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.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Homeless Family -- by a thread

There are a ton of families hanging by a thread; one little mishap and they drop off the edge into the strange world of homelessness.

Saturday I was overseeing a group of college students volunteering for a few hours. Now I can tell you I am rarely in the dispatch center on a Saturday, and even more infrequently would I bother answering the phone. In fact, I was probably only about five feet from the phone when it rang, or else I wouldn't have bothered with it.

On the other end was a desperate social worker, dealing with a homeless family; mom, dad, one kid. These people had been wandering the street for 24 hours and were about to collapse from exhaustion. Their pain and suffering was beautifully portrayed in the desperate voice of their advocate.

"I've called everyone in town. Can Nightwatch help?" I started in on my rap about families being welcome at 8:30 at night, 30 minutes before the homeless single adults show up. "What I was hoping was to get them immediately into a hotel room. . ."

I happily offered reimbursement for two nights in a cheap Aurora Ave. hotel, the deal was made, fax number exchanged, and the family taken care of at least for a few days.

Then I started thinking about how many families are not so lucky, to have any advocate at all, not so lucky that they find someone to help on a weekend. What a fluke, to be standing next to the phone and to impulsively answer it on a day devoted to cleaning out storage rooms and shampooing carpets.

That family's thread was a lot thinner than they will ever know. Let them continue in safety.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Seattle Homeless Blog

OK, time to remind myself why I'm doing this.

For over 20 years I've gone out on the street having encounters. No agenda, just be available, listen, know about resources, problem solve.

Which means I have a huge backlog of stories. And new ones every day.

This morning -- 10ish -- I was giving a tour to some Seattle Pacific University students and a disheveled young guy was hanging around, wanting to know if we were opened. I explained what we do -- at NIGHT -- get it? and then brought him some breakfast and talked to him. Dealing with mental issues. Turn folks loose on the street with $575 a month and expect them to be okay.

I'd be walking around on the backs of my shoes talking to myself within two, maybe three weeks.

Seattle Homeless Blog. I have to blow it out somehow.


So, you read all the feel good stories about drama and change and pathos, but you gotta know the truth -- there are plenty of disappointments and failures and insanity when hanging around the street.

"Jimmy" was a worker -- he had two jobs. Lousy jobs, yes, low pay, hard work. He was a weekend janitor for one of those crummy janitorial companies that use people up and don't pay very much because they're underbidding all the other crummy janitorial companies and to make any money at all they have to push people beyond reason to whip through the offices in a minimal amount of time. Monday through Friday Jimmy had it a little easier. He swamped out the viewing booths at an "exotic dance" and porno place. (To call what goes on under the classification of "dance" seems a stretch, from what I'm told.)

So Jimmy's working 56 hours a week, and at night he minds the door outside Nightwatch, keeping order in the line, acting as a bouncer, keeping drunks out. We were absolutely reliant on him during those days. Every single night.

Why we weren't asking questions, I don't know. Even at $9 an hour, the question could be asked. Why was Jimmy homeless?

Then in the spring he asked my co-worker to help him with his tax forms. Jimmy could not read a lick. I don't even think he could recognize his own name. Anyway, we laid out the various W-2 forms and 1099 forms, and added everything up and figured out that Jimmy had made something like $40,000 -- he was making more than me, thanks to him pulling his retirement money out too.

That's a lot of crack. That's a lot rounds for the house.

Things unraveled for Jimmy. He lost his jobs. He moved into public housing, and worked for a downtown bar for cash, minding the door again. I laughed when I saw him checking ID. He couldn't read his own name, and he's supposed to check out ID to keep the minors out of the bar!

Last I heard, Jimmy had lost his crib because too many "friends" were making late night visits. Wonder if he's still alive?

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Church Outside

So, I got back from kicking bootie at darts for the second week in a row, talking politics and religion at a bar on Queen Anne. It was the moment of crisis for several women at the Nightwatch shelter dispatch center; almost midnight, the final call coming from the shelters saying who could come inside. The unfortunate few got blankets, a bus ticket, and some advice.

There was the usual belly-aching, cussing, sad questions ("Which bus is it that I can ride all night?").

Several of the women we standing around on the sidewalk, hoping that they weren't really going to have to spend the night outside, looking for some consolation, having a last smoke before heading out. Nightwatch staff and volunteers were out there too, and me and the other pastor.

"Let's have a prayer then," one of the women suggested. We gathered together under the streetlight, heads bowed.

"Lord, keep us all safe tonight, and open the eyes of the city to the needs of these women. Help Nightwatch develop the ability to respond to them, and help us all to do our part, for them, and for your kingdom."

It was a sacred moment. God was there. -- Pastor Rick Reynolds

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

My Newest Friend

Frank showed up in the middle of the day -- barefoot in late September, obviously agitated. In each hand he held a Coke.

"They sent me over here -- I talked to the nice lady for about an hour and she said maybe you could help me because I don't have any shoes and my feet are cold and getting chewed up and I wear size 13," the rambling words just spilled out of this middle aged man. "I'm a schizophrenic" was somewhere in the steady stream of sentences. No kidding.

I went into the back room at Nightwatch to see if we had anything that would fit his oversized feet. Didn't have any luck, but rustled up two pairs of new socks, a warm shirt-jacket, some PBJ sandwiches, cookies, juice.

He never stopped to take a breath, but was very happy with everything. His poor rough feet were so tender. He looked better with a shirt on under his jacket. "I love you" he told me and I believe it. I tried to get him to get to the mental health walk-in clinic with a buck-fifty bribe. Don't think he'll go.


Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Pushing Food

Last night I worked in the feeding line. I haven't done that for a long time, and we were short volunteers.

It was fabulous, hey.

The menu wasn't bad -- we added a bunch of meatballs to the canned chili (I know, I know). We made an impossibly huge bucket o' rice. Then we were told we were going to have Dick's Cheeseburgers ( -- an iconic Seattle burger chain which helps many homeless agencies, including ours. Plus we had oodles of Northwest Harvest pastries, Starbucks salvage, and Food Lifeline cakes.

At 9:00 p.m. the line quickly formed, out the door and down the sidewalk. Everyone was beaming, being offered choices, encouraged to have some more, come back for seconds was a novelty. Plus the amusement of having a "priest" in the serving line (I keep telling them I'm a Free Methodist minister, but they still call me Father).

You can still tell people are stressed about being homeless. Little things become big when you are under pressure.
Anyway, at the very end of the night I got to roam around the dispatch center passing out knit hats and giving ideas about stuff to go check out.