" . . . the next five years . . . "
- Written by Gary Davis
I’ve been cleaning my files of all the detritus I’ve accumulated over ten years of being at Nightwatch in order to make things at least a little easier to whoever takes my place. And I came across a survey I had been asked to fill out way back in 2009.
A downtown church was about to engage in a new search for a senior pastor and in preparation it thought it might be helpful to glean the input from a number of community leaders outside the church about the challenges the area faced. The results would help the church create some sort of understanding of the context in which its ministry was being done. Such information would be helpful to them in putting together a written profile they would be able to submit to any candidates seeking to come to Portland and assume the leadership they sought.
As I looked upon how I had answered the survey eight years ago, I was struck immediately by my answers to one particular question: “Identify major trends you envision in your community during the next five years.”
These were my answers:
- Cutback in social services
- Pressures in housing market
- Efforts to stabilize economic base without sacrificing values
I can’t remember what the hot issues were in Portland in 2009 that led me to make that third response. But what struck me that if I were to answer the same question today, I would most assuredly restate those first two answers again.
Not much progress made in these past eight years, eh?
As it happens, the area did not suffer great cutbacks in the social service arena post-2009. Some services even increased. Those offered at Nightwatch have. But clearly, whatever increase in services there may have been, it has been far outpaced by an accelerating demand.
Which segues to Answer #2. When it comes to homelessness, if there were problems with the housing market eight years ago as measured by affordable housing, they are even greater today. In 2009, the average rental rate in Portland was $1000/mo. In 2017 for comparable housing it is $1370/mo., making Portland the 16th most expensive housing market in the country. Moreover, the city’s vacancy rate is only 3%--which means that even those who can afford the rents are finding housing hard to come by. What has happened over the past eight years is a lot of talk about housing—you can read about it in The Oregonian practically every day—but no one has been able to get a comprehensive handle on any solution. And it’s a simple formula: you’ll always have homelessness if there’s not enough affordable housing.
New York has a homelessness problem on a vaster scale than our own. It’s as much in people’s awareness there as it is here, and the city has struggled to find a satisfactory way to address it. But this week, Mayor Bill De Blasio made noises as if he was finally throwing in the towel. Despite all the well-intentioned plans to “end homelessness,” he conceded that the problem was just too big. Homelessness would never be ended; the best that could be expected was that it be “managed.”
So yes, in looking ahead to next five years, housing is going to remain an issue. Moreover, given the fact that the Trump Administration is threatening to ax $6 billion dollars from the budget of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the problem is likely to become much, much worse.
Vows have been made to make comparable cuts to other domestic programs, which means that local agencies that rely on federal grants for their funding will be forced to downsize in staff and programming, so “cutbacks in social services” will almost certainly occur. Suffering will be multiplied and magnified. And the strain will be upon agencies like Nightwatch (which never has received any government funding) to pick up the pieces.
I know that sounds like a dark scenario.
But it’s all the more reason for us to keep the light shining.
- Written by Gary Davis
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven,” famously proclaims the Preacher of Ecclesiastes. (Ecc. 3:1)
In other words, there’s a proper time for everything.
And some might say that when an organization is in the midst of a major transition, that is not the proper time to engage in initiating new things. But life goes on. Opportunities present themselves. Most importantly, the needs of others keep looming over us, crying out to be met.
The People’s Health Clinic is a “pop-up” holistic clinic that has been operating out of Sisters of the Road Café for the past couple of years. When Sisters reassessed its vision, it couldn’t see what part the PHC played in it and asked them to look for another home. They came to Nightwatch.
On its nights of operation, the PHC brings on board a platoon of specialists—naturopathic physicians, acupuncturists, herbalists, massage therapists, Reiki practitioners, and the occasional chiropractor—to provide their healing skills to the indigent and low-income. When we begin working with PHC (which could be as early as this month, once we work out some insurance-related details), its folks will “set up shop” at our Downtown Hospitality Center on an evening it is open to guests, offering health treatment options not currently available through what our volunteer nurses currently provide. In time, the PHC may even be able to work on more than one evening a month.
But that’s not all that’s new.
Ever since September when the Springwater Corridor was “swept” of the 500 or so people who were camping there, we’ve been investigating how we might expand the services of our Mobile Hospitality Center to follow the displaced campers wherever-it-was they went. Of course, that at first required some research to discover where folks were now dispersed. Once we identified several general areas, we then had to find a practical spot where we might “set up shop” ourselves with the Mobile Center for an evening a week. That wasn’t easy. It’s hard persuading landowners to open their property to homeless people, even if it is for as little time as two hours a week. All sorts of fears come to the fore.
