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The Nightwatch Board of Directors made a historic move this week. For the first time since Nightwatch’s founding in 1981, it voted to take a stance as an organization on an issue of political consequence. It agreed to add Nightwatch’s name to an amicus brief in a lawsuit filed with the State of Oregon challenging the city of Portland’s “anti-camping” ordinance. (This is the ordinance that makes it illegal for homeless people to camp in public areas.)

I personally was neutral on the issue. Given as outspoken I can be on some things, some might be surprised to learn that I possess something of a conservative streak. Or maybe that streak could more properly be labeled, “traditionalist.” While I can own up to being a “bleeding heart,” I always hope to make it clear that when I express myself on any topic I’m only speaking for myself and not necessarily for any group with which I may be associated.

And the fact of the matter is that Nightwatch has never been an advocacy organization. In the entire 35 years of its existence, though many worthy causes have presented themselves, Nightwatch has never climbed on anybody else’s bandwagon. One of the strong things that binds us together in an increasingly polarized world bound us together, I think, is that despite the far-flung beliefs held by Nightwatch supporters across theological, political, and socioeconomic spectra is that we haven’t taken any litmus-test positions on anything. One thing it is that holds us in common cause: the fundamental compassion in our hearts—from whatever belief-system it flows—to serve the suffering we see around us.

It’s been easier to preserve that unity and prevent polarization when we haven’t taken stands. And while I don’t know how controversial our siding against the city’s anti-camping ordinance will be among Nightwatch-ers, the source of my concern really lies in precedent now having been broken. We can no longer say that Nightwatch is not an advocacy organization. What other causes might now feel emboldened to appear at our door seeking Nightwatch’s imprimatur that might be more prone to raise hackles?

Yet I was not wholly against the Board’s decision to join the amicus brief. As I said, I was neutral. That’s because I do possess a strong sense of justice.

I do understand much of the motivation behind the enactment of such things as anti-camping ordinances. While some of it is irrational, based in ignorance (“Homeless people are dangerous!”), much of it is actually quite rational. For instance, when homeless camps arise, there arise hygienic and sanitation issues. Wherever groups of people congregate there is going to be waste. And without disposal options, there will be vermin and even disease. For weeks, we had an encampment literally right outside our doors at St. Stephen’s and we saw the dynamic there.

But simply passing a law that dictates, “NO CAMPING,” is no solution. For homeless people aren’t living outside on a lark. They have no choice. Push them out of one camping spot and they’ll only move to another. And it’s not because they delight in being difficult—it’s because they have no place else to go.

Anti-camping ordinances, in short, are stupid.

The ultimate alternative to anti-camping ordinances is to find housing for everyone living outside. But given the fact that’s not going to happen overnight, there are intermediate no camping noticeoptions, such as having designated areas where people can camp. And then to provide trash services and porta-potties to cover the sanitary issues. We know this is not an impossible task because the state/national parks, National Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management have been able to handle camping in their jurisdictions for decades. Designated areas can also be patrolled, for as these governmental agencies can attest, bring a group of people together and there can be tensions and rule-breakers that need to be tended to, as well.

But simply to proclaim “NO CAMPING”? That’s neither realistic nor fair. It’s really just a “solution” hatched from wishful thinking that you can tell people to stop being homeless and that will be enough to just make them disappear.

That’s obviously avoiding the real issue. The current crisis in homelessness has been created by public policy decisions, and it will only be solved by public policy decisions.

And for that, our Board would argue, it’s time for a stand to be taken.

So what do you think?

Chuck could be the poster-boy for our Mental Health Initiative.

He and I go back many years—way back to when our Downtown Hospitality Center was still operating out of Julia West House. And our history has been checkered. There I have been times I have had to be strict with him because his behavior has been so disruptive that he’s scared others around him. I’ve lost count how many times I have to “86” him, even to the point of sometimes having to threaten to call the police on him if he didn’t comply. Unsurprisingly, he would often react in anger. We’ve had stare-downs, he’s kicked and thrown things, used a dumpster full of foul language, and more than once he’s swung at me (though it’s obvious each time he’s pulled his punches—we’d both be shocked if he sometime actually connected).

And yet neither of us holds grudges. I don’t hold a grudge against Chuck because his mental illness is obvious. He paces. He vocalizes incomprehensibilities to himself. He’ll bang his head against the wall and swing at phantoms. I can’t blame a man for having a brain whose signals are uncontrollably garbled. And so even if I can’t allow Chuck inside the Hospitality Center because his presence is too disruptive to our other guests, I’ll say “hi” to him when I meet him on the streets, and if he’s not too overrun by his demons I’ll ask how he’s doing.

And Chuck seems not to hold a grudge against me because of those moments. Despite everything, he still recognizes that when I have to act strictly with him it’s because of his behavior, not because I have something against him as a human being.

There are even occasions when Chuck is calm and rational. Maybe his demons decided to take a vacation. Maybe Chuck’s just remembered to take his medication. Maybe it’s sunspots or electromagnetic fields. I don’t know and I don’t care. I just enjoy those times when we can have an ordinary conversation.

