Street Stories

Weblog of Seattle minister to the homeless Rick Reynolds, Operation Nightwatch

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Location: Seattle, Washington, United States

Caring for human beings seems like the best use of my time, homeless or not.

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Smell in the Basement

Our experiment with urban chickens has ended, thanks to a family of raccoons and our haphazard farming methods. It's all just as well, because along with chickens, you don't just get the most fantastic eggs ever, you have to be in a constant state of combat with rats.

Rats are endemic to urban neighborhoods anyway. Nearby apartment dumpsters overflow, the crazy cat lady leaves food on her porch, apartment dwellers throw bread to the crows and the squirrels, and old houses, like ours, provide natural burrowing opportunities for the Rattus Norvegicus (Norwegian Rat.)

Now, I am queasy about killing anything. I am no sportsman. But adulthood means one of my domestic tasks is to mind the traps. Which I do now with some interest. Now that the chicken food is gone, the rats are feeling more than a little 11-o'clockish. They seem way more interested in the peanut-butter baited snap traps I have set by their many entrances near the chicken run.

But, unknown to me, my normally-sensible wife shoved poison bait down the holes. Which is why we have this strong odor emanating from the crawl space into our basement into our furnace into the entire house. There is a dead rat some place in our basement.

We have known this for at least ten weeks. I concocted a wonderful compote of Christmas spices and allowed the elixir to bubble on the stove for hours at a time, filling the entire house with yummy cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg odors. Every few days I would add a gallon of water and reconstitute it. Part of the routine of coming home from work – turning on the stove, where the good smell happened.

Occasionally, on the rare Saturday off, I would throw open the door that divides the habitable part of the basement from the crawl space. Cobwebs and death and falling-down insulation always remind me that there are other things to get done. Besides, the smell will fade with time, or are we simply getting used to it.

The real excitement happens when guests are coming over. I crank up the elixir on the stove, light some scented candles, and quietly vow to crawl down there and do something about it. But I haven't done it. The idea of crawling on my belly in a dark space to discover the carcass of a dead critter is just a little too. . . real.

I don't like thinking about the dead rat, I don't like smelling the dead rat, because I don't like considering my own death. Someday, I will be subject to the same sadness – when my wonderful lumpy body will breathe out for the final time, and nature will take its course. I am a lot bigger than a rat. If left alone, I will, like Lazarus, stink. I will die, and if left alone, will be no different than that darn rat.

I stood in my basement on Good Friday, looking into the netherworld of cobwebs and damp earth, smelling that stench. It's not so bad to consider our mortality. I will die. So will you. What will really matter in the end? I don't think it's the stuff we have or the places we've been that matter. My legacy won't be a fully checked-off bucket list. It's the loving kindness we've shown to the people around us. Our love for neighbors – even the cranky ones. Our care for those with broken-hearts, broken bodies, and broken minds. It's what we were made to do – take care of each other.

Jesus went into the basement; he didn't want to. But he did it.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Psalm from the streets

Even when the knees hurt
  The hard drive crashes
The shelter for 75 vulnerable men
   is cast into uncertainty;
Even when  the bank account is low
  and the car is no longer driveable,
the rain is cold and
   the ice cream is forbidden;
Even then, O Lord, will I praise you.
Your* works are marvelous,
    revealed in the smile of a stranger on the bus
       who jostled me *here.
My pen went awry on the page
   but the amends were sweet.


Last night an ancient one, barely able to walk

   shuffled across the wet sidewalk

      to the front door of Nightwatch.

His cab ride was paid for

     by an exasperated hospital social worker.

The hospital didn’t want him.

The shelters are all full.

The boarding house with cheap rent is torn down.

He has no friend to call.

No loving wife or sister or daughter

         with a couch, for a night or two.

He has only

    the gray-wool blanket

    given to Seattle’s phantoms.

His sick bed is the sidewalk outside my door.

gomer:  Medical slang "Get Out Of My Emergency Room.”

In the morning, I checked to see how old this old guy was. His birthday is the day after mine. He will be 64 this spring.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Rest in Peace, Norm Riggins

Rev. Norm Riggins was the original Nightwatch executive director. He started volunteering for Nightwatch, going out on the streets late at night, sometime in the late 1960s, early 1970s. He was pastor of the former Maple Leaf Evangelical Church, near Northgate in north Seattle. He was hired to be the first paid staff person for Nightwatch in 1976. He left a comfortable thriving church for the uncertain night time streets.

