listens and shares stories and treats them with respect and dignity. . . .

He always tells me that it's not the money people need, it's normalcy. A daily routine and normal social interaction. Brushing your teeth, combing your hair, saying hello to your neighbor, and spending your day doing normal things and feeling normal. Too many cannot find this normalcy and so they turn to drugs and alcohol to escape their reality. Because they think they'll never feel normal again.

 

Notice a common thread in what these folks are saying about what they most want and need?

A little human connection. A little caring—enough to spend time talking and sharing. A little hospitality.

So if you know folks who have the impulse to do something special for others during the holidays, and are inspired in that direction not just so they themselves can feel good in doing it, but actually would genuinely like to do good, I would do this: introduce them to Nightwatch.

I am feeling such a state of disorientation that I find it impossible to sufficiently put into words.

But with you, I probably don’t have to. Because you are probably feeling the disorientation too.

On the one hand, when I drive downtown to work, everything seems familiar. The neighborhood Starbuck’s is still on the corner. When I merge onto the I-5, the typical traffic tie-up is still there. Pulling up in front of St. Stephen’s the façade looks no different today than it did yesterday.

But every day since November 8, I have looked around and increasingly seen an America I don’t recognize.

I’ll be honest. I was raised in a social and cultural context that didn’t much tolerate differences. Racist language and attitudes were common in my family and within my friends’ families, as were jokes about Asians, homosexuals, the physically disabled and mentally challenged. (Interestingly, anti-Semitism wasn’t very present but that may have been because most of the dads had been veterans of the European theater in the war and knew all about the concentration camps.) Nonetheless, despite the intolerant attitudes expressed in casual conversation, I always sensed that an underlying feeling everyone knew they were indulging in something that really wasn’t right, that they were to aspire to something attitudinally better. I would go to school and my teachers would have us copy Emma Lazarus into our notebooks: "Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,/I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" This was America, we were taught. I would attend my family’s Lutheran church and have presented in the liturgical intercessions the petition, “For the peace of the whole world, . . . and for the unity of all, let us pray to the Lord.” And this, we were taught, was what Christianity was all about.

In short, though America and Christianity were by no means synonymous, they held a common ideal: helping the weak, reaching out and embracing the disenfranchised, treating all people with equanimity, fairness, and justice.

And now I look out and it’s as if zombie-America has taken over. You know the mythology of zombies: zombies are beings that once may monster in bedroomhave been our friends and acquaintances—maybe even our dearest loved-ones—but infected by a virus, while they may bear some physical resemblance to their former selves, have in their bearing otherwise become unrecognizable and dangerous. What kind of America has this become when individuals known for their explicit race-baiting get appointed to positions of power, when our President-to-be seems to ally himself with totalitarian bullies like Putin and Assad, when we seem willing to descend to the moral depths of the worst nation-states by saying good things about torture, carpet-bombing, and concentration camps?

What kind of America has this become when acceptance of differences is no longer the default attitude among most people, so that organizations such as Planned Parenthood, Street Roots, and others have to issue official public statements that they will remain safe-spaces for all, and not fall victim to the zombie-virus?

Operation Nightwatch has not issued such a statement—yet. I’d like to think that our guests will always know we will remain a place of open hospitality for them, no matter what anyone else around us does. We will always resist the virus—at least as long as I remain Executive Director here.

And that’s because we bear an inoculation to the virus. That inoculation comes from a saying that was programmatic to Nightwatch’s founding, a phrase that once graced every communication that emanated from this place. It comes from Matthew 25:40 and it goes like this:

“Even as you did it to the least of these, you did it also to me.”

You too may be experiencing the disorientation of now living in zombie-America.

But I know I can trust you too to keep the light shining.