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.

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.

Friday, December 05, 2014

What makes me really happy

Want to know what makes me really happy today? (Of course you do).

My alma mater, Seattle Pacific University made the morning news on KUOW, because next Saturday, December 13, 2014, they are welcoming my friends from Tent City 3 to move onto the campus for a 3-4 month stay.

There are myriad reasons why organized tent cities are needed. In Seattle, we have more than 3,000 homeless people outside on nights when the shelters are full. Median rent for an apartment in Seattle is now reaching $1,500 a month. People making $10 or $12 an hour are being priced out. Senior citizens are showing up at places like Operation Nightwatch nightly. And have you noticed all the cranes in town lately? The march of "progress" means that affordable housing units are being torn down, converted to condos, or otherwise disappearing at a pretty fast clip.

One of my homeless friends, "Norman" was a marginal worker at best. He had learning disabilities, but always seemed to have a smile on his face. He got a job at McDonalds on Madison years ago, and was commuting from Maple Valley, where he lived in a house with five other guys. He took the bus from that McDs to downtown Seattle, from downtown Seattle to Renton, and a third bus from Renton to home. All this effort, for a minimum wage job, wiping tables. If he missed a bus connection, he was homeless for the night.

The problems are chronic, complex, and should be shared by all of us. Unfortunately, those of us who are getting by are often untroubled by the worries of those who work for us like Norman. There should be a place in the city for guys like him.

Thanks for stopping by. Poke around a bit. Some of my older stories are the best.

I recommend stopping by lower campus at SPU on the 13th. Bring some friends, they can use the help getting set up. Or bring some pizzas.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Walking under the Interstate

“Never depend upon institutions or government to solve any problem. All social movements are founded by, guided by, motivated and seen through by the passion of individuals." - Margaret Mead

Herb Dimock writes "Institutions do not serve persons; Only persons serve persons."

Interstate 5 is not an institution. It is concrete, rebar, steel. It has no soul. Yet, it may be the single biggest provider of shelter in King County. There is no human face for Interstate 5, just the cold, loud roar of machines, and tires thumping over expansion joints.

And beneath, from the trash, in passing, a spark. A stuffed toy, abandoned on the edge of a homeless camp - one of many camps in that dismal inhospitable place.

This toy asks us a question: Is Interstate 5 the best we can do for sheltering a human being who was at one time comforted by a stuffed bear?

Apparently so. We allow this to happen, because we have closed up our hearts, our minds, our homes, our churches, our parking lots, our parks, our public buildings. Surely we will reap the whirlwind.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Gary. Carpenter. Vet. Homeless.

Gary. He was almost always a problem for our homeless program. All of his adult life he had been a veteran, a drunk, and a carpenter. When he came to Operation Nightwatch for help, we felt a sense of dread. What sort of nonsense would he pull on us next? Punch a smaller homeless guy? Rearrange the expletives? Jump to the front of the line? Pilfer goodies?

Then, one night, I ran across him on the street. It was about 1:00 a.m. He was parked on a bench along 2nd Avenue in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood. For once, he was relatively sedate. I sat down with him, and let him talk for once, without worrying about anything.

He had survived Vietnam, and witnessed intense cruelty, inhumanity, and evil. It changed him. The images flickered in his mind, the loss of friends, blood and gore that are always a part of war; the only way he knew to suppress this horror was to numb himself with drugs and alcohol.

Usually, about now in my stories, I give some insight, a universal truth, a spiritual nugget.

Maybe my takeaway this time is this: killing people is a lousy way to protect freedom, ensure economic security (think how Vietnam contributed to runaway inflation in the 1970s), resist evil.

It seems to me like the person who resisted evil most successfully was willing to endure evil at the expense of his life.

Meanwhile, in honor of Veteran's Day, I will treasure my memories of Gary, and ask God to grant him Peace, in this life and the next.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Big Stick

Our landlord came into the office this afternoon. "There's a homeless guy we need you to check out. He's  hanging out in front of the building."

OK. I'm not that excited. Usually, the random homeless guy in the neighborhood is cooling off from downtown. Most of the neighborhood homeless guys aren't Nightwatch guests -- because Nightwatch guests know if we catch them in the neighborhood before we open, we won't help them. We open at 9:00 p.m. Show up at 9:00 p.m.

When the random homeless person wanders up from downtown and spends the night in a doorway, I try to gently let them know it's hurting our ability to help homeless people. I quietly and politely ask them to move. It usually works.

So, today I go check out the person. Wow. He's big. He's carrying a seven-foot long wooden pole, with a sharp piece of metal duct-taped to the end. He's standing in the middle of the sidewalk, glowering, menacing, and pounding the end of his pike into the concrete with force. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. And muttering to himself.

Back in my office, I marshal my resources. Outreach phone numbers, police back-door phone numbers. I look out the window. He's walking away. Stopping at Boren for traffic to clear. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk, his stick reverberating.

Keep him -- and the community -- safe, Lord. A homeless guy with a seven foot long pike is not going to have an easy night.

There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Step it up

Hey, Preach. You for real? Listen to me, man.
I give good advice to everyone but myself,
Lord, don't I know.
I tell my friend what to do with his money,
Then throw mine away.
I need you to pray for me. Right now.
It's the right time. Use the right words. Pray.

 -- I pray for his wisdom and strength.
 Amen. You know what? This shelter is fine.
They give you food, and clothes, and a place to sleep.
But they don't give you nothing for right here.

His bony finger jabs his chest. Right here.
   - poking at his heart.
You guys are here on Thursday.
We love the pizzas and all,
but a man needs more than food.

Silently, he points to his heart again.
You gotta step it up. Once a week won't do.
Yeah. Step it up.      

Monday, August 25, 2014

Looking for a home

We’ve got the mats, the blankets, and the staff. But we are looking for a home. A place, overnight, where 80 guys, properly supervised, can collapse for the night, and try to get a new start in the morning.

For many years our  generous hosts have let us use their space overnight. This is coming to an end at the end of December.  We have to move.

This is what homeless people go through on a personal level, only worse. 

“Maybe a friend will let us stay.”   “Maybe we can double up with another non-profit.” “Maybe there will be a dramatic last-minute rescue.”

Then the somber adults start to ask questions. “What can you afford?” The answer is, not that much. Not in today’s over-heated real-estate market in Seattle. “You need to put together a funding proposal.” I looked with despair at the government forms, with unanswerable questions.  

I think about the fragility of life on the edge, which describes all 80 of our homeless friends who sleep in this shelter. For people with mental health issues, these changes are overwhelming. When you have nothing, and then even that is threatened, it can have dire consequences.

There are buildings out there. If you can buy us one, now would be the time. About 3,000 square feet would be nice. 

Prayers - and ideas - appreciated.