Coping With Zombie-America
- Written by Gary Davis
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 have 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.
On Building Relationships
- Written by Gary Davis
At Nightwatch we talk a lot about relationship-building. But what does that look like? What does it involve?
I would say that true relationship-building requires of an individual to follow at least these three instructions:
- Don’t be afraid.
- Make yourself vulnerable.
- Have patience.
Take an incident from about a week ago. Down the hallway of our Downtown Hospitality Center at St. Stephen’s, the church has some cardboard boxes that serve as receptacles for recyclable items—cans, newspapers, and the like. Hearing a ruckus from that direction, I went to investigate. There was a young man, Chandel, breaking apart the boxes. “Oh, I wish you wouldn’t do that,” I said. “Those are the boxes the church uses for recycling.”
“I need this cardboard to sleep on, man!” he came back at me, agitatedly.
“I understand,” I said. “But if you’ll just let those boxes be, we have a whole dumpster full of cardboard where boxes are already broken apart.”
“Just get out of my f---ing face, man!” Chandel said. “I need these! Christine lets me do this all the time!”
“Well, whatever Christine says, I would ask you leave them because the church uses the boxes. Come with me and I’ll get you all the cardboard you want.”
“That just doesn’t make any f---ing sense, man! Cardboard here, cardboard there. What’s the f---ing difference?”
“Here’s what I’m trying to say . . .”
“Just f---ing get out of my face man!”
“Now, you’re just getting too agitated to be here,” I said, retaining my calm. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave. And if you don’t leave, I’m just going to have to call the police.”
“Just call the f---ing police, man!” Chantel said, and started kicking the boxes, then throwing them around.
I backed off and gave him space. But when Chandel finally returned to the main room and I checked to see that he hadn’t left, I drew within earshot of where he was sitting and pulled out my phone. I pantomimed that I was dialing, then put the phone to my ear and started talking to a phantom police dispatcher on the other end of a dead line. “Hello, I’m calling from Operation Nightwatch, 1432 SW 13th Avenue, and we have a gentleman here who is acting disruptively . . .” I did this, of course, to purposely provoke a response. The response I anticipated was that Chantel, overhearing me, would pick up his things and leave.
But what actually happened was much, much better.
Chantel leapt out of his chair and came right at me. “You calling the police? You calling the police? Don’t do that! That’s just not cool man!” he said.
“Would you like to sit down and talk?” I asked.
“Just don’t call the police. It’s just not cool. It’s just not cool.”
“Would you like to sit down and talk?” I repeated.
“Yeah,” he finally said. “Let’s talk. But not here. Too many people around.”
“Okay,” I said. “Follow me.” And I led him to my office where I closed the door. It was now just he and I alone. On the walk to the office I could see in the expression on the faces of those we passed that said, “Oh, man, does he really want to be alone with this guy?”
But almost as soon as the door closed, Chantel opened up. “I’m just trying to get into a program, man,” he said. “I keep going up to the VA, but they have no room for me.” Then he rambled on about his methamphetamine addiction that he knew was killing him but he just couldn’t kick on his own. He spoke about growing up without a father and a mother who left him when he was young. He talked about carrying a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia and how he was always being stopped by the police but that the police knew he was a good guy. And he kept repeating that he just wanted to get his life together but he needed to get into a program. And as much as he tried, the programs just didn’t have any room for him.
It was hard to break through Chantel’s torrent of words, given his meth-high, but at last I said, “Listen, Chantel. I believe you’re a good person. I’m a good person too, and I don’t mean to give you a hard time. I know things are hard. And we’re here because we want to help you all we can. But if you get out-of-control we just can’t allow that. On those occasions we just can’t have you here, and we’ll have to ask you to leave. Okay?”
“Yeah,” he said. And we shook hands.
When I opened my office door, there were people in the hall looking our way, faces concerned. “How did things go?” one asked under his breath as I walked by.
“Just fine,” I said.
Because before we walked into that office Chantel and I didn’t have a relationship. And now we did.
Election Aftermath: It Doesn't Look Pretty
- Written by Gary Davis
Whatever the outcome of the presidential election, the plight of the people Nightwatch serves is likely to grow worse.
