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.

Friday, March 28, 2008

April Fools in Seattle

April Fools Day is coming.

Which means the seasonal shelters are shutting down for another six months. Forty women are going to get dumped out of one shelter; the program funded by King County for 50 men will be shut for the season.

I imagine Tim Harris drooling over the prospects for biting comments on the meanness of it all.

Or maybe I shall beat him to the punch.

We have this awful wicked mindset, that homeless people don't have to be sheltered while we're devising methods to throw them into newly built apartments, which aren't even on line yet.

The main point: We don't want people to die outside in ways that make the city look bad. Don't worry if they're miserable (as long as we don't have to look at them in their misery).

Here are some of my proposals:

  • If the city can't afford basic humane comforts for homeless people in April and May, the city can't afford to heat city offices either. Use the savings for survival.
  • If Queen Anne residents don't like homeless people in the greenbelts, let there be a LID assessment and use the money to ship the folks who are upset back to Hunt's Point.
  • Open up the Seattle Center for 24 hour shelter. Let's just see how homeless people don't want to go inside.
  • Let Tim Harris run the city for three months. The snow would melt, the flowers would bloom, and the millionaires would run for the hills.

OK, it's too close to lunch to continue thinking this hard.



You probably know that Nightwatch has 24 permanent senior/disabled tenants.

About half of them come downstairs to eat at night -- part of the deal. They get a permanent apartment, shared kitchens and bathrooms upstairs, plus the late evening meal at 8:45, before the homeless hoardes descend.

So I see "E" and ask him how everything's going. "Oh well," he says with a twinkle, "they say the first 100 years are the toughest."

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Friday, March 21, 2008

A Reminder

As though I needed it:
Another reminder of mortality.

There are plenty every day
And more today than usual.

The death of a friend.
The too-much-coffee shaking
The flat-footed-post-middle-age slogging
I euphemistically call running
The breaking of a special dish
Preserved from an ancient home
A dish filled with memories,
Now lost.
Then the simple cut of my razor
Against jaw line.

Was it the coffee
That unsteadied my hand?
The running?
The hurry of getting ready
For the funeral of the friend,
That brought forth this bright red dot
Of precious blood.
Shed for no one.
Just there. A reminder. One drop.

Holding My Breath

Holding my breath,
I jump into the pool of uncertainty.
No strong swimmer here,
I grope for that rope
Dividing shallows from deep;
Hand over hand I find my way to safety.
Clutching the pool-side
I watch others with envy.Why can I not dive
And cut through the water,
A confident swimmer,
Master of the waves?

And so I hold my breath.

Soon, pool time will end
And we will be delivered
Shivering and naked
Gloriously robed,
Baptism over.

A Prayer for Myself 06/24/06

I prayed for peace while
holding the hands of a hooker.
Hot tears ran down her face.
Seven months later she found me
To give thanks and make amends.

I held the hand of an old friend
Cold and weak and gray.
I prayed for mercy, healing, peace.
Two days later he was dead.
Mercy? Perhaps. God knows.

So now I pray for myself.
A prayer for peace.
I shall hold my own hand
Since no one will be here to hold it.
I shall pronounce Benediction
Over my heart,
my mind
my life.

I will remember these others:
The hooker, her life salvaged.
The friend, dead at 57.
Now I ask you God,
Which will it be for me?
Have Mercy, Lord

Driving women to shelter

Oh, my. The smell -- pretty fierce. At first I thought someone had an accident in the back seat of the Nightwatch van; no, just hygiene challenged.

I rolled down several windows, heater on high all the way back to pick up another load of women. Evidently the smell dissipated.

One young woman with a southern drawl, gets into the van and exclaims, "Wow, I love that new van smell!" She was serious.

I laughed so hard later that tears came out.

Meanwhile, we're looking for volunteer drivers. Interested? email us. No sex offenders, clean driving record, thanks.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Chauffer? Sho-fur? Chaffeuer?

No matter how you spell it, driving homeless women to shelter is so. . .gratifying.
Really. And fascinating too.
They couldn't really believe their luck, given the lousy cold rain and all. So everyone was happy.
And I'm reminded how profoundly mentally ill many of the homeless folks are. Obsessive compulsive disorder, profound depression -- all obvious conditions, though I'm no trained expert. But trying to survive and navigate the city has to be a drag when you have bad brain chemistry. I mean, just hanging onto the placement ticket for the seven minute drive between Operation Nightwatch and the shelter was too much for several women. One woman told me that she forgot to register, after she got out at the shelter. And another woman didn't want to leave Nightwatch at all since she wasn't wearing any pants. She did have a long coat, nothing showing. But how do you live without pants? Hmmm?
The really weird thing -- once she got into the vehicle, we had a wonderfully lucid conversation. But upon arrival there was no rushing her -- she had to check and recheck to make sure she didn't leave anything in the car. Maybe she learned her lesson. Not going to lose her pants ever again.
Love to all my fans, Rick

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My tent sign

I posted this sign on my tent last week, sleeping out behind City Hall.
What do you think?