But after all these months, it looks like we have finally secured a site in NE Portland. As approval is not yet official, I won’t disclose the particulars right now. But the site meets exactly the specifications of what we’re looking for: one where there is a sizeable homeless population, but where services are few-to-nonexistent. This will add another evening that our Mobile Hospitality Center is in operation. And we think this is something we’ll also have up-and-running in another month or so.
So it may be true that "for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven." But this may just be that time. This may just be that season.
How Do You Mend a Broken Heart?
- Written by Gary Davis
“’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” The oft-repeated quote of Tennyson’s describes alludes to the double-edge inherent in relationship-building: to build bonds with another comes with great rewards, but how it hurts when after such vulnerability, trust, and love is invested in another the relationship is somehow sundered!
“I feel like my world is falling apart,” Dave remarked when he overheard me mention to someone that Fr. Dennis of our downtown host, St. Stephen’s, had moved along and was no longer at the church.
“What!” Dave interjected. “I hadn’t heard that!” I had to confirm that it was true. That’s what prompted Dave to then make the remark about his world unraveling. He then went on to detail how it just so happened that others he had come to know and admire all seemed to be leaving and retiring at the same time.
It’s true: there has been a lot of turnover in local agency personnel lately. Ibraham Mubarak, the heart-and-soul of Right2Dream2, left his position at the beginning of this month. The very fate of St. Francis Dining Hall is uncertain because of the retirements and resignations there.
And though I had no desire to add to Dave’s misery, I felt compelled to be “up-front” with him. “And I’m going to be retiring at the end of June,” I said. “And Mikaila will be moving on as Assistant Director too.”
“Not Mikaila too?”
“Yep. I’m afraid so.”
Dave’s eyes momentarily brightened. “But I imagine you’ll be coming around from time to time, just popping in?”
“No, Dave,” I sighed, “I’m afraid not. When a new leader comes on board, as much as I would like to check in with everyone, I think it’s important to keep my distance. The new person needs the space to get their feet on the ground, and not feeling my presence intimidating them. If I were around, it could get dicey if the folks here kept looking to me as the authority and not giving the new person a chance.”
“Well, I guess that makes sense,” Dave said. But by his own sigh I could tell he wasn’t happy about it.
Nightwatch is defined by the relationships we build. And you can tell how valuable they are when someone like Dave, who is not a demonstrably outgoing man—though knowing by coming here he’ll still be able to get a sandwich, a pair of socks, and blanket, no matter who’s in charge—can believe his world will be appreciably diminished because he won’t be seeing the same faces again.
Sandwiches, socks, and blankets may be elemental to survival, but relationships nurture. They are what make life worth living.
So though it hurts when circumstances may pull us apart, I wouldn’t devalue the energy we put into relationships for anything.
For “’tis better to have loved and lost . . .”
On the Upcoming Transition
- Written by Gary Davis
As is evident from all the turmoil in Washington, the way transitions are handled can be critical for for institutions—whether that institution is as enormous as the United States of America, or as modest as Operation Nightwatch.
Due to my impending retirement at the end of June, Nightwatch is indeed itself facing a major transition. And it is a transition that involves even more than the replacement of te Executive Director, since simultaneous with my retirement Mikaila Smith will be vacating her position as Nightwatch’s Assistant Director, leaving a complete vacuum of leadership at the top.
But back to talking about transitions in general:
The reason transitions are such sensitive times is two-fold.
First of all, every leader inevitably leaves a stamp of his/her personality upon whatever institution s/he serves. That’s especially true when the organizations are smaller and when the leader has been long-tenured. That "personality stamp" is present, for instance, in the leader's management style. All other members of the organization become used to that particular management style. Knowing how the leader reacts to circumstances and interacts with them personally, they know what to expect, as well as what expectations will be imposed upon them. They are rarely dealt any surprises. If a new leader is brought on board with an abruptly different approach, style and personality, much damage can be done. (Just ask any federal civil service worker today.) Consider that I have been serving Nightwatch for the past decade and Mikaila has been at her job for the last five years. For those currently associated with Nightwatch, ours have been the only management models many of them have even known.