Norm was the guy who recruited me to go on the street as a volunteer in 1981. (I can't believe he had only been the paid director for five years at that time!)

Downtown Seattle was much more rough and rowdy than it is now. Thousands of poor people lived in Single Room Occupancy rooms, and they congregated in one of the 175 dive bars that used to cater to them. These were the places that welcomed the Nightwatch ministers. The people crying in their drinks could lean on the minister instead of the bartender or other patrons.

One of the sad things about Rev. Norm's passing is the loss of his stories. One I remember. He was explaining to me about street violence. There's a natural protection for the clergy - other street folks will come to our rescue when threatened. But there was one time when Rev. Norm came out of the Nightwatch front door, and some drunk on the sidewalk randomly punched him. Norm turned on the guy, and decked him. As he's telling the story (probably for the hundredth time) tears come into his old eyes - he had nothing but regret for the moment, a decade later.

After he retired, he seemed really excited that I should take his job. At my interview, I told the Board I wanted to "outlast Rev. Norm." Everyone laughed. This is my 23rd year right now.

My first week on the job, Norm showed me how to make up a deposit, how to answer the phones "Call back tonight!" and how to keep track of blankets. He said to me, "You're the executive director. Here's your mop!"

I soon learned I had big shoes to fill. Every bar I went into for 10 years, people would tell me "Say hi to Rev. Norm for me." The bars are gone, the people are gone, and now my friend Norm Riggins is gone. And so it will be for me, and for all of us. The honor due to him is reserved for a coming day.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon him.
May he rest in peace.

Service information and more complete biography, click here.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Lost family member

Homeless people are attached to their pets, just like the rest of us. When a dog dies, the whole camp suffers.

But what happens next is tragic. How can you properly dispose of the much-loved remains?

Last night someone in a homeless camp asked me if I could help in any way with the cremation. "Let me find out. Call me in the morning." I had to think about it. I got no idea what a cremation for a pet would cost. And wouldn't it be better to spend that $100 (or whatever) on the human needs I'm facing every day?

I started musing about the importance of pets to people who have lost nearly everything: home, jobs, friendships, sense of self-worth. But through thick and thin, a dog will provide comfort, loyalty, structure, and some level of accountability even though the rest of a homeless person's life may be spinning out of control.

The grief is real. I have to help. 

Friday, August 19, 2016


In internet slang SMH means "Shaking My Head." It  what we instinctively do when we see or read something that is inconceivable.

Today I was with a lovely group of community-minded people in a suburban community. The average age was probably 75 - and I may be low, because there were a bunch in their upper 80s. They were a very appreciative audience for my talk about homelessness.

I told them about Nightwatch - my typical night. Last night I took fudgecicles to a homeless camp. One of the homeless guys was a white collar worker, and assured me that this being homeless will never happen to him again. He said he will have his own place on the first of the month. "But it sure won't be in this neighborhood," he exclaimed. "Those places over there," he gestures toward the south - just a few blocks away from the camp. "Those places cost $2,000 for a one-bedroom." SMH.

Then I told the room of octogenarians that an average rental unit in Seattle, as of July, 2016, goes for $2,179 a month.

All of a sudden, a room full of old people were "SMH."   In unison. It's just unbelievable.

Monday, August 08, 2016


At Camp United We Stand, Shoreline, WA

The art of balancing a life beset by odd angles
of poverty, illness
domestic violence
bad brain chemistry
poor nutrition
lack of sleep
humiliation, sorrow, PTSD, addiction, learning disabilities,
social anxiety
bad luck;
more than I could contend with. And it is understandable when the whole thing comes tumbling down. But God bless the artists in camp who set up a demonstration, keeping things in balance against all odds; God bless them for setting rock on rock even after they all tip over again.

Grant us all the balance we need in this brief life O Lord.

Friday, July 22, 2016

A friend's hand

In the fading twilight, my friend's hand lies, gray and still.

Alive, yes. Hanging on weakly, brought low too soon.

I sit nearby as he slumbers, singing softly the songs of Zion, from long ago.

Does he hear? I cannot tell, but maybe he does. Would he remember these tunes we sang together as young men, seeking the Divine Presence in the company of other earnest young believers? I cannot know, I can only sing.  Awakening, he speaks my name. Yes, I am here.

Soon, I continue with other duties - bearer of pizza and joy to shelter residents, companion to still others.

We are all dying. We all need to take a hand of someone near us. Doesn't matter if you live in a house or a tent, everyone will end up in a scene like this someday. What will matter to you in those final moments?