On the one hand, we have an unrepentant narcissist (note: it’s probably in the very nature of narcissism to be unrepentant). Symptomatic of narcissism is a lack of empathy. It’s not likely we’ll find any relief from homelessness coming from him.
On the other hand, we have a candidate who may not suffer from any lack of empathy, but has been tempered through years of public life in knowing how to play the political game. Politics necessarily requires compromise—and the question throughout her (not to mention her husband’s career) has always been how much she’s been willing to compromise principle in order to get ahead. If elected, she’s going to have active resistance from the opposing party. If she went so far as to propose an affordable housing bill to Congress, how much would she be willing to fight for it without backing down?
But let’s forget for a moment any specifics about the individual candidates. Here’s the real reason the plight of our Nightwatch guests—and all those on the margins—is likely to grow worse:
This presidential campaign has been the ugliest, most divisive national campaign in our lifetimes. All rules of civility have been shredded. Instead of being careful to keep any debates on immigration, national security, and social inequality within the bounds of reasoned discourse, they have all been reduced to attacks on the personal. It’s as if all restraints upon the id have been loosened, and the trolls who used to be banished to the dark recesses of the Internet have been freed to spout their bilious rants on all the rest of us with full public approbation. In short, in the wake of this horrible campaign (whoever wins), what we may be left to reckon with is a temper infecting our society that will be worse than any bad President: one with the inclination, “So empathy’s dead? So what?”
We’ve always considered Nightwatch a refuge for folks on the streets, a place where they might come to feel safe to relax and be themselves. But as we look ahead, we’ll do what we need to be a refuge for those who wish to exercise their empathy, too.
A Model of Civility?
- Written by Gary Davis
We’ve been doing “Nightwatch Tuesdays” downtown since our chaplain Roger Fuchs retired in April and left a gap on Tuesday evenings when he was leading Bible studies.
“Nightwatch Tuesdays” is not Bible study, but we hope it’s informative, stimulating, and nourishing in other ways. Videos and movies center the evening. But instead of Hollywood blockbusters (which we may show on other evenings our Hospitality Center is open), we might show documentaries, concerts, award-winning short films, TED Talks, and the like. For it’s often tempting to underestimate our guests. Just because our guests may be homeless, that doesn’t mean they’re not as interested in our world and learning about it as the rest of us are.
In planning upcoming Tuesdays, I was looking at the schedule and it suddenly hit me: “Oh! November 8 is Election Day. We certainly can’t ignore that!” So I put together set of November events for Nightwatch Tuesdays that would focus on politics. On November 8 itself, we’ll simply set things up so we can watch the election returns themselves.
I announced this to the guests who were in attendance last Tuesday. Afterwards, one of them came up to me, truly concerned. He said, “Are you sure you really want to do that? When the results come in and everyone sees who won, some people are going to be very upset. Are you going to want to deal with that?”
“Listen,” I said, “if we can’t maintain our civility toward one another no matter how the election turns out, then our whole democracy is lost.”
But we shall see. Maybe I’m being naïve. For given how out-of-bounds this year’s presidential campaign has already gone in so many ways, maybe we have transgressed into entirely new territory that all bets for maintaining a cohesive society are off.
I do maintain hope, however. It may surprise many to learn that the political allegiances of our Nightwatch guests are as varied as those in the general population. Like society-at-large, we have Trump supporters, Hillary supporters, and those who are turned off by both of them. But the important thing is that—unlike what I’ve read about what things are like in some other communities—we are still talking with one another.
And that’s what I’m looking for when we broadcast the returns at our Hospitality Center on November 8. As much as our guests may be disdained and stigmatized because of their life’s circumstances, I’m anticipating they’ll actually proved themselves as being better than many, providing a model of civility to many who have forgotten the meaning of the word.
