Chased by cold winter storms, 2011 draws to an end. In November, the seventh annual Project Healthy Neighbors came and went. Thanks to the compassion and incredible heart of some very special people of our community, Death was forced to slow his hurried pace among the homeless. Death’s count for 2010 was 32. In 2011, 25 of our neighbors without homes died. No accident accounted for this reduction.
It was because of the unselfish, hard work of many on behalf of Project Healthy Neighbors that brought much-needed medical care to those without. We took the slogan, “We are the 99 percent,” and tweaked it, giving it a living embodiment. We, part of the 99 percent of Santa Barbara, reached out to the poorest of the poor — the bottom 1 percent — to stand shoulder to shoulder with them, to give them the most precious gift of life: health and well-being.
A portrait of the people who ensured this project’s success would include:
The numerous people, ranging from investors, people of faith, students and plain citizens from so many walks of life who gave both time and money to reach beyond their day to day existence, to leave behind their comfort zone and share a caring hand with a stranger. This small but incredibly dedicated set of volunteers gave not only the most precious gift in this life, good health, but equally as important, respect and love to those who too often go without either.
In addition, a small army of professionals — nurses, doctors, shelter staff and caregivers — administered medical needs to the poor and homeless of our community.
Also to be honored were the funders who reached out on their own to offer financial help and the donors who gave shoes, socks, rain ponchos and other cold weather gear to give those without a fighting chance with the approaching cold and wet winter.
Project Healthy Neighbors’ theme this year was, Honor Life. We all honor our spiritual beliefs when we see the potential victims of Death not simply as cardboard stereotypes but as a part of our community — our brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers, all who share a soul and are part of us without distinction of wealth nor power.
While we take pride and comfort in cutting down the death rate, we did lose some of our good friends this year. Bernice will always have a special place in my heart, and I will always remember our early morning talks that often ventured into the philosophical realm. The image of Lucky’s body that bitterly cold morning as he laid at my feet outside his tent sticks like a serrated knife. The early morning call to inform me of a body that was to be found along the railroad tracks and behind one of the most expensive resorts in Santa Barbara was one of the strangest experiences for me of the year.
Kat, we go back years. Your sparkling eyes that reflected your keen sense of humor, which acknowledged the unfairness of life, is always a picture within easy reach of my memory. You touched so many of us. Sherry, God has a special place in his heart for you. As Death approached, you became more innocent, more child-like. You always had a warm hug, and your book of faith was always within easy reach. We owe a debt of gratitude to Sarah House, which agreed to take you in at the last part of your life and arranged for your children to see you one more time before your death.
I often reflect how the homeless are the 21st-century lepers. Today many view the homeless only with hatred or fear, allowing personal prejudices to run wild, much as those of old did lepers. We have seen politicians engage in the age-old tactic of fear-mongering, ignoring the facts that many struggle to survive the greatest recession in 70 years. Yet the lepers of old did manage to survive through the kind gestures of a few. They did not starve because some saw through the hysteria and followed their own spiritual values by giving bread, coins of the realm or simply a compassionate smile.
To those of you, the volunteers — the students, family members of the fund, philanthropists — and the professionals — nurses, doctors, shelter staff — you may have been few in number yet your overwhelming compassion to the poor, the powerless and the demonized helps define our community, our society and gave life to our spiritual values.
To the community of Project Healthy Neighbors, allow me to pass on: Thank you from so many. Our community never stood prouder.
PHN was dedicated to Bernice, Sherry, Lucky, Kat and Ruth.
Updates on Deaths of Steve and Gloria
Steve, the gentleman I wrote about in my last article, has died. I have since confirmed that he tested negative for alcohol on that bitterly cold morning, so when he fell in front of the shelter and before the presence of the policeman who brought him and who did call it in, the only logical conclusion was that it was caused by a medical problem. If this is so, why was he not taken to a hospital? Was his temperature taken on that life-threatening cold morning? What criteria did the paramedics use to ascertain his medical condition?
As my mind replays the security cameras showing Steven staggering to the shower with the help of staff, my heart cries out for answers. To me he looks like a man in obvious medical crisis — a condition that would soon take his life. Again, if alcohol was not in play, then his condition had to be caused by a dire medical response to the cold night.
And still no word as to the progress of the investigation of the fire that took the life of Gloria, a silence that echoes off the void of the abandoned Ross Stiles murder investigation. The dead deserve justice, regardless of their station in life. A community, our community will be judged by our response. I respectfully request that an investigation by the city and/or the Fire and Police Commission be conducted on the circumstances surrounding Steve’s death and the progress of the investigation into Gloria’s tragic and horrific death.
— Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the past 30 years. His writings and opinions reflect only his personal views. He does not speak as a representative for or on behalf of any organization with which he may be affiliated. He is the author of China White and Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets. He has just completed his first nonfiction book, There Must Be Honor.