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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. 

You’ve probably heard me say before that there is a distinction between “home”-lessness and mere “house”-lessness. While lacking shelter is certainly a serious thing, a “home” is much more than that. A “home” is a place where we feel rooted, a place from which we draw our identity and in which we find our security.

“Home”-lessness, in short, can be as much an existential reality as a physical one.

Proceeding with that understanding, one might observe that “home”-lessness in our society today encompasses a much broader population than just those we see camping on the streets.

When I got married at age 27, I was already pastoring my first church in the bucolic hamlet of Falls Village, Connecticut. Yes, it was as small as it sounds. As the only other church in town besides mine was a Catholic mission whose priest drove in only for Sunday masses, I was essentially the resident pastor for everyone. Thus, when it came time to plan my wedding, it only made sense to have it in my church. That’s the place where I was rooted. Falls Village was the community that defined me. We only sent out a few formal invitations to family and friends who lived out-of-town, but otherwise we just put up a notice to all Falls Villagers, “Y’all come!” A friend who pastored the church the next town over officiated, and our wedding became THE Falls Village Event of 1978.  (And some sign of how much a community event this was: The week before a local family had had a house fire, and during the wedding ceremony we actually paused to take an offering to help them out.)

It’s rare to find such feeling for community, for “belonging”-ness, among people anymore. Even those who enjoy the views from the heights of high-rent districts don’t evidence much sense of rootedness, the demands of life making everything so transient. How many could name a half-dozen of their immediate neighbors anymore? (I can’t; though I’ve lived at the same address for 30 years, it’s my neighbors who keep changing.) As far as weddings go, Hawaii has developed an entire wedding industry for those on the mainland who want to fly there to have their ceremony on the beach. That seems so strange to me. communityWhy would you want to get married in a place that’s not “your” place, where you are surrounded and affirmed by family and friends? When I got married, Hawaii was for the honeymoon, not for the wedding itself.

Which brings me, inevitably, back to our guests at Nightwatch. Nightwatch’s raison d'être is to minister to our guests “home”-lessness. But there are occasions when I feel they have a much greater sense of rootedness than those I share the supermarket aisles with in Lake Oswego. A few years ago, for instance, we did indeed host a wedding at our SE Hospitality Center because the bride and groom came out of the community we served there and they wanted their ceremony in a place that meant something to them, surrounded by their friends.

And the latest example is upcoming this week. One of our downtown guests, Savannah, recently lost her life. A few days ago, a friend of hers approached me. Could they have a memorial service for Savannah during Hospitality Center hours on Friday? he wanted to know. “This place,” he said, “meant so much to her.”

Some people, I guess, no matter what opulence they might live in, never do find a rootedness for their unsettled souls. But Savannah, though she never did succeed in finding a permanent place to settle before her life was taken from her, apparently did find a home. 

Jeffrey was excited to see me. He could hardly contain himself. ‘I’ve got someone for you to meet!” he said.

Jeffrey hadn’t been to the Downtown Center for a number of months and when he was there he invariably sought me out because he had a joke to tell or some witty observation to make. But this evening he was clearly excited about something else.

“Her name is Gracie,” he said when we were finally introduced. She was a mixed breed who, while she had some German Shepherd in her, was a very sweet and docile animal.

Jeffrey is very sweet and docile too—a “puppy dog” kind-of-guy—and I was glad he had finally found a friend. While loneliness is endemic to the streets, Jeffrey struck me as being particularly alone. I never saw him hanging out with anyone else, and his sense of humor may have just seemed too goofy for most people. I think that’s why he always sought me out. He was like the precocious kid in class, not knowing quite how to relate to his peers, always hangs on the heels of the teacher.

For the last couple of weeks, Jeffrey came to the Center faithfully accompanied by Gracie. Then on Thursday, when he approached me he was alone. “You may notice someone is missing,” he said, trying to sound casual.

“Uh-oh,” I thought.

Then he came right out with it: “Some guy led Gracie out onto the railroad tracks and she was killed by a train.”