Our Mandate

"Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos" ("A new commandment I give unto you, That you love one another; as I have loved you")

Why do we got to make it so difficult?

Today in the Christian calendar of holy week is called "Maundy Thursday" -- Maundy is from the Middle English -- think mandate.

Our job is to love each other. That's it. Not so tough, really. Good luck with it. Rick

Friday, March 14, 2008

Nobody knows you when you're down and out

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More pooh

From last night's campout:

Operation Nightwatch has issued an honorary one-night bar to Dr. Wes Browning, for failing to show up for his designated shelter space, resulting in turn-aways from the Nightwatch tent. Some poor homeless guy had to do the burrito imitation (you know, roll up in your Army blanket and maybe lay on the cardboard, plastic wrapped if lucky).

So, Dr. Wes, you're on your own tonight. Mark it down, March 14, 2008.

Good luck. Rick

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Another Soap segment.

Ok, here's the scenario. Hubby in the Army, stationed in Germany. His (can I say nubile without being misinterpreted?) wife and child are staying with her mother-in-law. While she's staying at her in-law's house, the woman's brother-in-law grabbed her and tried to kiss her.

Wifey does the only thing she could think of -- complained to her mother-in-law that her other son was getting out of line.

The mother hits the roof, makes her daughter-in-law pack up. She's sitting on the curb with two suitcases, her infant son, and no place to go. She somehow found our number, and gets all hysterical on the phone.

I call a friend, pastor of a Kent area church. He puts her up in a hotel room in Kent for a night or two. I take her down to Fort Lewis. She gets her military ID replaced, the Red Cross finds her husband, orders are placed for her to get shipped to Germany. Done.

Cold night outside city hall

Click to Mix and Solve
It was wet and cold -- duh, it's March in Seattle.

Real Change Organizing Project hosted a camp-in on the 4th Ave. side of city hall. Ben and I went, representing Operation Nightwatch.

My tent had a sign, which was often photographed:

"Mr. Mayor, this tent is worth more than $25 and belongs to Rev. Rick Reynolds. Hands Off!"

$25 is the threshold the city decided on for throwing homeless stuff away when they feel like it.

There were the usual speeches, including a barn-stormer by Rev. Rich Lang. Can't we get a decent speaker system for these events? Yuk.

Dinner was served by Rev. Pat and Rev. Kristi, with Rev. Joshua L. providing hot chocolate. Kudos to Operation Sack Lunch for the Lasagne chefery.

Ben, Pete & I dropped in on the Nightwatch shelter staffed by Compass Center workers at the Millionair Club. (got that?) Plus a little Belltown walk-about.

We hit the sack about 11:00 pm. Egad, what noise. People yakking, homeless people wandered through, but the main thing was the traffic and noise of trucks, buses, police cars. It really didn't settle down til about 3 a.m. I got up about 2:30 to use the sanikan, there were still groups of chatters. At least it wasn't pouring. Every so often it rained, but we stayed dry in our tent.

But it was chilly, and I had a sleeping pad, bag, all my clothes, jacket, and hat. At 6:30 am Ben and I struck camp, drove to CJs Restaurant at 1st & Cedar and had a hearty breakfast.

It's gonna take a weekend to dry out the tent though. All wrapped up in the car as I write this.

If you took pics, would you email me?


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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Homeless Sex Worker

She was so excited. "Katie" had a new job.

Katie and her family had been staying in an apartment that Operation Nightwatch maintained for these kind of situations. It worked pretty well; the family (Mom & Dad, and four kids) were cramped, but at least they had a place. The dad worked really early in the morning for a bagel company -- he had decent enough skills too, pretty facile with the computer. His wife was very large and lively.

"What's the new job?" I asked.

"I probably shouldn't tell you."


"I got a job as a phone sex operator! And I found out I'm really good at it!"

It was hard to know how to respond. On the one hand, it was horrible degrading disgusting work. On the other hand, her family would have enough resources to move on to the next stage -- ultimately moving into their own house.

I looked at her with compassion. "Katie, I know it won't be forever."

"I know, " she said, eyes downcast.

Guys, if you ever want to laugh -- watch those late night TV ads for phone sex services, and picture a 250 pound, 5 foot tall mother of four. It will cure you, fer sher.


