Pastor Rick Reynolds has always been into helping people. Makes sense, as he takes his religious tenets pretty seriously. But when he started at the Branch Villa nursing home after graduating from college, he had no idea it would thrust him into a nearly 30-year career helping Seattle’s unhoused population. After 28 years as director of Operation Nightwatch, an organization that has spent about a half a century feeding and finding housing for people experiencing homelessness, Reynolds is retiring this month.
He started at the nursing home in 1977, taking care of a lot of older guys from Seattle’s old Skid Road who couldn’t take care of themselves anymore. There was some foreshadowing of his future at Nightwatch, as one of the guys from the nursing home had been featured in a 1970 video about the organization, and Pastor Rick — then just Rick — got to see the Nightwatch operation firsthand on one of his men’s group outings. Given that he wasn’t ordained, and Nightwatch was at that time just ministers going out on the street after hours, he moved on without giving it much more thought.
After a few other interesting gigs, he ended up on an ordination track, working as an associate minister at a church on 13th Avenue East and Olive Street. Remembering his visit to Nightwatch, he thought, “If I’m going to be in seminary, I’ll see if I can go out on the street!” For someone who describes himself as a fairly conservative Christian, he has a strong sense of adventure.
He called up Norm Riggins, then the executive director, and told him he was on his way to becoming ordained. Riggins said that was good enough to get started and told him to go to Kaufer’s Catholic Bookstore and buy a clerical collar.
“Back then it was just going bar to bar and hanging out with people,” he remembers, sipping coffee at a chic café down the road from his office, dressed casually in jeans, ripped-up running shoes and (probably) not the same clerical collar. “When I started as a volunteer, that was the main thing they were doing. It wasn’t just walking around trying to help homeless people; it was hanging out and being part of the bar scene.”
The organization’s clientele was primarily middle-aged men, down on their luck and drowning their sorrows. This being the era before cell phones, they’d carry dimes in their pockets to call back to the central office whenever they encountered someone who needed a shelter referral. Reynolds spent 10 years volunteering while also finishing his degree, getting ordained and becoming pastor of his church.
However, by 1993, he said, “I’d just kind of had it.” After 12 years at the church, he was ready to move on. He called up a recently retired Riggins to ask for career advice and got a bit more than he bargained for: Riggins was back at the helm after his replacement hadn’t worked out.
“You should have my job,” Riggins said.
Reynolds was surprised, but pleasantly.
“I was definitely excited. I was totally excited. Because I figured I could do something good!” he said.
He started by doing a little bit of everything: data entry, big batches of pressure cooker soup, paperwork, fundraising, managing volunteers and, of course, cleaning. When he got hired, he jokes, Riggins said, “You’re the director; here’s your mop.”
He enthusiastically took up that mop, building Nightwatch from a hole-in-the-wall service center in Belltown with only one other part-time employee to the established organization it is today. When it became clear that the Belltown space was no longer viable, Rick reached out to his donors and scored enough money to buy an apartment building just a block away from Little Saigon. The building’s entire second floor serves as housing for low-income seniors, while the ground floor is home to their dispatch desk — where they connect clients to available shelter beds — and a full-size commercial kitchen (mostly cannibalized from the late Unique Bar and Grill, where one of their volunteers was a fry cook).
It’s quite the upgrade from the two crock pots he began his culinary career with. Besides the facilities, Nightwatch ministers are still active on Seattle’s streets, giving out food, water and other essentials. Socks, too, as part of the organization’s “Sock it to Homelessness” drive, where they collect unworn socks numbering sometimes in the tens of thousands and hand pairs out to anyone who needs one.
Before he heads off to Hawaii to finish that eighth marathon he never quite got around to — the running shoes aren’t just for comfort — we wanted to receive some of his accumulated wisdom. Here’s Pastor Rick, after three decades on the streets.
Real Change: What’s been your favorite part of working at Operation Nightwatch?