“That’s so awful!” I said.

“Yep,” he said, still keeping up his front. “Sliced right in half.”

“Oh, Jeffrey, I am so sorry,” I said.

This is when the tears welled up. “This guy had it in for me.” He turned away, whether embarrassed by his emotion, or simply overwhelmed by the memory, I don’t know. But it was clear he had said what he needed to say. And he had gotten someone to listen.

But as he turned away, he had one more thing he had to say: “Some people are so evil!”

It surely is a hobby-horse of mine to emphasize that a true “home” is so many more things than merely a roof over one’s head, and that therefore shared sorrowthose who are “home”-less lack many other resources that we take for granted in the emotional and spiritual refuge that “home” provides. And what Jeffrey made me aware of is the importance of having someone with whom to share one’s deepest sorrow with.

We intuitively know that the worst way of mourning is by being alone. That’s why when an acquaintance dies, everyone rallies around the family whose loved one was lost, bringing in meals, attending wakes, checking in the days after the funeral. But who is there when someone who is homeless who has suffered a grievous loss to offer their care, their concern, their support.

Jeffrey knew he had a place where there would be someone to mourn with him. Helping to bear another’s burdens is not like our dominant activities at Nightwatch—playing games, watching movies, handing out blankets and socks—but if anything, it is exactly the thing we are supposed to be doing.

This is exactly the kind of place we are meant to be.

“Isabelle” is a short story by celebrated author George Saunders in which a teen-aged boy becomes enmeshed in the lives of his neighbors, a single dad and his severely handicapped daughter. The dad is a racist cop who can be brutal in his treatment of (especially black) suspects; from a hiding spot, the boy and his brother even once witness him killing one. But with his daughter, the cop is a different person altogether. He shows infinite patience and treats her with the deepest endearment and tenderness.

When the cop feels the boy is old enough to shoulder the responsibility, he arranges through the boy’s family to have him serve as caregiver for his daughter during the hours he is working. Naturally, being a teenager, this is a job the boy doesn’t want. As the boy confesses, “[When] we were young, ignorant of mercy, [we] called her Boneless or Balled-Up Gumby for the way her limbs were twisted and useless.” But in time spent with the daughter, he feels a bond growing between them and he becomes attached to her himself.

The father dies. The boy’s mother refuses to entertain the idea of taking the daughter into their own home, so she is institutionalized. The boy visits with his family, but then there is an incident where the daughter becomes so hurt by his family that she withdraws, never wanting to see them again.

Months pass. The boy has become a young man. He gets a job and a place of his own. And he can’t stop thinking about his neighbor who was once in his care. So he decides to take the risk of visiting her again.isabelle quote

I thought: What can she do, throw me out? So I went over. When she saw me her eyes lit up. She . . . and I talked until the sun rose and the halls filled with oldsters and lunatics hacking and grousing their way into consciousness. Then an ex-con with a head scar brought her a dish of eggs that looked like it had spent the night on a windowsill and I thought: Jesus Christ, enough is enough.

                  . . . So I . . . moved her in with me. Now we’re pals. Family. It’s not perfect. Sometimes it’s damn hard. But I look after her and she squeals with delight when I come home, and the sum total of sadness is less than it would have been.

That’s a wonderful line: “the sum total of sadness is less than it would have been.”

And in reading it, it occurred to me that’s what we seek to do at Nightwatch. We have no pretensions of changing the world. That’s way out of our hands. But to give a guest the chance to share something in a conversation he’s had bottled up because he’s had no one who’ll listen to him; to hear a couple of our guys laughing over a board game because a crazy roll of the dice has overturned the direction of who’s winning; to have a guest emerge from foot care declaring that he now feels “like a million bucks” . . . .

Well, that might not result in changing the world, but I have to think that in such small things, the sum total of sadness in our world has nonetheless been diminished.

And I have to think that over time, such small things all add up. . . .