A couple of weeks ago Chuck dropped by my office in a rational state. Because he had been at a low-point in his cycle we had banned him from the Hospitality Center and he asked whether he could return. I said he could under the proviso that he had to be intent on following our direction; if we determined he was acting too disruptively and we asked him to leave, he would have to agreeably comply. He was very grateful and shook my hand.

He didn’t last two nights. When asked to leave, he threw his coffee on the floor and spewed a barrage of invective.

It’s the Chucks among our guests that I care for more than anyone else. When we promote Operation Nightwatch as a organization whose mission is to rescue the mental health symbolmarginalized from their social isolation, when we say that our Hospitality Centers are designed as places for those who otherwise have no place else to go, who are more marginalized and socially isolated, who are those most-pressed with no place else to go than those struggling with mental illness? But our Hospitality Centers are group settings. Though the motivation behind a mentally-ill person’s bad behavior may not be malicious—nor even within their control—that doesn’t make it any less disruptive to all the other people around him. We have to consider the obligation we have to all the others there to provide a safe and peaceful space.

And yet how much more socially isolating it therefore becomes when we tell those with mental illness that there’s not even a place for them at Nightwatch. They’re banned from everywhere—even our space—left on the streets with their demons. Alone.

All I can say now is that we are continuing to wrestle with this issue. I don’t have any solutions to it right now. But I think bringing a mental health professional on board as part of the Mental Health Initiative will help us move toward one. And we’ll continue to wrestle until we fully become what we say we are—a place for everyone who has no place else to go.

At the invitation of a local church, I’ll be speaking there in a couple of weeks with the topic of “A Day in the Life of the Homeless..” So I’ve been thinking about. What exactly is a day like in the life of a homeless person?

Certainly I could speak about the harshness of sleeping out in the elements—or, should an individual take refuge in an emergency shelter, what the regimented life is like there. I could talk about waiting in line at soup kitchens and spending time in the library simply because it’s a place that’s warm and dry. I could talk about the daily effort to gain some cash by collecting cans for their deposit value, or by standing on a corner selling Street Roots. I could also talk about what it’s like to live under the disapproval of all passers-by, and what that does to one’s self-esteem.

But what strikes me as to what dominantly characterizes each day in the life of the homeless is a pervasive feeling of boredom. What does one do with oneself after the shelters shove everyone out in the morning and before the library opens? How about after the library closes and there are hours to go before one can go to sleep?

I’ve had the privilege in my career of going on a couple of sabbaticals. On one I hiked the landscape of Israel/Palestine. On another I traveled on my own around the U.K. I was on a limited budget, so I mostly stayed in hostels that typically didn’t open their doors about 4 in the afternoon (and then pushed everybody out about 9 in the morning). They were, in fact, something like homeless shelters. And I remember days when I visited a town, saw everything there was to see, and found that it was only 1 in the afternoon. With three hours remaining until I could access the hostel, what was I to do with myself? I was limited from entering many indoor sites because I was hauling a big pack on my back that many shops and museums didn’t want to deal with. I didn’t know how to master all that empty time. So if the weather was decent I would find a park, lie out under a tree, and take a nap; if it wasn’t, I’d huddle under the protection of a bus shelter and wait for the hours to pass.

Here’s the thing: when we think about all physical things that must make life miserable in a day in the life of a homeless individual, we are only scratching the surface of his/her misery. There’s an entire existential dimension that even more fundamentally makes his/her life miserable.

When I look at the birds or the squirrels that inhabit my backyard, I can see that their entire life-cycle consists of little more than eating, sleeping, and lonely homeless manreproducing. But certainly humanity consists of something more than that. Human beings don’t merely seek to exist; they seek to live. And life for us means sensing one has a meaning and purpose; it means connecting with others and with one’s environment in fulfilling relationships. When such does not happen, it leads to despair. Animals don’t feel despair. They don’t commit suicide or surrender to addictions because they feel a gigantic hole within. But human beings do. Human beings need meaning and purpose. And loneliness can kill.

That’s really what a day is like in the life of the homeless—it’s all about coping with the aimlessness and purposeless of each passing hour. 

In his book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond writes this about the importance of “home”:

The home is the center of life. It is a refuge from the grind of work, the pressure of school, and the menace of the streets. We say that at home, we can “be ourselves.” Everywhere else, we are someone else. At home, we remove our masks.

The home remains the primary basis of life. It is where meals are shared, quiet habits formed, dreams confessed, traditions created. . . .

Civic life too begins at home, allowing us to plant roots and take ownership in our community, . . . and reach out to neighbors in a spirit of solidarity and generosity. . . . What is a nation but a patchwork of cities and towns; cities and towns a patchwork of neighborhoods; and neighborhoods a patchwork of homes?

America is supposed to be a place where you can better yourself, your family, and your community. But this is only possible if you have a stable home.

In short—as Desmond goes on to say—homelessness reduces those who experience those who were otherwise “born for better things.” 

And this is not just on one day, but every day.

