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.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Hoyt R Booth Jr, 1960 - 2004

Hoyt R. Booth Jr.  b Oct 9, 1960, d Feb 23, 2004  Rest in peace, friend.

Hoyt was a homeless client of Operation Nightwatch. That sounds so clinical. Hoyt was a friend. When Operation Nightwatch was located in Belltown in the 1990s, he would wander in, looking for a meal, a blanket, or shelter. His gentle drawl and earnest desire to rise above his affliction is what I miss. His own behavior was as mystifying to him as it was to the friends and neighbors who kept an eye on him and helped him out.

I encountered Hoyt years later, a panhandling fixture on 15th Ave E in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Now, to call Hoyt a  “panhandler” may make him sound like a ne’er-do-well, a con artist, a bum. I never thought of him in these terms, and the people that knew him in the neighborhood did not either.

There was a gift store in the neighborhood – Tildens -- which sold nice dishes, fancy cards, home accents. It was family owned, unpretentious; my go-to place when I was on the hook for birthday, Christmas, or wedding presents. The elderly couple who owned the shop found out that I worked with homeless people in Seattle. I sort of braced myself – thinking they were going to tell me how homeless people in the neighborhood were wrecking their business, and all that. Wow, was I wrong.

They were loyal friends of Hoyt. They thought of him as “their” homeless guy. They asked if I knew Hoyt, which of course I did. They spoke about his polite and gentle ways, and how broken up they were about his inability to control his drinking, and the toll it was taking on him. They understood alcoholism as a health problem rather than a moral issue. What they said next absolutely floored me at the time.

“There’s some new homeless guys moving into the neighborhood, and they’re making it tough for Hoyt because they don’t care about anyone else. What can we do to get rid of the new guys, but keep on helping Hoyt?”  That’s how much this shopkeeper in a small retail area thought about Hoyt. He was “their homeless guy.”They took umbrage that their guy was being pushed out.

See, Hoyt was a worker. He picked up after himself. He wanted to help in the ways that he could. Plus, he would describe the particulars of his former occupation (roofing), and how much he wanted to get back to it. This alarmed me – I know he was an end-stage alcoholic, and imagining him in his impairment getting up on a roof was frightening to me. He told me that he even wanted to write a book about roofing. Yes, it seemed like a delusion at the time he told me – but still, I think it revealed something of his heart.

For several years I wondered what happened to him. It seems impossible to me that he has been dead for 11 years. For a time I couldn’t remember his last name, and then like a bolt out of the blue it came to me. I’ve been working with homeless people for 20-plus years, and I’ve forgotten so many names, but Hoyt stood out. I guess if there was one thing I would tell his family, is that Hoyt was a lovable guy to the end, that he felt things very deeply, that he was afflicted with the terrible disease of alcoholism – he wouldn’t have wished it on anyone. He made his own small mark, and I wish we could have done more for him.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Small moments

Sometimes the best moments are the smallest of all possible moments; a mote of a distraction and you will miss it.

I was walking through a dark, cramped warehouse of wretched flesh. What did I feel? Anger, pity, sadness, all of that. God, don't let me get hard-hearted.

I moved carefully along the wall through sleepers and snorers and those observing private moments.They lay on mats held together with duct tape, covered with gray wool blankets.

In the darkness, barely visible, a homeless guy saw the pastoral garb of my trade, a clerical collar, in the dark hallway. He flashed me a brilliant smile, and gave an enthusiastic double thumbs up, as though I was the one who needed encouragement on this dismal night.

It was a shocking sign of hope. Sleep well tonight, friend. Better times await us all.

Lord, give us eyes to see, and hearts to respond, to those small moments every day.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Investing in the future

One advantage of staying so long at Operation Nightwatch:  I get an occasional blast from the past.
At a church on a recent Sunday afternoon, a grinning face popped up. “Remember me?”
Not immediately, no. It has been 17 years since that face was last seen at Nightwatch. But within a minute of our little reunion, “Matt” and I were hee-hawing about the olden days. I remember Matt as a quiet, vulnerable, depressed guy, someone who was overwhelmed with everything going on around him, overwhelmed by life itself. He remembered our consistent care, plus one wild ride in the Nightwatch van through downtown Seattle at midnight, getting him to the shelter in time.
Thanks be to God, for the Nightwatch donors and volunteers from seventeen years ago. Because they gave each month, Matt was able to survive. They probably didn’t realize it, but they were investing in the future; Matt’s future. Because they gave, he got into an apartment, dealt with his problems, and now plays a part in a church community. 
How about you? Are you investing in the future?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Snorer

For months he slept along the fringes of the play field. There was no hiding him. He snored like a freight train. 

There is no doubt that the only reason he was homeless was because the neighbors in his apartment building complained about the sound of furniture moving in the night, the sound of double dump trucks filled with gravel, down-shifting, the sound of a thousand grizzlies chasing through the underbrush.

He was told to leave.

So he took up residence in the garden of the community center in my neighborhood. I would leave the house, thinking “My lord, what is that noise?” The distant roar of Interstate 5 is pitched at one level. This rumble is deeper, more resonant, the bay leaf in the soup of noise that makes up the Central District.

