Cold. Low 30s. Late November 2011.
Gloria sleeps in a thread-worn sleeping bag in a small junkyard on Santa Barbara’s Lower Eastside. Mini junkyards run up and down the street. Nearly midnight, the witching hour. Suddenly, a firestorm engulfs Gloria. Flames shoot upward into the black sky. Fire surrounds her, eating her flesh like a starved jackal. Strangely most of the junkyard is not torched. An aluminum tractor-trailer that she sleeps next to begins to melt, mercifully the man sleeping inside escapes with minor wounds. But there is nothing merciful about the conflagration that consumes Gloria. The fire is everywhere on her body, burning flesh and scorching lungs, yet she doesn’t seek help.
Two days pass. I remember it like it was yesterday, standing in front of the yard with my blood pressure screaming high. Work crews were scrubbing the place clean. No police tape blocks off the entrance to a potential crime scene. I complain about this fact to a TV reporter. She stops the camera from filming to inform me that she was shooting the scene 10 hours after the fire was extinguished. The cleaning crews were already conducting their business. Angrily, I finish the interview and approach the yard. I pass containers half-full of fire debris — potential evidence. The gate is open.
I asked a man close by to identify where Gloria’s body was found. He looks down at my boots and states, “There.” I closed my eyes and see a woman known to all of us who worked on the streets. She is, was, in her mid-40s, a harried woman in possession of a wounded soul. Like so many homeless women, she was driven to the streets by existential demons. Like so many of Santa Barbara’s homeless, they live in fear of the violence that plagues their existence. Two weeks before her death, another homeless woman was the victim of a vicious beat down and sexual assault. Was that why Gloria was in the junkyard? Was she seeking protection from the predators who roam the streets?
Opening my eyes, I turn. I judge the opening to the yard to be six feet away. But from what I am told, and looking down to where Gloria’s body was found, she doesn’t even crawl six inches. The street is mere yards away. Again, help is within easy distance but she doesn’t move. She burned to death but didn’t try to get help? How is this possible? My anger boils over.
Over the next few weeks, I do what I can to engage the community to demand that an investigation into her death be conducted. I write articles and speak before concerned groups but nothing is heard. One concerned citizen tells me she approached the police questioning the cleaning up of the yard so quickly. She was told all the debris was swept up and dumped into barrels. This way, when the police have time, they can go through it and look for evidence. Really?
Let’s pretend a woman who is fortunate enough to live in a house, say Montecito, where homes run into the multimillions of dollars, home to Oprah Winfrey, dies in a horrible fire, a fire that consumes her residence — fast. Wouldn’t the yellow tape of the police be strung up for a considerable time? Would cleanup crews be allowed in to sweep up potential evidence within 24 hours of her death? Would the community not be kept informed as to the progress of the investigation?
I’ve been here before. Ross Stiles, a crippled homeless man, died as a result of a cowardly attack by two men a couple of years back. Within five weeks, the police had closed the case. No proof that his death wasn’t the result of natural causes was the reason given, regardless of what Stiles said before he died. I wrote and spoke before various groups at the time, and questioned the police investigation, or lack thereof. The only problem was that the case had been closed before the coroner had completed his investigation. He found Stiles’ death was due to blunt-force trauma to the head. Stiles had told his friends on the street of being hit in the head by a bottle. The case was quietly reopened but too late. His killers remain at large. Another homeless man, Gregory Ghan, was murdered in June 2008. There is still no justice, and no peace for his family either.
Because of my writings at the time, the powers that be aired concerns against me with my boss. Both the Police Department and my former agency not so subtly let me know that my articles are read and discussed by higher-ups. It’s too bad Gloria’s death doesn’t draw such scrutiny.
I understand that none of this looks good. But try standing at the spot where a human being dies such a horrible death and then try to understand why she doesn’t even crawl inches seeking help? There is no greater motivator than pain, and there is no greater pain than fire. How did the fire start? Why did it spread so fast? I wake up at night trying to understand, also trying hard not to equate Stiles’ murder investigation with Gloria’s.
A community group counted 1,100 homeless in southern Santa Barbara County. Considering that a third are women, this means more than 300 homeless women roam our streets. They slink about, unwanted, some unwashed, most hungry, others untreated by a sadly malfunctioning mental health system. All are subjected to the same homegrown terrorists who hunt them like prey. Not enough beds. Run the bums out of town.
Walk down State Street and see our homeless neighbors eating throwaway food out of trash cans. Watch women without housing and with guarded stares push shopping carts full of their worldly possessions. Try to imagine them deathly alone, sleeping behind buildings, along the beach, in parks, in junkyards — always with one eye open. Try to comprehend burning to death without reaching out for help. Try to see how all this happened almost a year ago and still no update to the community and no arrests.
For our neighbors on the streets, and especially the homeless women in our community, there is neither justice nor peace. The death of Gloria and Ross Stiles and Gregory Ghan were all tragic — ongoing ones that demand justice. But justice is not something to be parceled out to those only with money, or those fortunate enough to be housed. It is for every one, or no one.
— 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.