Nightwatch is “Night”watch because from the beginning our founders recognized that while the emptiness experienced within those we serve may be ever-present, its consuming demons can be especially ravenous in the slow hours of the evening, the loneliness time of day. 

So when the sun goes down, that’s why we seek to keep a light shining.

This past week was our annual Memorial Service, at which we remember those on the streets who died in the past year. The service was organized (as it has in past years) by our recently-retired chaplain Roger Fuchs, and this year Roger asked me to offer a little meditation.

This is what I said:

I’m at the stage of my own life when I’ve come to regularly read the obituaries in the newspaper, knowing mine is likely to end up there sooner rather than later. And I’ve actually so thought about this that I’ve actually discussed it with my wife: when my obit appears, what picture of me should accompany it? Should it be a picture of how I looked in my later life, the way everybody knew me when I died? But I don’t know if I want to be remembered as this wreck. What about when I was younger? For there was a time I was beautiful!

Those who love me, of course, would say it doesn’t matter—for however I looked, at whatever stage of my life (even in my decrepitude), I would always look beautiful to them.

We come here today because we have love in our own hearts—love for those whose passing we honor with our remembrance today. We may have only known them in the later stages of their lives, lives which no doubt were hard, and because they were hard, took their toll. None of them may have been mistaken for celebrities in their behavior or appearance, but to us, they were beautiful.

The world had no right to treat them so hard, these beautiful manifestations of God’s creation. But it did. Yet there is something stronger than the world’s cruelty that can redeem them. And that is our love.

That’s why we’re here today. Because love is stronger than death. Because love can take even the worst the world has to wreak and transform it into the beautiful.

Even in our loss of these friends of ours, the world can be harsh. From the sound of traffic passing outside these windows, we can tell that most people still consider those we mourn today as having been “nobodies.”

But the world has always been that way, as Hank Williams characterized in his classic, “Tramp on the Street:”

Only a tramp was Lazarus sad fate

He who lay down at the rich man's gate

>He begged for the crumbs from the rich man to eat

He was only a tramp found dead on the street.

He was some mother's darlin', he was some mother's son

Once he was fair and once he was young

Some mother rocked him, her darlin' to sleep

But they left him to die like a tramp on the street.little gary small

Jesus, He died on Calvary's tree

Shed His life's blood for you and for me

They pierced His sides, His hands and His feet

And they left Him to die like a tramp on the street.

 

Those we come to honor today were not “nobodies.” They were beautiful creatures: “somebodies!”

Some mother’s darlin.’ Some mother’s son or daughter. Some child’s father or mother. Someone’s brother or sister. . .

Our friends.

And we take the opportunity to remember them now.

“April is the cruellest month,” famously wrote T.S. Eliot, and it’s a line that most of us probably have trouble relating to.

What’s so cruel about April? It’s spring! The days are getting longer, the sun warmer, flowers are abloom! (Well, of course, there is Tax Day, but . . .)

And yet, for about 30,000 people of our most vulnerable neighbors in Multnomah and Washington counties, this April is going to be a most cruel month, indeed.

Though they can now barely make ends meet, this is the month when they are going to lose their food stamps.

How is this happening?

Some of you may remember back when Democratic President Bill Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it.” The welfare reform package that he championed (a bill, incidentally, written by John Kasich, now a Republican presidential candidate) contained a “welfare-to-work” provision that limited non-disabled adults 50 or younger who weren’t caring for children or working 30 hours a week to only three months of food stamp benefits in any 36-month period.

But that was back in 1996. Why is this tsunami just hitting now? Well, under any “welfare-to-work” scheme, the presumption is that there was work to be had. When the Great Recession hit, states like Oregon were able to apply for waivers to avoid implementing the law. Now that unemployment has dropped, however, the waivers are no longer being honored. Stop eating off the taxpayer’s dime, everyone! Time to get to work!

Except . . .

Except!

Take a moment to consider the figures mentioned above. Affected will be 30,000 people in Multnomah and Washington counties alone. And the provisions of the law are that they are to be involved in 30-hour/week jobs.

Will someone please point out where there are 30,000 such jobs in these two counties?

Furthermore, in a survey of those in the affected population what was found was that they could be identified by one or more of these characteristics: low education levels (i.e., less than four years of high school), a medical or mental limitation (e.g. depression, PTSD, learning disabilities), non-fluency in English, lack of mobility/transportation, serving as caregivers for ailing relatives, and/or having a felony conviction in their background. For whatever jobs might be available, these are the people who are going to be the least employable.

These circumstances have potentially serious implications for Nightwatch. feed americaWe’ve always made a point that Nightwatch is not a feeding program, but a hospitality program. Though we do feed people at all of our sites, the food we share is simply an expression of the hospitality we wish to extend. But with so many people losing their food stamps, they may be seeking us out for the food we offer simply to survive.

While it might put a significantly greater strain on our resources, we will certainly do all we can. But it is not a solution. Gandhi said, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” So it seems that it’s not enough that we can’t provide enough shelter for our citizens so as to make them sleep on the streets, but now we must starve them too.

Which reminds me of yet another quote, this one from Thomas Jefferson: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”