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Meet Stephanie.

Stephanie is our new medical assistant, the first to serve with us as we have finally begun to implement our Health Initiative. A student at Heald College, Stephanie is on duty every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evening at our downtown StephanieHospitality Center (we also hope to get her out to SE in the next couple of weeks).

Stephanie has only been serving with us for two weeks, but she has been seeing an average of 10 guests per evening. She has checked the blood pressure of a number of guests, but just in these two weeks she has attended to a range of other needs as well. She had to deal with an epileptic seizure. She gave a pregnancy test--and since the test was positive, got to talk with the parents-to-be about pre-natal care. She bandaged a man with a cut nose, but also had the chance to counsel him about his alcoholism. She ministered to a man with debilitating headaches. And she found that others sought her out to talk about their other aches and pains, simply because they knew we had a medical professional available and they had no other opportunity to seek health advice.

When we welcomed Stephanie as our first health provider, I thought it might take some time for our guests to take advantage of her services. But the dispatch at which our guests have come to seek her out only reinforces how important it has been for Nightwatch to respond to the health needs as an element of our hospitality.

Just think of all those needs Stephanie has addressed in the two weeks she has been here: 10 people a night! Take all those nights we were open before Stephanie came along and multiply them by 10, and consider all those needs we had not been meeting!

But thanks to Stephanie (and those who will follow) the story is different now.

“What are we going to do about Charles?”

In one form or another, that question was posed to me by several people this past week.

I’ve written about Charles before. Charles has schizophrenia, and as many mentally-ill people who are found on the streets, he deals with it by self-medicating. When he does so, he becomes especially agitated, pacing, hurling epithets, converting his verbal word-salad into dense writing with which he fills every available scrap of paper.

Over the last week, he proved to be especially difficult. He had to be warned several times over the insults he was spouting and was even asked to leave. Then he was seen taking trash and crossing the street to throw it over the railing toward the I-405 freeway.Man with mental illness

So the exasperated question came—not once, but several times: “What are we going to do about Charles?”

But I noticed from the way the question is asked that the questioners might mean different things by it. What some mean by their question is, “What are we going to do about Charles? Charles has a problem.” On the other hand, what others mean by it is, “What are we going to do about Charles? Charles is a problem.”

The two arise from different motivations, and obviously require different approaches. The first expresses a genuine concern about Charles. The second is only fundamentally centered around one’s own desires and needs.

The answer in response to first kind of question is not an easy one. How can it be? Consider all the things a mentally-ill homeless man with substance abuse issues has to overcome. If someone is to be serious about helping someone like Charles, they must be prepared to invest a lot of time, resources, and patience. They must be prepared to put much else aside and face setbacks disappointment. If they are ever to measure “success” in their relationship with Charles at all, it may only be in the slightest of things. The nature of Charles’ challenges is that he may never be “cured;” at issue is whether he is nonetheless worthy of our care.

Those asking the second kind of question are looking precisely for an easy answer. With Charles being the problem, they don’t really care much what happens to him as long as they don’t have to worry about the problem anymore. He’s too much of a bother. Get rid of him. It doesn’t matter how. We just can’t deal with it. “Out of sight, out of mind.”

And it occurs to me the same dynamic is at work when people raise the general question, “What are we going to do about the homeless?”

Some who ask that question see homelessness as a complex issue, realizing there will be no easy answers. Housing, treatment programs, and caring communities are all needed. Systemic change will be required from actions taken in both the public and private sectors. But neither will homelessness be properly addressed unless countless individuals assume the compassion in their hearts to address it. Such will require an investment of time, resources, energy, sacrifice, and patience. And it will cost. A lot.

Others see the question in more practical terms: to put it simply, their question is not grounded so much in “how do we rid ourselves of homelessness?”, as it is in, “how do we rid ourselves of the homeless?” themselves.

What's your own understanding behind that question: "What are we going to do about the homeless?"

And what are you going to do about it?

A Review to Cherish

If you go on the Web, you can find sites that review practically everything--from consumer goods to hotels and restaurants to (believe it or not) worshiping congregations.

