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.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Who should we ignore?

Things were going to be rough, I knew it.

It was late, and my friend "Saul" needed a visit. his whole life has been one gigantic struggle. Blind at birth, abandoned by family, raised in foster care, turned loose in the world at 18. Saul is afflicted with mental health and alcohol issues.

My co-minister tonight had never met Saul. I tried to warn him.

A the door, Saul was wearing the exact same clothes as the last time I saw him -- maybe five weeks ago. I flipped on the light, and the cockroaches scattered. Fifty beer cans were strewn across the floor. It was as bad as I've seen things in fifteen years of being Saul's friend.

It would be easy to ignore Saul and his mes. But it occurred to me: Jesus didn't turn his back on anyone. Who would Jesus ignore?

That process of marginalizing people, of saying that certain people don't matter, is at the root of the human problem. It dehumanizes all of us. It leads to chaos and murder like we witnessed, inflicted on our brothers and sisters in a Bible study in Charleston.

We must care for the marginalized in our communities.  Please don't turn away.

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Friday, June 12, 2015

Jumping Jehosephat!

I was complaining to Jim about not remembering names. He's a homeless camp member. He says, "You should use adjectives, like 'Jumping Jim'"

"Great idea!" I tell him. I'm looking around at the other campers. "Mad Max, Dizzy Dean, Loud Lily." They look at my companion, Greg. Everyone thought for a moment, and one of the campers suggests "Grateful Greg."  This was a God-moment.

On the way to the camp, my friend Greg had said how completely grateful he had been feeling lately, thank to his new approach to living, and the opportunity to express care for others through the work of Nightwatch.

Now, what are the chances of that? A Word for the night.

Weaving and Bobbing

At five minutes to midnight, the last customer comes in the door, sporting a 3-day-old black eye."Montoya, you see a doctor for that yet?" Kevin asked. "Oh yeah, it's all right," Montoya assures us.

"Montoya, were you weaving and bobbing?" Kevin persists. "Yeah man, I was weaving, for sure. But I didn't do any bobbing."

"You got to bob, bro."

At midnight, we're all out on the sidewalk, and Montoya is still hanging around, happy for a few moments of peaceful conversation before heading off for shelter. He looks at me with his one good eye. "You gave me your card," he reminded me.

Of course. I remember you Montoya. The first night Deacon Sam was on the street with us, we put our hands on you at your request, and prayed for wisdom and strength.

Got to remember that, when you're weaving and bobbing through life. Or at least, weaving through life.

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.