Within the Jewish faith, there is the story of the 36. It is said that 36 angels walk the face of the Earth at any one time. They are not necessarily Jewish, nor do they automatically know that they are angels. But these angels live a spiritual and honorable life that makes them different than most. It is also believed that God has made a commitment that the world will not be destroyed as long as the 36 walk its face.
I often think of these 36 and of Santa Barbara’s guardian angles. I think of all the wonderful people who have helped me serve the homeless during the past 35 years. People who have gone out of their way to do what they can to soften the blows of cruel words and harsh judgments that are directed against the poorest of the poor. People who believe so deeply in their spiritual values that they were moved to organize and also approach the political powers that be in an attempt to give a voice to the voiceless. Special people who suffered spiritually when the homeless suffered physically from the cold and wet weather, and would call me at night to find out the needs to lessen the suffering.
In our time when crass materialism and runaway egos define our societal values, what type of person makes common cause — a decision based on free will to stand alongside the most demonized citizens?
I have heard many of these people question the prejudices formatted against the homeless and are, in turn, forced to face down these same hatreds and irrational fears that threaten to taint their own hearts; for none of us is an island onto ourselves. Darkness of the heart is a disease that when it threatens one, it threatens all like a modern-day plague.
For these special people, there are no immediate payoffs nor fame, glory or material rewards. In fact, when I try to thank them in my writings, they shy away from accolades. What they do, they tell me, is between them and their spiritual beliefs — their god. What they are in possession of is an overwhelming need to lesson suffering and to stand alongside the marginalized and demonized, a moral imperative that drives them from their comfort zone to combat deadly, benign neglect.
There are also those on the streets or with a history of homelessness who are likewise so moved. David is such a man. With his long, white hair and beard, imposing body and intense eyes, he reminds one of a biblical prophet. He was always someone I looked forward to running into. He was a man who did not suffer fools easily, especially ones with power who lorded over the poor. I would often step back and watch his animated condemnations of the powerful who served the poor but always with a keen sense of what was in it for them.
David also had a heart of gold. I remember one time when I was working with a man who was dying from cancer. His home was along the railroad tracks in Montecito. David took it upon himself to cook healthy meals to try to help the man fight off this deadly disease.
Jim is a quiet and unassuming man who has lived on the streets for a long time. He would always alert me to dangers, especially of the predators who would hunt down homeless women. He also helped me distribute cold-weather gear to those so far gone into distrust that they wouldn’t come near a shelter.
My quiet early morning talks with “Little John” always showed me the real cost of untreated mental illness. When no one was around he would say to me: “I don’t question God’s need to punish me, but does it have to be so painful?” I find myself waking at night to his haunting voice speaking those words and feel the intensity of his pain, and knowing that it wasn’t God punishing him but rather the heart-wrenching symptoms of untreated mental illness. The only thing crueler was a society that refused to offer treatment, housing and simple compassion to those afflicted.
Bernic’s simple habit of always looking into her compact mirror and applying makeup reminded me of where she came from. She was a businesswoman at one time and a successful model at another. That was a separate reality from her end days, when a bench on State Street was her home.
Over coffee in the very early morning hours, when we cast off frosty breaths, she would lament the latest reasons she got kicked out of the shelter. That was her ninth circle of hell. I’d get her placed in a shelter, and within a few weeks — or days — something would happen and she’d be booted back to the streets. For a 72-year-old woman to die alone like this was hard to take.
From the housed to the homeless, Santa Barbara lays claim to more than one of the 36. I have walked mean streets. I have seen morally reprehensible behavior, sickening prejudices, harmful hatred and crippling fears. But I have also been extremely privileged to have known and been influenced by the echoes of the 36.
It has been seven months since the horrendous death of Gloria. Seven months, and still questions go begging.
Why did she not run to seek help? How could she simply lay there while her body burned without moving a few feet for that help? How did the fire start? Why did it spread so quickly? What was the actual cause of her death? Did the heat scorch her lungs? Or did she not breathe in the fire? Why was the death scene not closed off — in fact, cleaning crews were busy scrubbing the site down only hours after her death? Would such a scene have been allowed if a housed woman had burned to death in Goleta, Santa Barbara or Montecito? When will the community be brought up to date on her questionable death? Is her case to follow that of Ross Stiles, whose murderers still walk free after a less than stellar investigation?
Gloria may have been poor and she may have been a troubled soul, but what of the rest of us? Are we prepared to forget about her and turn our backs on justice? Will the political powers that be and the Police Department be allowed to ignore her cries?
It really is up to all of us to demand answers to troubling questions.
— 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.