Tag Archive for 'operation nightwatch'

Good For Nothin: Where the homeless build their homes

James builds Dignity Village by Isaac Holeman.

I met this guy the other day, I guess we can call him James. His shirt says he’s Good For Nothin, but he looks like a worker to me.
James is a member of Dignity Village, which doesn’t help to clarify James’ “status.” Part protest, part political experiment, part pragmatism in the face of desperation, Dignity Village was founded by a group of homeless individuals who set up a camp on the waterfront to protest their housing situation. According to Erik Stenn, Portland’s progressive city commissioner, the business community was upset, but Stenn “didn’t see any reason for moving them.” Dignity Village gained a beachhead on what it is today when Stenn and other individuals worked to find them a permanent piece of land for their squatters camp. Many of the initial tenants have gone, but Dignity Village is now on a small concrete lot near the airport.

In my opinion, the most interesting aspect of Dignity Village is how it calls into question the nature of homelessness. Once given a place to call community, James built himself a home. He used mainly the scraps that others had thrown away, and built for himself a comfortably humble place to stay warm and call his own. I don’t know James’ entire history, I didn’t ask. But when I watched, and helped him work it became shockingly clear that, if he had been homeless before, it was not just a house he was missing, per se. He was not too lazy, to drug addicted, to crazy, or too short sighted to build himself a home. This experience really made homelessness itself seem more a state of social exclusion than a condition of material haves and have nots.

I had a similar experience later that week working at Operation Nightwatch. Operation Nightwatch is guided by the premise that people who sleep outside need friends too, in fact, if they are sleeping on the street, they could probably use a friendly gesture even more than the rest of us. Operation Nightwatch is a drop in center where individuals can come to drink a cup of coffee, eat a sandwich, get a clean pair of socks if they are needed, and just know that they will find a friendly change of pace from contemptuous streets. When there are enough volunteers, as was the case the evening I worked there, the volunteers spend a lot of their time just playing scrabble, or a card game, of just chatting with the dozens of nightly visitors.

After helping make a huge batch of tuna fish sandwiches, I sat down to play a game of scrabble with a man that might have been named Eric. Wearing a red and green Christmas plaid with slacks and beard in shades of grey, Eric could have been Father Christmas’ oddball skinny uncle. Eric was pretty quiet, other than exuberant ho-hums and giggles when he found a new word. While we played I listened in on the table behind me – an engaged group of “the least of these” talking politics. The wide ranging discussion touched on coercive monopolies, the pragmatic failures of Marxism, the origins of an unrestricted or “free” market in Belgium, and of course, global hegemony. I couldn’t help but remark that I do not know very many people that could have actively followed and contributed to this conversation. I definitely know people with PhD’s who would have been flat lost.

Why do people become homeless? I was wondering. I recommend you have a good chat with a few. Everyone has problems, but they are not as stupid/dumb/crazy/lazy/mean/addicted/scary as everyone is led to believe. What is it that makes them different enough to merit asphalt rather than a bed at night? And why do I justify that unless I am choosing to do some service, I try not to acknowledge them when they ask me for the change I don’t really need. They way I had perceived (or strategically avoided perceiving because of guilt) homeless people was feeling kind of crazy when Eric giggled a little and then placed the letters S A N E on our crowded scrabble board.

I ended my work with Dignity Village and Operation Nightwatch ready for a good hard think. I think thinking like this often leads to thanking, and that was the case this time. I keep remembering a word Eric taught me. Oh, yes, Eric told me he speaks Hebrew. Slightly skeptical, I asked him to teach me a word. He said it would be good for me to know the word Teshuva, it means repentance or a return to God. It really is crazy what the “crazies” learn at the public library these days.




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