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Sometimes you read something that just stops you in your tracks. For me currently, that’s Colson Whitehead’s new novel, The Underground Railroad.

The book has an interesting conceit: that the antebellum Underground Railroad was a literal subterranean railway—a primitive subway—that transported escaped Southern slaves to freedom in the North. Don’t bother yourself trying to figure out how such an engineering marvel could have possibly been constructed. Just go with it. For the key elements of the narrative don’t deal with travel on the railway anyway. The important parts are the things Cora, a young woman, experiences first as a plantation slave and then after running away, at various “stations” of the railroad along the way.

What has stopped me in my tracks is that, prior to now, I thought I knew how bad slavery was. I had watched Roots. Heck, I had even seen 12 Years a Slave—and that was the underground railroadcertainly a movie that didn’t portray slavery in any benign way. But putting those depictions side-by-side with The Underground Railroad is like comparing the way Omaha Beach is portrayed in The Longest Day versus Saving Private Ryan.

Take one example. When in the late 1840s the country began receiving its first great waves of poor Irish immigrants, the state of North Carolina penciled out that economically it would cost less to hire these immigrants to pick cotton than to maintain a population of slaves that had to housed, fed, and clothed. So North Carolina adopted a law essentially overturning slavery. Sounds good, no? Well, no. With the same law came a resolution that by a certain date, North Carolina would be a “n--- free” state. What slaves the owners themselves couldn’t rid themselves of were forcibly rousted to the borders, and once the deadline passed, any stragglers were mercilessly hunted down by roving bands of “Midnight Riders” and when captured, executed in gruesome public displays. There was a byway called the “Freedom Road” where the corpses of captured blacks lined both sides, hanging from the trees to rot.

The Underground Railroad is pocked with similar stories of the utter brutality and sadism at the heart of American slavery, seen through the eyes of Cora as she seeks to escape breathlessly with her own life. And while the book shows racism in its grossest forms, it makes the point that it is can be present in subtler ways, too. The slaves escaping on the railroad, for instance, cannot succeed without the help of kind and idealistic white folks who serve as “conductors” along the way. But at times, even these good folks in believing they only have the best interests of their charges at heart betray certain attitudes of superiority with breathtaking insensitivity.

While in hiding in North Carolina, for instance, Cora has a conversation with the man who is keeping her in his attic. He is an anxious type, and he begins worrying aloud to Cora about what might happen to him and his wife if his neighbors discover he is facilitating the escape of a fugitive. Why, they might drag them out of their house, and subject them to all kinds of humiliation! As they are breaking the law, they’d probably even arrest the man and his wife and jail them. And who knew? The stated punishment for harboring a fugitive was death.

But Cora has seen too much and lived through too much herself to be much impressed. “Try being me,” she says.


Great comeback. But even I can feel the sting of it.

I won’t even begin to speak of how that retort stings me as I cope with the issue of my own racial attitudes (there’s just too much there to unpack). I can just think of my do-gooding at Nightwatch. Boy, there are times when my sense of inertia wants to keep me back from doing my job. I think of cold, rainy winter nights when I’m needed at the Downtown Hospitality Center or when I have to fill in driving the Mobile Center and I’m warm at home after a filling meal, and I just want to cocoon. What’s going through my mind is, “I don’t want to go out into that miserable dark. I’ll be huddling in my coat, my hands freezing in my pockets, getting all wet and then after it all negotiating the streets at night, getting to bed late, losing sleep . . .”

And it’s precisely at that point when I need to imagine telling this to any one of our guests and have her respond simply, “Try being me.”

Last week Mikaila and I went on a hunting expedition.

We went hunting for where some of the refugees from the Springwater Corridor sweep—those we had been serving through our Mobile Hospitality Center and our SE Center—might be camping now.

And we succeeded in finding a couple of sites. One is located in the Gateway area and another was located way out in Columbia Slough, almost as far as Troutdale.

In both cases, when we came upon the campers we were greeted warmly. They were happy to talk to us and about the particular challenges they are now facing. In the case of the Gateway campers, they had heard that they too were scheduled to be swept on the first of October. The Columbia Slough campers’ most significant issue was that they had planted themselves so far out that they had cut themselves off from access to almost all services. Even the closest convenience store was a mile’s walk away.

