It’s 6:45 in the morning with dark rain clouds above. My first voice message is from a friend at a local shelter telling me Mark has died. I had received an email the night before with the same message. According to my friend, Mark died in front of a local fast-food chain.
The ironic and bittersweet tragedy was that this long-term homeless man had just found housing through the kind and hard work of the Housing Authority of the City of Santa Barbara.
Since Dec. 30, at least seven of our homeless friends have perished. I go back to that date because that is when David died. He was a longtime fixture on the streets with a tough swagger — one that didn’t match his kind soul. He was a tough one to lose. But so was Eugene, an 84-year-old man who went down at a local shelter.
Before coming into the shelter, I used to see him curled up on a bench on State Street. I would beg him to come indoors, but he was a proud man — as many homeless senior citizens tend to be. As a group they find it hard to believe that their lives would end in extreme poverty — one without shelter, spotty medical care or hope.
Kelly died. She lived at Five Points, where she had become increasingly sick and deadly skinny. Her homeless neighbors who tried to take care of her always surrounded her.
Diane died after a kind nurse discovered her in her sleeping bag, where she had been unable to move for three days and nights because of life-threatening conditions. Angie’s body was found in a park in Ventura, a place she ran to when she was unable to get help here for the demons of the soul that tormented her. She was a lifelong county resident, but one that will now be labeled transient.
What kind of pain can only be quieted by a bullet? What depth of despair can only be negated by a shattered skull? E can no longer tell us.
So many are dying so fast. One hardly has time to grieve their loss before the news of the next tragic death comes along. Does Death ever tire of taking Santa Barbara’s homeless? I approach my phone now with more apprehension and dread, fearing that the next message will be that of another neighbor without a home who has died.
On my rounds I try to make eye contact with each homeless person I pass. I look deep into them, trying to see the signs of surrender — a gaunt look, a fleeing sight. I also look for the physical telltale signs: an ashen tone to their skin, an unhealthy drop of weight, a halting step. But mostly it’s the resignation in their dulled eyes, the flickering of the will to live as they surrender to Death.
In Vietnam my unit’s nickname was the Walking Dead. Sadly and with my own hope teetering, perhaps the 9th Marines of that war should now share that hallowed name — one earned in a sea of blood with the homeless of Santa Barbara.
— 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.