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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.

Below are two pictures of guests at our Mobile Hospitality Center. There are a number of minor differences between them, and one major one.

Can you guess what the major one is?

The minor differences are mostly surface. One is sharper than the other. The lighting and focus are not identical.

twp views of mhc

Those things aside, however, the pictures are basically the same. A crowd of guests has gathered. What has brought them? Have they come because they know they will be fed? No doubt. The intended purpose of the Mobile Center is to go to those areas where homeless services are few. Some of those who show up at our site may have not had a good meal all day--or longer. Similarly, because of the lack of services, those who seek out our Mobile Hospitality Center because they need socks, or warm clothes, or a blanket. We provide these, too.

But notice in both pictures that the guests are simply standing in line with a "gimme" attitude, ready to take what they can get and head off. No, they are sitting down, hanging out, relaxing--kind of like if they were at home, if they had homes of their own. That's what we mean when we talk about Nightwatch hospitality. The mission of Nightwatch is not really focused on people's needs, as it is on the people themselves. We don't see those who come to us as simply mouths to be fed or bodies to be clothed, to feel we have satisfied in our accomplishment when only those things are achieved. People are a rich blend of thoughts, emotions, histories, and experiences, and they are not honored unless those parts of them are honored too. And when folks feel those aspects of themselves are honored, they see there is a place for them.

And that's what those who are homeless so often suffer, along with everything else with which they have to cope--that there is no place for them.

That's the core vision of Nightwatch. Which brings us to the MAJOR difference between the two pictures:

Only the second one is real. The first is a Photoshopped fake.

No subterfuge was meant by the first one. It was created several years ago as part of our campaign to raise funds to put a Mobile Hospitality Center on the road. We wanted potential supporters to envision what a potentional Mobile Hospitality Center could do, and what it could be. Back then we were calling it "a Hospitality Center on Wheels." And the picture said, "Look at this! You know the good work we do at our Hospitality Center downtown? With a Mobile Center we could go and do the same thing wherever homeless clusters in the city may be found."

The second picture is a still taken a new short video, produced by Blackstone Edge Studios and now available for viewing on YouTube, featuring the Mobile Hospitality Center in action. And together with the first picture, you know what it says?

Everything we had envisioned for the Mobile Hospitality Center when it was only a dream has since come to pass!

Take a look at the video. I tell you as one who wasn't even involved in the project (the idea for the video came from Board member John Hoover, and Mikaila is the star of the show) that it really is inspiring.