And when asked what they needed most, the members of both groups agreed:


In the wake of last week’s visits, I’ve had these thoughts:

1. At both sites, the camps were very well kept. While pictures have appeared in the media of homeless camps strewn with trash and other detritus, these camps looked like seeking human kindnessthey could have been those of weekend campers in state park. One of the campers expressed that keeping up camp for him was a point of pride: “We don’t allow no druggies here!” he said. Yet when the sweeps come, they’ll be swept up with all the rest.

Both campsites were in undeveloped areas some distance from both businesses and residential areas. Essentially, the campers there were minding their own business, taking care of themselves and bothering nobody. Nonetheless—at least in the case of the Gateway campers—the sweeps were coming. What is the point? No one is being harmed by their presence. Why not just leave them alone?

2. Is the purpose of homeless sweeps to push campers further and further out, to get them out of the city altogether? They’ve already succeeded in doing this with the Columbia Slough campers. But look what that’s led to: a veritably total cut-off from services (and one of the campers there is a veteran in a wheelchair) where they have to scrounge under essentially Third-World conditions for even the most basic of necessities, including water. Is this humane?

What prompted Mikaila and I to go out this week was to see whether the Springwater sweep created new options for us for places to take our Mobile Hospitality Center. And we will respond in some way as the situation demands.

But that we have such a situation at all reminds me once again of Thomas Jefferson’s words: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”

[This week's blog post is from Mikaila.]

It has now been a little over two weeks since the infamous Springwater Corridor Sweep, and there is a notable change to our Mobile and SE Hospitality Centers because of it. Our numbers have been cut roughly in half since the sweep- we were serving over 100 on any given night, and now we may reach 60-70. Many of our friends that we have known for years are nowhere to be seen- either they have moved too far away to come to our centers or have jumped town entirely. Still others have found housing and are now indoors, which we couldn’t be happier about! Unfortunately, this became reality for too few of our guests.

From what we have heard, the sweep itself was relatively peaceful. Everyone I talked to said that those enforcing the sweep were polite and helpful, and that everything went springwater sweep“okay.” However, “okay” still implies that many of our beloved guests had to leave behind belongings, friends, and a sense of security. Folks who had been living on the trail for a number of years had organized themselves into groups where they felt at home. Some of our guests had gone to great efforts to make their camp comfortable by planting flower gardens and situating their tents in a comfortable fashion. Much of this they were forced to leave behind.

Our folks are now scattered and trying to stabilize, which is proving to be difficult as many people are being re-swept from the new places they have found. Our guests tell us that many people are now far away from the vital services such as feeding sites and medical services that they previously accessed- some are as far out as 181st and Airport Way. One guest told us, “People are going hungry out there!”

So what do we do about this?

Luckily, Nightwatch has the infrastructure to address such a fluid crowd, our Mobile Hospitality Center. We also have a plan- our Bringing Home to You Initiative. Currently our MHC is only being used on Friday nights, which leaves the rest of the week wide open to potentially serve our now displaced guests. We are investigating possible sites for the MHC to go out an additional night a week. If you are interested in joining a team to provide food and hospitality in the future, please let us know! We have a great need to fill and while we can only do so much, we can’t do anything without help from our generous volunteers and donors!

If you have any questions about the Bringing Home to You Initiative, please contact me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Capitalism can work well if you have money.

If you’re poor, on the other hand . . . Not so much.

Take our health care system. Lately, there’s been another Big Pharma story in the news, as the company that now holds rights to the EpiPen increased the price to the consumer by 400%. Whereas seven years ago, one could buy two EpiPens for $124, the price is now $604. This wasn’t because over those six years there was any improvement in the product either chemically or technologically. It was simply because the company had a monopoly, was naturally profit-oriented, and chose to exploit its advantage. Now, those who had decent health coverage could probably shrug off the price increases because their insurance would take care of it. But for those who didn’t, it was either you pay, or you die. Perhaps literally.

Or here’s a more immediate example.

A Nightwatch example.

Late one night this past week I received a phone call from a 76-year-old woman in considerable distress. Though not one of our homeless guests, she had visited our Downtown Hospitality Center a couple of times in the last month because she had heard we did foot care. Due to complications of diabetes she is legally blind and her feet are in such poor condition that she is only mobile because of a wheelchair. She is housed in a care center that sounds pretty bare-bones.