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Tenting tonight

100% Chance of rain. Great.
Feel free to join us. We're camping out tonight outside city hall, to bring attention to the stupid way we're dealing with homeless people.
There are over 2,600 people without even basic shelter in Seattle/King County. Actually, the number is much higher, but that's who we found outside in late January. They had no place to go because the shelters are full, and who wants to be institutionalized anyway?
I'm gonna be there with my big old 5 person tent, extra knit hats and gear. Dinner at 6:00 followed by speechifying, singing around the (virtual) campfire, smores (oh, wait, I need a microwave for that, forget it).
Call or write for more info. Rick

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Thursday, March 06, 2008


It's weird being stereotyped. I wear a clerical collar. I go to Safeway, people stare. I pump gas, and they can't believe it.

Tonight I visited Tent City 3, currently located at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church. The folks on security were happy to see me -- Nightwatch ministers drop by 3-4 times a month, usually bringing goodies.

So I had some breakfast bars and flashlight batteries. (They really need paper plates and cups, they told me. And next time bring AA batteries, not those big old D cells. Who knew?)

Anyway, we're talking and one of the guys says, "Do you always wear the collar?" And I said, "No, I take it off when I'm talking to a hot chick."

His mouth fell open and then he started laughing. I told him I've been married for 31 years. But it seriously messed with the "clergy" pigeon-hole. It led to a nice extended conversation.

What stereotypes do you hold onto? Homeless? Racially different? Wired funny? Republicans? Buddhists? Christians? Muslims? Sex offenders? Ex-cons? Rich? Poor? Lutheran? Bachelors? Farmers?

See, there's no end to it! Let people be people, I say!

Praise the Lord

Egad, I wrote "Praise the Lard," which would have to be a piece about Krispy Kremes, instead of another old story.

Every night this humble woman was coming into Nightwatch for shelter -- not really sure what her situation was, but she was wired funny, and would always give me a big grin and "Praise the Lord" when she saw me. Actually, she would do that for everyone, as it turns out.

We'd call the shelters, "Hey, you got room tonight for M?"

"Sure," the worker would say, "send her over, 'Praise the Lord'" -- in a high pitched, little kid voice, like M would say it, even though she's 45 years old, by my guess.

Every once in a while M would ask if she could pray for me, or lay hands on my shoulders and offer up prayer in her prayer language. Undecipherable, but she knew and God knew. And she would tell me about her Bible study at some church in Ballard.

Anyway, one night the room at Nightwatch was packed. People are eating, and waiting anxiously for their shelter assignment. Some drunk wandered in the door. He was being rude and crude. I came out from the back, and had a little talk with him, told him he needed to quiet down or hit the sidewalk, then back into my office.

Suddenly the room of homeless people became quiet.

This is not a good thing. If you're a parent, and the kids in the other room get quiet, you react the same way -- I came running out, wondering what the heck was going on.

Here was M in the corner of this room full of homeless people, and she's singing "Amazing Grace" because the loud obnoxious man was making her nervous, and singing was a way for her to let go of that tension. Her little girl voice, quavering, "I once was blind but now I see. . . " and somehow her singing cut through the drunk's fog. He's on his knees holding M's hand and trying to sing along with her, and the whole room of homeless people got quiet.

Now I think a bunch about human inadequacy and God's ability to infuse power into the most humble and mundane people and situations. We set limits, we object, reign it in. But if the Holy Spirit takes the most profane places (think, Nightwatch shelter dispatch, or Kelly's Bar) and funky type people (ala moi, or M, or maybe you, gentle reader) and does such cool work. . . it gives one pause, no?

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Popcorn anyone?

My second month on the job, about May, 1994, one of our homeless clients snapped. Without provocation he started breaking out plate glass windows in our rented space. Boom, boom, boom, broken glass all over, and the 40 or 50 homeless men and women on the sidewalk were practically shaking, they were so keyed up from this random display. I came running outside in time to see the fourth window go, and could feel the tension in the air. This took place just before we opened for the night, which was 10:00 p.m. at that time. (We open earlier now. Thank goodness.)

I turned to the folks in line outside and said, "If any of the rest of you are going to put on a show, I want you to call me out of the office so I won't miss it."

Without missing a beat, one of the homeless guys said, "If there's going to be a double feature, you've gotta provide popcorn."

Laughter filled the night air, the tension was broken, and we went on to have a great night.

The amazing thing -- the next night, some unknowing donor came around with about 40 gallons of popcorn, ready to serve.

I have to throw these stories up on the blog or I'll forget them, you know? Rick