Pastor Rick Reynolds: Getting to know homeless people as friends, because they have fascinating stories to tell that you wouldn’t run into at your typical Sunday morning church service or cocktail hour or wherever you hang out. Sometimes it’s breathtaking in terms of the horror that they grew up with, but it’s amazing how many had positive outlook considering the dire circumstances that they’re in, currently. They were still hopeful, which was amazing to me. Friendships and hopefulness: Those things matter.
I’m getting off topic of this question, but the disruption of the sweeps is that when there’s stability in the neighborhood — the homeless neighborhood, that is — they get to know who’s camping near them, and there is kind of a level of trust and community that happens. Every time they move people, there’s somebody that has a set back. They lose their ID or their sense of place. There’s a rootedness in most people that feels comfortable, even when it’s not the best situation. There’s still a sense of belonging associated with the place.
When you help homeless people, you become the enemy of certain folks hat don’t like the fact that you’re helping homeless people. So, you know, I took on the responsibility of trying to keep the neighborhood calm and clean, or at least cleaner than it might have been otherwise. But if there was a guy sleeping in a doorway, I used to get a phone call from somebody. And I’d go talk to [the guy], and even if they weren’t a Nightwatch person. You still have to help.
How has the homelessness situation changed?
I went back and looked to see how many people we counted my first year on the job. Nightwatch was counting people starting in the early ’80s … . I think we found 453 in 1994, the year I started. That’s how many people we found in the downtown core. Basically Denny Way to Dearborn, probably, and then I-5 to the water. The reason we only counted those areas is because there weren’t homeless people out in the further flung margins of the neighborhoods. Now I go to Edmonds and I see people panhandling by freeway entrances and tents. I think there’s also a broader spectrum of ages represented. I’ve seen people from teenaged to ’70s. Before, it was mostly guys in their 40s.
What would you identify as the root causes of homelessness currently?
Greed. Simple answer, right? We don’t want to pay more taxes than we need to; therefore, we’re not going to offer universal healthcare, treatment on demand — we’re not going to give people living wages, we’re not going to have a social safety net. It seems like it’s universal in the developed world except for us, where people who are not able to find work or are unemployable have enough income to live on. There’s no homelessness or very little of it in certain countries.
In the meantime, what kind of programs do we need to support people experiencing homelessness? What are the most urgent unmet needs?
Well, this is my Nightwatch perspective. It’s great to talk about permanent housing. That’s definitely got to happen; there has to be affordable housing for everyone. Until then, what are we going to do? We’ve been letting [unhoused people] sleep outside, but then we chase them all around the city. We need to think about their survival needs in the short term, until there’s enough housing. Safety, shelter, food, warmth. Those things need to be addressed.
Are there currently enough shelter options for everyone?
There has never been a single night in Seattle in my 28 years of running Nightwatch where there’s enough shelter for everybody. Not once. There may be shelter beds that sit empty because of some logistical reason, but it happened every night at Nightwatch that somebody was getting turned away that would have preferred to go in. Now, people don’t even want to go in because they can sleep in a tent some place and not have to get institutionalized. Shelter is an invitation to institutionalization. You put homeless people in an institution, they don’t do very well. No human beings do! School, jail, hospitals, nursing homes, mental health facilities — all of these are institutions, and shelter is an institution too. It requires that you serve the institution’s purposes instead of your own basic cycle of needs and interests.
How do you navigate the faith aspect of running a faith-based organization? It seems like Nightwatch is a place where faith is what motivates people to offer help rather than a place that offers help in order to preach.
It’s tricky because I hate the preconceived notions that secular Seattle has about anybody that has any religious faith at all. But then I’m also totally aware of the kind of aggressive evangelical quick-fix mentality. Like, “Homeless people are there because of their sinful natures and all they have to do is confess to Christ and they’ll be fine.” Frankly, a lot of the homeless people I know have a deeper faith than some of the housed people I know, because homeless people have no resources of their own to sort of let them know that they’re alright. They are dependent on God, like the lilies of the field that Jesus talks about.