She came to receive her foot care from our nurses at Nightwatch because her insurance coverage is Medicaid’s barest of bare bones. Under the provisions of her plan, she may see a podiatrist, but no more than once every three months—and even then, as an M.D. he doesn’t do “basics” such as nail-trimming, which has led his patient to suffer with several ingrown toenails.

How, you might ask, does a 76-year-old in a wheelchair living in a care center access our Downtown Hospitality Center? She made arrangements with a Medivan to transport her. She believed her health coverage would pay for such transportation for treatment.

And it did. That is, it did until—and here’s the killer!—her provider discovered that our nurses were not billing for the foot care but doing it for free! In other words, because our volunteer nurses were not filling out invoices that could go to her insurance provider so they could turn around and bill the government to make money off her treatment, they ruled that they would cut off her ability to access care by ruling out the use of the Medivan.

To follow one line of logic, this is an absurd system. On the one hand, what a disincentive it provides to charities! It’s a discouragement to our nurses to donate their time and provide free care because it makes taking that avenue ultimately harmful to their patients. Furthermore, consider the disincentives this system offers patients health care as businessthemselves: by discouraging them from taking measures to maintain good health, what problems they have—going untreated and festering—will only lead to more serious complications, much costlier to everyone in the long run.

But to follow another line of logic—where the ultimate goal is not greater health for the patient but greater health for a company’s bottom line—this approach makes eminent sense. If allowing a person’s health degenerate to the surgery stage adds more dollars than covering preventive care, why not let it degenerate? You can see how such a system really is structured so that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  

In her late night phone call, the woman asked if I had any answers for her. I had to confess that I didn’t. When you think that the housing market works the same way as the medical market, with an unfettered profit motive determining who can afford to have shelter and who cannot, Nightwatch really deals with capitalism’s casualties.

And though the system may toss at us whatever disincentives to keep is from continuing, that’s precisely why we’re needed. And that’s why we’ll stay. 

My wife Sharon and I paid off our mortgage a couple of weeks ago. Thirty years of payments. Done.

When I mention that to people, I typically get a response along these lines: “That must be a relief.” Well, yes. I guess. I’ve often heard of couples celebrating in a big way when they come to the opportunity of burning their mortgage. It surprises me, therefore, that I just kind of shrug over it.

It may be because our monthly mortgage payment never amounted to much. Buying into the market 30 years ago, we got a nice house for $500 a month. Even with my making a modest salary as first a church pastor and then a nonprofit executive, that never crimped us. In July, the average rent in Portland for a two-bedroom apartment in Portland was $1822. And ours is a stand-alone house! With three bedrooms! In Lake Oswego!

If I had to enter the housing market today, that would be a crimp! Given current housing costs, I myself might be homeless.

So I’m naturally grateful that I myself have been so blessed. But on the other hand, the situation allows me, when folks grouse over the number of homeless people they see today, simply to call attention to these numbers.

The answer to homelessness is housing. And there is just not a sufficient amount of affordable housing for everyone.

And the pool is getting even smaller . . .

It didn’t always use to be like this. Once upon a time, developers built housing suitable for a range of incomes, from the modest to the luxurious. only affordable housingThey would do so, not from altruism, but because they could make a profit on every level. Where the market was such that profit margins were small (or non-existent)—such as when they built low-income housing—they still had a profit-incentive because the government stepped in and either provided adequate tax breaks for building affordable housing or gave outright subsidies. Large-scale government funding essentially ended during the 1980s “supply side economics” frenzy when taxes were dramatically cut on corporate and upper-level incomes, and federal housing funds were drastically cut back. In the decades since, those funds were never replaced, and we’re suffering the effects today.

So yes, while there always used to be homeless of the Mr. Bojangles variety who were there because they liked to “drinks a bit,” we never have seen the dimensions of homelessness we see today, where the greatest growing segment is children. These are not people who are to blamed for their homelessness because of their own bad habits. They are people suffering from homelessness because there is no housing (at least none they can afford).

Or to put it another way: I myself am not now in a mortgage-free house because I am especially virtuous. I merely find myself in the fortunate circumstances I am today because I was graced to have been born at the right time. I am not in a place to consider myself more righteous because others were not. Rather, precisely because I know I am only where I am today because I’ve been graced, I must ask myself, “What might I do to help others have the same advantage I did?”

And I’m willing to crimp myself in following through on that. Because I know so many others are being more crimped than I myself have ever been.