So that’s my wish for you today—that in your encounters, whether through Nightwatch or just in your daily rounds, you may act so that the “sum total of sadness” in our world is somehow “less than it would have been.”

I love Portland.

When I was younger I was afflicted with wanderlust. I was restless, always wanting to see new things, have new experiences, see the world. That probably came from my growing up in Gary, Indiana, our family limited in what it could see and do by living on a blue-collar income. But I read, and I watched movies and TV shows filmed in exotic places, and I knew there was a whole wide world out there bigger than Gary that I felt compelled to explore.

But this year marks the 30th year since my wife and I moved to Portland, and since then we’ve visited other places (almost all of which I’ve enjoyed), but it’s hard for me to envision living any other place than here. With its easy access to mountains and ocean, with its greenspace and culture—both that which is traditional and that which is uniquely our own city’s—there is so much beauty and stimulation, who would want anything more?

And yet I got into a conversation with a couple of our guests a couple of weeks ago, and when one of them said, “I can’t wait to get out of this place, to go somewhere else,” and the other readily agreed. On top of everything else, the one who expressed these sentiments said he was a Portland native, born and raised here.

To say that I was shocked to hear someone say this would not be a completely accurate description of my emotions. More appropriately, I might describe my reaction as feeling aggrieved. How could someone feel so negatively about my beloved city?

But of course, I’m not homeless.

And while I was tempted to come to Portland’s defense (e.g., “You think you have it rough as a homeless person here? You should try some other city where there are no resources directed toward homeless needs at all!”), I learned long ago that you can’t deny people their feelings. If our guests felt that Portland was a pretty awful place for them as homeless individuals, I should rather ask myself why, despite the way the city has sought to address homeless needs, they would still feel that way.

No doubt, a large element of our guests’ attitude is due to the fact that while there has been no end to talk about providing housing for the homeless, it hasn’t been matched by commensurate action. Yes, the city has celebrated the number of people they have gotten into housing, but it hasn’t been at a fast enough rate to meet everyone’s needs, and demand far exceeds supply.

But I think something else is afoot. I think that precisely because the city talks so much about doing something about homelessness, but then fails to follow through on meeting the expectations it raises, it subjects our guests to such disillusionment—such smothering of a hope that might sustain them—that it’s almost worse than the city making no pretense of caring about the homeless at all.

Let’s face it. City policy toward homeless people has been wildly inconsistent over the past few years. In one moment, the police are cracking down onw way one wayon people sleeping in doorways. Then the city decides its okay for homeless folks to camp on city property. Then the city decides it’s not okay anymore, and announces all unauthorized encampments will be subject to sweeps. I myself do my best to remain up-to-date on current city policy, as guests will ask me if and when they can camp somewhere, and it’s hard enough for me to keep up. For our guests themselves, it must subject them to psychological whiplash.

The city is no doubt unaware of this, but what it’s doing in its pendulumic swings in homeless policy is taking a page out of psy-ops manuals that inform torturers how to break prisoners. After roughing up the subject for a while, take the diametrically opposite approach—offer him a cigarette, tend to his wounds—then when he thinks you’ve softened toward him, whack him even harder than you did before. They’ve proven it with lab rats in the administration of food versus electric shocks, and many a child has grown up with life-long emotional dysfunctions because of growing up under parents they could not know from one moment to the next whether they would be nurturing huggers or abusive monsters.

Psychological abuse can have as long-term effects as physical abuse. And I think what is alienating a lot of Portland’s homeless sons and daughters from their own city is that from all the inconsistent and confused mixed messages they’re constantly being dealt they’re feeling psychologically abused.

I actually have a lot of sympathy for those responsible for making city policy. They have many constituencies to satisfy. Theirs can’t be an easy job. And any policy should always be considered only provisional, as changing circumstances may require its modification. But there’s been an unfortunate ham-handedness in the way policy changes have been abruptly thrust on the public, making them each feel lack a whack across the head.

That’s not good.

That does damage.

Because I love Portland, I know the city can do better.