As I walk the mile to Garfield High, the sound billows forth more definitely, until the source is identified. There, along one wall of the community center, a form on the ground is heaving forth great waves of basso profundo, with the occasional snicker-snak.

Through the weeks, he moved around. On different days he was pointed different directions. Like the airplanes coming into SeaTac, following different routes on different days, the noise is redirected, and the neighborhood complaining is kept to a minimum.

But now he’s gone. I imagine The Snorer in some sort of government program, bringing down strongholds, subtle torturer, testing new recruits.

It’s a gift.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Gift of Sarcasm

Under the “squeaky wheel” theory, one homeless guy persistently was distracting me as I was trying to coax a piece of junk formerly called a printer into some modicum of usefulness. It wasn’t working, and a roomful of restless, tired, and cranky homeless people were waiting to be sent off to various shelters downtown. In their defense, any middle-class group of weary travelers would pose the same headaches, if not more so.  After all, most homeless people have had all sense of privilege thrashed out of them along the way.

This night, the surging crowd and dark despair weighed everyone down. Even my usual chipper self was exasperated. The homeless dude in front of me was like a dripping faucet in the middle of a caffeinated nightmare. 

Finally, I snapped. My own frustration and ire was directed at him. “OKAY,” I said loudly. “I’M GOING TO STOP HELPING ALL THESE PEOPLE,” (can you see me waving my arms around?) “AND JUST TAKE CARE OF YOU BECAUSE YOU ARE THE ONLY ONE WHO MATTERS HERE.” 

I’m pretty sure I didn’t say any really bad words. I’m pretty sure I wanted to. But I do know that I was loud, and sarcastic, and hurtful. The gift of sarcasm is not God-given, pretty sure.

The squeaky wheel guy cut me down at the knees with one word.

He looked at me, turned up his nose, and said, “Hunh.” That was it.

It was the most devastating “Hunh” ever used against me. “Hunh,” meaning, “Here ’s the real you, Mr. Preacher Man. Sarcastic. Dismissive of us.”

I love this job, because homeless people and homeless situations have a way of cutting through the complex fluff we build around ourselves, to insulate and separate and categorize people. His body language and one word simply held up the mirror of reality,  so I could see myself with distressing clarity, for just an instant.  It was devastating.

I got his full attention, and apologized, loudly. The whole room needed to hear me eat crow, since they observed the offense. We parted friends.

Tonight, we launch a new chapter. Our 80-bed shelter for men starts paying rent in a new location. This is the first time in 17 years we’ve had to pay rent.  Pray, volunteer, give. 

Thank you.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A light shines in Charlotte

From Rev. Dr. Tom Kort, Sardis Presbyterian Church, Charlotte, NC December 24, 2000

I wonder if you know that something is going to happen tonight in this church that has never, ever happened before in the 210-year history of Sardis. This has never happened. Tonight, this Christmas Eve, for the first time ever in our goodly heritage, homeless neighbors will be sleeping at Sardis. They’ll be here as part of "Room at the Inn.”  Think about it.  “Room at the Inn.” Bethlehem. . . Jesus. . . God’s people. . . it all starts to make sense, doesn’t it?

Let me tell you what happened a week ago when I came to “Room at the Inn” for the early 5:00 shift. That night we had 9 homeless men, 2 homeless women, and a homeless child, age 2 ½. I hope I do not need to remind this congregation that the fastest growing population among the homeless are women and children. When I arrived, I noticed in the hallway a stack of books by a chair; and as I got closer I noticed that they were children’s books. As I inquired about them, one of the members who had spent the night told me that the little boy, the one age 2 ½, had a very difficult time falling asleep. His father and the woman who was with him were dead tired, so they immediately fell asleep, but this little one just couldn’t get his eyes to close. One of our deacons, a bright, young, single adult who spends all of her days uptown in the corporate world of Charlotte, took that little boy and held him on her lap, and in the warmth of her arms, she read children’s stories until he fell asleep.

The next morning, we had a hard time waking him up. 5:30 a.m. comes early to anyone. It comes early when you’re only 2 ½. He cried, because he didn’t want to get up. He wanted to stay where it was warm and safe; but we had to put him on the van with our other homeless neighbors, tears and all. His father came running back down the hallway. He'd forgotten something, and he saw me. Because they had asked me to say the grace at breakfast, he figured I was the preacher. He looked at me and said, “Would you do me a favor and tell all your people ‘thank you’?” I said to him, “I never asked -- what’s the name of your little boy?”

He said to me, “His name is Emmanuel.” 

God with us. Now I do not know what you might make of that situation, but do you think that God was with us? Do you think it’s possible that that is precisely and exactly what Jesus meant when he said, “What you have done for the least of these, you have done for me”? Do you think in all the significant things that happened that day in the city, in all the corporate buildings and oak-paneled offices, all the power lunch meetings and all the million-dollar decisions that were made, do you think anyone took notice of a deacon holding a child? And if someone says, "Well, Tom, that’s a nice story, but it’s really not going to address the complexities of homelessness in this city," I’ll say, "You’re absolutely right." But don’t you think that it’s better for us to light one candle than just stand by and do nothing and curse the darkness?

And the story is told by John and it goes like this: “In Him was life, the light of the world.” Never underestimate the power of God’s light in this world.

For more on Sardis Presbyterian Click Here.