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, 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.

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.