There is even a Web site where reviews can be posted about non-profit organizations, called GreatNonprofits.org. Nightwatch is listed on there, and a couple of weeks ago, I invited folks who have volunteered with us to write to post some reviews. I felt there was some urgency inGreatNonprofits Badge this because outsiders--including funding organizations--often judge whether they should give Nightwatch a try by reading such reviews, and in the wake of the Niki Powell tragedy we've had a obsessive Internet troll hiding behind his anonymity to post some particularly nasty things about us. I hoped by getting reviews from people who actually have had some experience with us we might provide an antidote to the venom.

A number of people did respond to my plea, and we got some great postings. You can read them all by clicking here, but I thought I'd share this one with you, as it touched me as being especially eloquent. I have no memory of the volunteer who posted this, Shane L., but her experience at Nightwatch evidently made an impression on her:

 I had the opportunity to volunteer at Operation Nightwatch recently with my Mom, who is a volunteer homeless advocate in Los Angeles. We were both impressed with the idea behind Operation Nightwatch, as well as how it was carried out. We both visited a number of other agencies serving the homeless that same day & commented on how much interaction there was between volunteers & guests, how relaxed & calm guests were invited to be, the freedom they had to engage in different conversations and board games & come and go as they wished. There seemed to be an effortlessness in how the night's activities were run; while many other organizations passed out food, socks, toiletries & other goods, guests seemed to know they were there to be served & needn't hurry or be demanding in order to have their needs met. Operation Nightwatch does just that - attentively, respectfully & compassionately attend to eager guests. Nowhere else in the city did I see quite this level of welcome.

Anyone can post a review. If you would like to post one yourself, all you need to do is click here.

This Is Your Brain On . . . Compassion?

I took a couple of flights last week and, naturally, I flew coach.

Did you ever notice how the pre-boarded passengers inFirst Class vs. Coach comfy, legroom-luxurious First Class will never meet the eyes of those who are struggling through their cabin to find their place back in steerage?

Quite by accident, there have been a couple of times when I myself have been bumped up to a First Class seat. And I have to admit I find myself engaging in the same kind of behavior. In my case, I attribute it to my profound embarrassment that I find myself sitting among the privileged. Maybe that accounts also for the actions of the other First Class passengers.

But I wonder. Maybe, on the other hand, it has something to do with their brains. Neurological studies have found that there are certain parts of the brain associated with empathy and compassion. In some of these studies, people are put into an MRI and then shown pictures of various subjects--human, animal, and inanimate--and when they are shown a picture with which they feel an emotional attachment, these parts of the cerebrum lights up. The picture might be that of a family member, or of a newborn baby, or a frolicking puppy. What has also been found, however, is that within many people, that part of the brain shows similar activity when they are shown a picture of a Haitian earthquake victim or that of a homeless person curled in a doorway.

The frightening thing, however, is that there are those who upon being shown the earthquake victim or the homeless person show no lively brain activity at all. For them, it's as if they are looking at a totally neutral subject--or for that matter, not looking at anything at all. It's as if the these human beings are completely invisible to them.

Our Nightwatch guests often report feeling invisible to many of the people who pass them on the streets. We don't have too many who come to Nightwatch who spend their days panhandling, but we do have several who work as street vendors selling Street Roots. Before they can go out and sell the paper, they are instructed to be friendly to all who pass by. But they remark how often it is that they'll say "hello" and offer a smile to those walking past them and they'll not even gain an acknowledgement of their presence. It's not just a denial of their humanity; it's a denial of their existence. And it hurts.

Back when Sonia Sotomayor was undergoing her nomination hearings for a place on the Supreme Court, a big debate erupted over the issue whether "empathy" was a legitimate qualification for any political appointee. From the arguments made by some politicians at the time, one might have even been led to conclude that "empathy" was as toxic as nuclear fallout.

Now some of those very politicians are campaigning on platforms declaring how much they themselves "care" for others!

If only a requirement of running for office were to put all candidates through an MRI and see what part of their brains really lighted up.

New Nightwatch Video Now on YouTube

Nightwatch is going to be included in this year's holiday Give!Guide published by Willamette Week. (I'll let you know when it comes out.) As part of our acceptance into the Give!Guide, WW asked that we produce a promotional video for Nightwatch that it can upload to its Web site.

Click here to take a look. Enjoy.