Secondly, whatever the mission of an institution, everything finally boils down to relationships. I may go to a job because I need the money, but sometimes even the money isn’t enough for me to stay if I can’t stand the boss or the others I work with. People will even avoid their own family gatherings if all they experience at those gatherings is a threat to their feelings of self-esteem and well-being.
We should know all about relationships, because relationship-building is the very raison d'etre for Nightwatch. From relationship-building comes trust—and as trust rescues one from isolation, so it ultimately leads to healing. But while at Nightwatch we normally think of relationship-building in the context of our interaction with our guests, it is really the thing that makes the whole web of staff-volunteers-guests-donors work. Most donors donate (this is especially true of major and/or repeat donors) because they somehow feel a special connection with Nightwatch. Likewise, volunteers volunteer because they are somehow nurtured by the experiences with others that touch them here. The challenge facing any new leader imported to fill the top spot of the organization is that no one as yet has a relationship with that person. And because that person is the one in charge of everything, the whole network can be on tenterhooks until relationships are established.
Feel sufficiently scared about Nightwatch's looming change? Sorry. I don't mean you to be. To the contrary, I offer this analysis as a means of reassurance. For the way catastrophes are avoided is to anticipate the pitfalls beforehand.
And I want to let you know that our Board of Directors is sensitive to all the potential pitfalls, and is working to see that the upcoming transition need suffer no more bumps along the way than it need to. In other words, it is determined in this transition not to set the stage for similar disruption and dysfunction as is now being played out in Washington.
The Board has been gathering resumes of applicants for the Executive Director’s position and will be doing so through the course of February. Then it will be conducting interviews in March, and by the time April comes around we hope to make an announcement so the relationship-building can begin.
- Written by Gary Davis
Conservative, Republican columnist David Brooks wrote last week in The New York Times, “it is hard to think of any administration in recent memory, on any level, whose identity is so tainted by cruelty. The Trump administration is often harsh and never kind.”
Operation Nightwatch has historically not taken political positions, as from its inception it has not seen itself an advocacy organization. But all the political process is is a means for implementing values. And if the values being thrust upon you would seek to bully into submission the principles of decency and compassion, it would be a violation of those principles to remain silent.
It is still unclear how the politics of the Trump Administration will affect the poor and homeless whom we serve. But (as per David Brooks’ assessment) there is little sign they will have any heart for the marginalized and neediest. The executive order banning refugees is one indicator. The appointment of a man as Treasury Secretary who gained much of his fortune by foreclosing on the poor is another. There has been some speculation based on the public stances he has taken that Ben Carson’s stewardship of the Department of Housing and Urban Development will involve fewer programs aimed at actually getting the homeless into housing, and more warehousing of homeless people in overnight shelters.
In many respects I would be deemed an avowed liberal. But my liberalism comes from what I see is necessary to give a “fair shake” to others. What many don’t appreciate about me is that on a personal level I’m pretty conservative. I am not a libertine. I am frugal and hold highly the values of personal responsibility. When I preach “inclusivity,” I believe that means including not only those of different races, backgrounds, religions, abilities and sexual orientations, but also those of differing opinions and points-of-view. My bottom-line experience with many political conservatives—a David Brooks, for instance—is that they really hold the same humane values I myself do. It’s just they believe in different avenues by which to see those values implemented. They believe, for instance, that the free market will ultimately benefit all, whereas I believe the free market is not enough. But at least—and here’s the crucial point—we can still civilly engage with one another because foundationally we hold some common ground.
The problem with the new leadership in the White House is that it is difficult finding any common ground on which to engage. Reason is impossible because reason requires the acceptance of provable objective facts. And an appeal to values is futile when your conversation-partner is devoid of any moral compass whatsoever. Unless one fits into the very constricted worldview of the narcissist, there is really very little possibility of profitably engaging with him at all.
So there’s really only one option left—and that is to resist.
Of course, resistance can take many forms—taking to the streets, writing letters to the editor and to Congress, raising a ruckus on social media. But it seems to me that the greatest way to resist a regime characterized by cruelty, one that is “often harsh and never kind” is to embody extra kindness oneself and to counter cruelty with extravagant displays of compassion. Hate, after all, is never overcome by hate. Unless we believe that love will triumph—and not “love” in any abstract sense, but the kind of love in which we put our own lives on the line for others—we only become part of the problem ourselves.
Nightwatch’s logo has never been more relevant—that of the light shining in the darkness. The darkness has rarely been darker. But we shall resist in seeing that light shine on.