That was one of the most humbling things, is to realize that I go home to a warm bed every night, I have people surrounding me that love me like crazy and it’s easy for me to talk about knowing that God loves me. Here’s a guy that’s been sleeping under a bridge for six months, who got beat up as a kid by his Godly grandmother who was trying to “fix” him and maybe had her own baggage and drug him off to church every Sunday. And yet he’s able to say, “I know God loves me. I know I’m going to get through this.” That’s way more faith than your typical middle-class urbanite who doesn’t have to rely on anybody but himself or herself to take care of themselves.
But there’s no requirement to be religious to be a part of Nightwatch?
We do have a requirement [to be religious] if it’s part of your job, like the street ministers need to have a church affiliation. But for others, no. In fact, we have people with no religious connection at all. Our mission statement is “We exist to reduce the impacts of poverty and homelessness in keeping with Jesus’ teaching to love your neighbor.” It seems like “love of your neighbor” is kind of one of the universal values, I would hope, that drives people even if they don’t have the religious background.
What’s your favorite story from this work?
The story that became the lens for my whole time here. During my first year on the job there was this one guy who was a problem guy. His name was Ronnie. That was his real name. Ronnie showed up night after night, and we would send him out to shelter, and the shelter would call us back and say, “Don’t ever send that guy again. He’s loud all night long; he’s noncompliant; he won’t do what we ask him to do; he won’t shut up and go to sleep, and he’s bothering people. We can’t take him anymore.” I’d have to explain to him a couple nights in a row, like, “There’s no place left for you. You need to go work it out. You need to sit down with somebody and tell them that you’ll do better about not flapping your mouth at people.”
He kind of knew I was an ally, partly because I didn’t yell at him. I’m quiet, you know? So anyway, this one night, standing in this room full of homeless guys at Nightwatch — it’s probably about 10:15, and he’s got the little slip we’d give them to take to a shelter, and a shelter was going to take him — he’s standing there and holding this slip up and he goes, “Pastor Rick, ain’t I beautiful?” I kind of looked at him and was thinking, like, “I dunno; everybody in the room is going to know I’m lying.” But I go, “Yes, Ronnie, you’re beautiful.” And I thought that was the right thing to say because, theologically, we believe that everyone is made in the image of God and is beautiful and has a beautiful soul underneath all that smell and the grizzled look.
And I thought I was done, and he goes, “No, then hug me!” So I get up next to him and try to do like a buddy hug around one shoulder, and he throws his arms around me. His face poking into my face, you know? We’re in a clinch and there’s the body odor smell and the smoke and the cheap wine smell kind of drifting over me. And he pulls back and he kisses me on the cheek and goes off into the night. The room is kind of like — the guys are watching this, and I’m thinking, “Yeah that was the right thing to do.” I’m patting myself on the back. And the little voice comes into my head. “Rick, who’s being ugly in that situation?” He had no problem exuberantly loving me in his moment of joy. I said, “That’s my job. That’s how I’m supposed to be with people.” I needed to get over myself, to not want that professional distance, to really embrace guys where they’re at. Who was being ugly? It was me!
What’s next for Nightwatch?
I am really thrilled that we hired Deacon Frank [DiGirolamo], because he’s somebody I took on the street with me. It was the week of the Seahawks victory parade. We squeezed through a hole in a fence and found a bunch of guys in the 25-degree weather, huddled together, trying to stay warm. We passed out blankets at 11:30 at night, and he stuck with us since then. He knows the street scene; he totally gets our approach. You’re not there to judge or preach at people; you’re there to love them. I think those things will continue to serve Nightwatch well in the future. I think he’s authentic and humble; he’s definitely devoted to God and the mission of caring for human beings. Those things bode well. We’ve got new, younger staff. Better brains! They’re looking at things with fresh eyes. All of that’s going to be good for Nightwatch.
What about for you? What are you going to do with all of this free time?
Slide off into senility, probably! [Laughing] I’m only 11 years from being 80. But my passion for caring for homeless people won’t change. My ability to actually do it may change. I love going out on Thursday nights and hanging out with Neal [Lampi] and taking pizzas to a camp. I’ll keep doing what I’m doing — just not every day.
Tobias Coughlin-Bogue is the associate editor of Real Change.
Read more of the May 11-17, 2022 issue.