I trust them to do that. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Deborah Danner's Life Mattered
- Written by Gary Davis
Deborah Danner could be eloquent about her mental illness. Several years ago she wrote an essay entitled, “Living With Schizophrenia,” that began like this:
Any chronic illness is a curse. Schizophrenia is no different– its only ‘saving grace,’ if you will, is that as far as I know it’s not a fatal disease. One of the reasons that it’s a curse is that the nature of the beast is a complete loss of control– of your emotions, of your intellect, your instincts, your common sense– basically of your sense of yourself, a really frightening aspect of this insidious disease. Living with schizophrenia is on not only a curse but oftentimes a nightmare. I’m not sure how others diagnosed and recovering from this disease experience living with it but I experience it as a need for constant vigilance; I examine my psyche meticulously each and every time I feel a ‘blue funk’ coming on, every time I experience a ‘flashback’ to bad behavior(s) exhibited when I was truly ill, every time some vestige of the obsessive behavior(s) exhibited re-emerge to cause me to doubt my control, my sanity. It’s like the proverbial ‘Sword of Damocles,’ living with this illness.
Deborah herself wasn’t ever technically homeless—she was educated as an IT professional and kept an apartment in New York—but she describes episodes when the disease had gotten hold of her and she could identify with what it might be like for those similarly suffering on the streets. She speaks of the time she found herself “defecating on a public street because I was so dirty that I couldn’t get any shopkeeper or restaurateur to allow me past the front door,” or when she roamed the streets of the city “in the wee hours of the morning” with a knife in her pocket with thoughts of killing herself.
She also had encounters with police, and observed encounters that other mentally-ill people on the streets had with the police, and she was horribly afraid of those instances. She remembered a woman named Eleanor Bumpers (whom she calls “Gompers” in her essay), who was shotgunned by police when she barricaded herself in her apartment resisting eviction because she owed back rent totaling $98.65. Here was an incident, Deborah wrote, where “a very large woman named Gompers was killed by police by shotgun because she was perceived as a ‘threat to the safety’ of several grown men who were also police officers. They used deadly force to subdue her because they were not trained sufficiently in how to engage the mentally ill in crisis [emphasis hers]. This was not an isolated incident.”
Last week, Deborah Danner, in her apartment, herself had one of her episodes. Her sister was concerned enough that she wanted to get Deborah to the hospital, but Deborah was too agitated for her to handle, so the sister called the police for assistance. When the police arrived, they found Deborah, 66 years old, naked, wielding a pair of scissors. They got her to drop the scissors, but she picked up a baseball bat and swung at one of the officers. The officer shot her twice and killed her.
Though the officer had other options—like backing off, since what threat was a naked 66-year-old in her own apartment to anyone else (or in an extreme case, using a taser)—he chose to use deadly force. What good was that?
Now, this is not meant to be a slam against the police. In fact, upon learning of death of Deborah Danner, both New York’s mayor and police commissioner immediately condemned the incident as a violation of policy and stripped the offending officer of his badge and gun. Rather, I see Deborah Danner as being a victim of the general attitudes that are carried about mental illness in our society.
To read Deborah’s essay is to learn how she must deal with those attitudes every day. She speaks of the “stigma” mental illness carries, and how it affects her relationships with everyone from her family members to her neighbors to her employers. I myself see it in the way people treat those on the streets who are manifesting evident signs of mental illness. I can almost hear their thoughts: “Let’s give him a wide berth! We don’t want anything to do with him!” At Nightwatch we know what it means to be with those suffering from social isolation; and those coping with mental illness are unquestionably made the most socially isolated of all.
Occasionally, we may be inspired by a story of someone triumphing over their mental illness. Remember the movie from a few years back, A Beautiful Mind— about John Nash, a brilliant Princeton professor with schizophrenia who eventually was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics? But all those inspiring stories should themselves serve as object lessons for us. For John Nash only succeeded because through he could prove to be a very difficult man, he had people who refused to abandon him, who stood by and loved him.
We can’t simply say that we don’t have time for people with mental illness. To the contrary, our time, our patience, and our understanding are exactly what they need.
In the wake of this past week’s tragedy, a meme has arisen on the Internet:
Say her name: Deborah Danner’s life mattered. Say her name: Deborah Danner’s life was precious. Say her name. Say her name. Say her name.
P.S. We are grateful in announcing that in this past week, the Spirit Mountain Community Fund has awarded a grant to Nightwatch of $5000 to expand our own mental health services.