One goes through life meeting people, becoming friends with some. Looking back, the structures of the bonds of friendship can sometimes become clear only with the passage of time. And sometimes those bonds run so deep that they touch and become a part of the very core of who you are.
This kind of friendship is like breathing — it is so natural that you end up taking that friendship for granted, yet you can’t imagine life without it. Then something happens. You slow down, look inside and realize that magical connection.
Chuck, a close friend of mine, approached me years ago with an idea. He wanted to honor those who have died on our streets without shelter. They mostly died alone, some unknown — bodies without names but not without souls; a crucial distinction that my friend recognized. He also knew that somewhere they had families and friends, people who loved them and would miss them with their passing.
Chuck also recognized that in many ways they were the outcasts of our society — the invisibles. He had seen how many citizens of our community pass the homeless on our streets without seeing — knowing what they think they know about them without understanding. And he knew how other members of the community only saw the homeless with eyes that filtered sight through fear.
It bothered him greatly that the invisibles should pass the way that they had lived — without recognition, without the honor that was due them, as all are human beings. He asked me to come up with a list from my journals of those who have died on our streets. Taking that list, he commissioned a talented local artist, Margaret Matson, to paint their names on a series of white bricks that would become a memorial wall in a large meeting room.
She chose magical paint that comes into and out of clarity depending on your point of view. It is the same way we see the homeless on our streets, which depends on our irrational fears and prejudices or moral compass that sees all of us as brothers as sisters.
That was years ago. Ever since, every few months I hand over another list. Every few months, Margaret gets her paints ready and records the sadness. But doing so, she also tells another story. This one is of love, of one man reaching out his hand to an outcast group of people. Another man once kept a list that paid homage to his moral belief in the middle of hell. Schindler did what his conscious dictated that he must. In his own way, and with another list, my friend commissioned a wall that stands as a bright needle on a compass of compassion.
Often when I am sitting in that room, my gaze will be drawn to the wall. Inevitably it lands on Joshua, the 4-month-old baby who is the youngest on the wall. Sometimes it lands on the name of the man whose body was found in his camp along Highway 101. I remember driving home that night — winter with light rain casting an ominous ambiance, and seeing the police cars and ambulances with their red lights slashing through the darkness, and knowing another homeless body had been found. Sometimes my sight drifts to the man without a leg who died next to his wheelchair. There are so many names, so many friends.
At other times, I can hear the muted voices of the dead as they communicate with those they ended up bordering — brick to brick, strangers in life, comrades in death. Sometimes they talk with the new names added to this final community of theirs: How did they end up here? What went wrong with their lives? Some share the cruelties of mental illness, a disease with a lot of prejudice, fear and hatred attached to it by some. Sometimes the collective voices reflect the delusions that drive the disease. Other times, they speak with the voice of sorrow — of lost love, families and friends because of their untreated sickness, of being outcasts and sentenced to a life of loneliness.
I can’t help but think of the hundreds who will be abandoned because of the cuts by county Alcohol, Drug, and Mental Health Services. We will need a lot more bricks and a ton of paint when that comes to pass.
“Larry” was one of the homeless with mental issues. How could it be otherwise? He was standing on the other side of the car from his mother when the big rig plowed into her. Racing around the car, he found his mother dead. His mind snapped. He never recovered from that tragedy, until the day he fell and hit his head, and finally rejoined his mother. Only then did the nightmares that used to scare him so badly finally cease.
There are so many Larrys on our streets, so many already untreated. I fear more will be added to the memorial wall. Yes, we will need a lot more bricks and a lot more paint. We could use a few more caring people like my friend — a few more angels.
Community Kitchen Update
A bright example of the community reaching out to those in need is the Community Kitchen, which has fed the hungry for the past 20 years. More than 300 volunteers from 20 congregations — including All Saints-by-the-Sea, St. Anthony’s, Santa Barbara Parish-Old Mission, Free Methodist, Trinity Episcopal, Goleta Presbyterian, Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints and El Montecito Presbyterian, among others — served 70,865 lunches last year in the community.
The organization and these people live their faith. They add a value to our community that will never be measured by dollars but is priceless nonetheless. It is a moral imperative that they not be forced to shut down, curtail services or relocate.
Let us not forget that we are in the midst of the Great Recession with 15 million of our fellow citizens cruelly thrown out of work.
— Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the last 30 years. He is the author of China White and Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets.