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, 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

SMH

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

Balance

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;
It’s
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?



Tuesday, June 28, 2016

It gets personal

Twice in the last month I've run into people who are friends of mine. They are guys who have celebrated holidays at my house, volunteered at Nightwatch, ate lunch with me numerous times.

When I encountered them in their new situation, it was shocking. Immediately, my anxiety level went up. I find myself fretting about how we can help them.

One needs medical attention, but has to agree to it. The other could easily live in my basement, if I already didn't have someone there.

When homelessness hits close to home like this, it really changes our perspective. And, of course, when it happens to you. . . yikes. I'm told it changes you forever.

Friday, June 03, 2016

Stereotypes? Nope.



Two weeks ago I returned from my Thursday night rounds, visiting homeless camps and shelters. It was about ten to midnight. At Nightwatch, all the homeless guests were fed and sent off to shelter. There was one last guy – a young man – sitting at one of the tables, pouring over a math textbook. He’s doing algebra problems. He cackles as he figures one out.




I’ve been working with homeless people for more than 30 years. This was a first for me. Who does algebra at midnight? Of course, I had to ask about it.




The young man responded to me. “I’m planning to transfer from Seattle Central to the UW next year. I found out I can study math on my own, take the test, and then I don’t have to pay for the class, but I get the credit.”


And with that, he closed his book, and walked off into the night, going to a nearby shelter funded by Operation Nightwatch donors.  He will sleep in a crowded room with 74 other men.