Operation Nightwatch (ONW), founded in 1981 by Gary Vaughn, provides nighttime hospitality to Portland’s unhoused population. And while it began as an ecumenical (Christian-based) organization nearly 40 years ago, it is now a full-fledged 501(c)3 nonprofit serving nearly 450 guests at two different locations each week.
Vaughn, started the organization by simply meeting the unhoused individuals where they were at night; parks, underpasses, benches, etc. He gave socks, food, and other necessities to homeless individuals in the hopes that, because the night was darkest and coldest, their days would be a bit brighter.
Operation Nightwatch today
While the organization began as an outreach program — meeting the unhoused populations where they were — today, it’s a bit different. Executive Director Paul Underwood shares: “Homelessness has changed a lot. Now we operate indoors at each of our locations… and we are really focused on hospitality and social connection.”
In addition to meals, conversation, and provision of basic essentials for their guests, Operation Nightwatch offers two very unique and critical services to their guests: mental health support and basic medical care.
Mental health and healthcare services for Portland’s unhoused
Kolin Busby, a staff member at ONW, has lived outdoors himself for a few years and is in active recovery from addiction. Busby is at the Downtown location on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, making himself available to anyone who walks in. Suicide prevention, goal setting, emotional support, etc. are all services that Busby provides to Portland’s unhoused each night. While he provides a critical service to the guests who come to their facility, Busby is also seeing firsthand how his work is changing lives. He says, “One of the most amazing things I have seen at Operation Nightwatch is how people have changed — their sense of self-esteem and drawing on their strengths. I adore our folks. This is home.”
Rachel Morris, the healthcare coordinator at ONW, offers basic medical services (wound care, over-the-counter medication, etc.) as well as foot care to guests. Not only does this foot care service prevent infections and sores from lack of proper footwear or exposure to weather, but it also provides a gentle, human touch. Morris shares that this is a special service for unhoused individuals that “allows them to take all of their stress and just let it go. It opens conversations up to everything else that’s going on in their life.”
Because ONW’s services are highly individual and designed to support connection and community, it requires ongoing involvement and commitment from their four staff members and a team of volunteers. But that’s what makes Operation Nightwatch stand out.
“You can’t lose that personal touch,” shared a guest. “Without that, you lose the sincerity of your intent.”
The goal and mission of Operation Nightwatch
The organization’s mission statement says it all: “Operation Nightwatch provides night-time hospitality to the unhoused population to promote dignity and social connection.” While other shelters and outreach services provide meals and daily necessities, Operation Nightwatch also works towards building relationships with each guest that comes in their door.
“On our staff,” Underwood says, “we have three people who have a Master’s degree in Social Work.” The rest (Underwood and most of the volunteers) are individuals who have received some mental health and crisis support training. But Operation Nightwatch doesn’t just give homeless individuals resources or appointments for care — which they may be unable to attend or afford — they talk to them and support them through their struggles each night.
“We focus on their self-esteem,” Underwood explains. “Because when they start feeling better, they start wanting more for themselves.”
Of course, the big, dreamy goal for an organization such as this one is to see that their services aren’t needed anymore; “the eradication of homelessness in Portland would be ideal.” But Underwood and his team members know that may never happen, which is why their true goal is “to give people a place where they feel welcome and valued. Our goal is to just be there for them.”
The impact of Operation Nightwatch
Because Operation Nightwatch is a “no barrier service,” it can be hard to track the exact number of guests and services they provide each, day, week, month, or year. “We don’t ask people to sign in, we don’t ask them for their real names. It’s not that we don’t care, it’s that we just want to be able to help them,” Underwood says. “If we want to help people where they’re at, we can’t block them at the door.”
He adds that, in general, a facility may get 70 to 100 .people a night, but “we’ve estimated that we had 23,000 guest visits to our two locations in 2017.” This includes multiple visits by the same person, which is a common (and desirable) occurrence. Operation Nightwatch staff and volunteers enjoy seeing the same faces each night that the facilities are open, because it means these individuals are benefiting from and want to maintain their connections within the community.
