Take Two #45: Homelessness in King County

By Kyra-lin Hom

I was supposed to share this particular story of mine weeks ago, but new things kept coming up that I just had to talk about 'right now.' So to my mother who instigated this whole event that I will be telling you about shortly, I apologize for taking so long. Here it is Mom, finally, my column on our evening with Operation Nightwatch.

See, as part of a school project of hers, she began researching homelessness in King County. Of course no real research is complete without getting your hands dirty so she began volunteering with local homeless aid groups and visiting the many kinds of homeless shelters and dwellings our county has to offer. Her experiences and research really did move her, and the rest of us family were swept along for the ride.

This ride culminated in my mom, my boyfriend, me and several of our family members coming together one evening to prepare and serve dinner for 180 homeless individuals via a program called Operation Nighwatch. If you aren't familiar, here is their mission statement in its entirety: “Operation Nightwatch is an interdenominational Christian ministry serving the poor and homeless. In order to help people to attain their highest level of self-reliance we provide: spiritual care and hope for the community at night; compassionate relief and shelter placement for homeless women, men, and children; low-cost housing and support services for seniors and the disabled; education and encouragement for others to respond to those in need.”

You wouldn't necessarily think that helping serve dinner one night would be a big deal. In comparison to the days, weeks, lives that others such as the Reverend Bud Palmberg who first founded Seattle's Operation Nightwatch give to community service, one night is just a drop in the bucket. But the thing is, it wasn't just giving one night of our time to bake brownies and scoop coleslaw.

For society in general, homelessness and homeless people are topics best supported from a distance. Say what you will, but how many of us avert our eyes and actively avoid engaging with strangers we perceive might be homeless? I try not to, but let's be honest here. As people we don't like uncomfortable situations – that's why they're 'uncomfortable.' It's in the title. Refusing to give money to someone who is so obviously worse off than we are is uncomfortable. I offer something up maybe a third of the time, but for reasons either selfish or practical (whichever word you'd like to use) I rationalize that I can't afford to give to everyone. So those times I know I'm going to refuse – those times I know I'm approaching a potentially uncomfortable situation – I find my phone very fascinating.

That one night was about much more than serving food. It was about facing down something 'uncomfortable' and realizing that it doesn't have to be. Like sleeping without a nightlight, it's not so bad once you realize the dark isn't anything to fear. That night was about taking this abstract concept of poverty and homelessness that we've all been taught since grade school is a bad thing we should 'End! Now!' and getting up to our elbows in it. Seriously, shredding pork by hand is a messy business.

King County is the 9th richest county in the United States, but Washington State has the 9th largest homeless population in the country. A huge number of homeless individuals are trying their hardest to get out of their situations, will only be homeless for less than 6 months, and even have jobs but just can't yet afford rent and don't have anywhere to go (something many of my friends and I can relate to). Ask around to your friends, family, coworkers, peers and neighbors because I bet you're closer to homelessness than you think – someone's parents or cousin or childhood...

I'm not saying that I'm cured of my fascinating-cellphone syndrome after one night, but getting involved was a step in the right direction. Besides, it was fun! Next time you have a free evening, consider volunteering. Don't just feel bad, do something to help.

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