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Have you ever personally experienced poverty?

The closest I came, I think, was when I was just beginning my career in the ministry. The grand total of the salary my little rural church paid me was $6000. Of course, that was 1976, and it would be true to say that “$6000 was worth a whole lot more back then.” But in context, it wasn’t really worth that much more. Six-thousand dollars then was worth about $25,000 today—just over what annual minimum wage will earn you. And what I remember was living on such a strict budget that, after I’d paid all my regular monthly obligations, I had a “mad money” balance of $14 that I was free to spend on discretionary items—which might include anything from a newspaper to a box of Girl Scout cookies to a new tube of toothpaste.

I remember never being able to hold myself to that $14 monthly limit, as there was always something that would come up. I always felt myself sinking . . . .

But that wasn’t true poverty. For one thing, I was secure in the knowledge I had a back-up if a true financial emergency arose. I had parents and other relatives who would help me if I ever asked. I never did, being almost rabid in my need to feel self-sufficient and build my independence. But I have to admit that so much of my ability to endure the anxieties of those times came because my confidence was built on the knowledge I had well-heeled others who would care for me.

The truly poor have no such others. In many cases, what family and friends they may have are just as poor as they are. Hence, there is no confidence that can be engendered from knowing that if a set-back happens it need not develop into a crisis because there will always be a fall-back to bail them out.

Indeed, precisely because they have no fall-back, even the slightest setbacks can easily erupt into crises. What might be only inconveniences for us who have the wherewithal to handle them can snowball for them into full-blown calamity.

Linda Tirado in her autobiographical Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, offers dozens of personal illustrations of how this is so. For example:hand to mouth

I once lost a whole truck over a few hundred bucks. It had been towed, and when I called the company they told me they’d need a few hundred dollars for the fee. I didn’t have a few hundred dollars. So I told them when I got paid next and that I’d call back then.            

It was a huge pain in the ass for those days. It was the rainy season, and I wound up walking to work, adding another six miles or so a day to my imaginary pedometer. It was my own fault that I’d been towed, really, and I spent more than a couple hours ruing myself. I finally made it to payday, and when I went to get the truck, they told me that I now owed over a thousand dollars, nearly triple my paycheck. They charged a couple hundred dollars a day in storage fees. I explained that I didn’t have that kind of money, couldn’t even get it. They told me that I had some few months to get it together, including the storage for however long it took me to get it back, or that they’d simply sell it. They would, of course, give me any money above and beyond their fees if they recovered that much.

I was working two jobs at the time. Both were part time. Neither paid a hundred bucks a day, much less two.

I wound up losing my jobs. So did my husband. We couldn’t get from point A to point B quickly enough, and we showed up to work, late, either soaked to the skin or sweating like pigs one too many times. And with no work, we wound up losing our apartment.

She goes on to say:

Because our lives seem so unstable, poor people are often seen as being basically incompetent at managing their lives. That is, it’s assumed that we’re not unstable because we’re poor, we’re poor because we’re unstable. So let’s just talk about how impossible it is to keep your life from spiraling out of control when you have no financial cushion whatsoever. . .

. . . [W]e know the value of money. We work for ours. If we’re at 10 bucks an hour, we earn 83 cents, before taxes, every five minutes. We know exactly what a dollar’s worth; it’s counted in how many more times you have to duck and bend sideways out the drive through window. Or how many floors you can vacuum, or how many boxes you can fill.

It’s impossible to win, unless you are very lucky. For you to start to do better, something has to go right—and stay that way for long enough for you to get on your feet. I’ve done well in years that I had a job I didn’t mind terribly and that paid me well enough to get into an apartment that met all the basic standards. I’ve done less well in years where I didn’t have steady work. The trouble’s been that my luck simply hasn’t held out for long enough; it seems like just when I’ve caught up, something happens to set me back again. I’ve been fortunate enough that it’s rarely compounded, and I’ve stayed at under sea level for short periods instead of long-term. But I’ve stared long-term in the face long enough to have accepted it as a real possibility. It’s only an accident and a period of unemployment away.

This is the reality of living as a poor person in America. So when we have politicians who say, “Maybe if those folks would just forego buying the newest i-Phone, they might be able to afford health care,” you want to say, “Stop just talking to your buds in the frat house and go on down to talk to those staying in the halfway house, and see what life among the struggling is really all about.” And imagine how much more the crises of the poor will be multiplied if, as current policymakers would have it, Meals on Wheels, school lunch programs, home energy assistance and housing subsidies are all eliminated.

The Congressional Budget Office, in its analysis of the proposed legislation to replace the Affordable Care Act, has concluded that the new law could end up saving Social Security as much as $3 billion. But that’s because as many as 17,000 could die in 2018 because of the law, removing them from the roles.

It is clear that now, more than ever, the poor need those who “have their backs.”

>We need to join together to keep the light shining.

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 into the foghappened 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.

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 shoot

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.

“’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—new beginningsthough 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 . . .” 

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 change aheadmoney 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.