According to Underwood, the organization could measure how many blankets were given out, how many feet were washed, how many pairs of socks were given, or how many people were taken to the ER. “But to us,” he says, “the real impact is the dignity and the support we promote with our guests. We know we can do only so much to help somebody. The idea is that, if we can generate community, we can do more with what we have. That is our bottom line.”
The struggles Operation Nightwatch faces
When asked about the largest obstacle Operation Nightwatch faces as a nonprofit, Underwood gave an unexpected and endearing response: “Honestly, it’s maintaining hope. The challenges that are present in the homeless community are enormous. It’s easy to get bogged down and hopeless, and to anticipate how much worse it gets for these people. You talk about hope and you see people taking a step forward and making a difference, and it can all end.” Operation Nightwatch has lost guests to suicide, addiction, and even pedestrian accidents. Actively building a community means that the nonprofit can face these hardships together, but it can be difficult to see all of the obstacles ahead (and behind) these people.
But Underwood has an antidote to hopelessness:
We can’t look at solving hopelessness. For me, it’s not ‘How do we fix this thing?’ It’s ‘How can we make a difference?’ If everyone finds something and starts doing it, things will get better.
That’s why Operation Nightwatch wants to connect with businesses and volunteers — to encourage people to start doing something to help.
Volunteerism in Portland
According to Underwood, Portland is very engaged in volunteerism — businesses and individuals alike. “People do care,” he says, and Operation Nightwatch averages about 5 or 6 volunteers per night per location. That means about 25 volunteers per weekend, with over 1,300 volunteer roles filled each year. That doesn’t account for the organization’s highly engaged Board members, the people who make sandwiches on the “Tuna Team,” the volunteers who make PB & J sandwiches, the people who pick up blankets and deliver them, or the people who pick up food donations.
But the most important byproduct of volunteering within the organization is how it helps to break down stigma.
“To us, [volunteers] can reduce the stigma around homelessness and mental health. The greatest way I know to change that stigma is to change people’s views,” Underwood says. And while they have a wide range of volunteers who help with all of the services that Operation Nightwatch provides, Underwood would also like to see more involvement from the business community in the greater Portland area. That’s why Operation Nightwatch is teaming up with NobleBridge.
Partnering with Portland’s business community
While Operation Nightwatch partners with churches and community outreach centers to provide their services on specific nights of the week, Underwood would like to see a wider connection with the Portland business community. “We work with a lot of ecumenical organizations,” he says, “and I’d like to see the same kind of relationship with businesses,” where they take a more active and even scheduled role in the community.
By doing so, Underwood and his team believe that the stigmas around homelessness and mental health can be debunked even faster. “When leaders in our community take the time to open minds and hearts to what’s going on — then speak out on those issues — it carries a lot more weight,” he shares. “I think that’s the benefit to us and to Portland as a whole.”
In partnership with the NobleBridge program, Operation Nightwatch hopes to create new connections with Portland-area businesses that want to make more of a difference on the ground. For Underwood and his team, it’s not just about throwing money at the problem, it’s about being engaged and providing that personal connection that can, in the end, make all the difference for Portland’s homeless community.
“To the business leaders, what I would say to them is: this will deepen the impact of what you do. It will strengthen teams who aren’t just chasing that buck and it makes for a richer experience in this life.”
Operation Nightwatch Portland operates two facilities each week:
- Nightwatch SE at the Clackamas Service Center. This location offers showers, a hot meal, community, and conversation on Fridays from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. and Saturdays from 5:00 to 8:00 p.m.
- Downtown Hospitality Center at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. This location serves unhoused individuals with conversation, games, foot care, and more on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from 7:00 to 11:00 p.m.
Since 2007, NobleHour has proven to be the volunteer management solution for organizations across the nation. With its robust online platform, NobleHour enhances community engagement with a variety of innovative and transformative tools for finding, tracking, and measuring volunteer initiatives. With offices in Lakeland, FL, and Portland, OR, the NobleHour team is dedicated to empowering good in communities across the country.
By NobleHour Special Contributor:
Latasha Doyle is a writer and long term care volunteer living outside of Denver, Colorado. When she’s not writing or volunteering, she enjoys crocheting, Netflix marathons, and planning her next trip.