“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
— Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
This is the story of two men. The first man I’ll call, “Bill.” I first met him years ago when I had office hours at Santa Barbara’s Faulding Hotel. He was a man deeply in hock to alcohol, a disease that was to continue to claim its due on his body and mind for years.
When the flow of clients was slow, I would stand in front of the hotel and watch time crawl by. I would see the mentally ill — wrapped in their invisible shrouds of their disease and condemned to isolation — furtively hurry by, looking over their shoulders at the real and imaginary enemies closing in. I would see the occasional alcoholic stagger by — by all means, not all homeless; many were the leftovers from the party scene that Lower State Street offers nightly.
From down the street, the creaky wheel on his shopping cart announced Bill’s presence. Already then his body was revolting against all the alcohol that it was being subjected to. His legs were weak; he depended upon his cart to study his walk.
We would talk and I would gently implore him to seek assistance in recovery. But his downcast eyes set deep in his face told of the extreme sadness that forced him to live his life in a bottle. Bill disappeared one day, forced to relocate when a police crackdown ensued. I lost contact with him.
Years later, I began to get calls from concerned citizens about a homeless man with thread-worn clothes, deep in the disease of alcoholism, who lived along the beach. They said he used a shopping cart as a walker. These caring citizens were concerned he was dying.
On one of my first field visits with Dr. Lynne Jahnke, better known as Dr. J on the streets, I took her to meet Bill. It was days before Christmas and a vicious storm had blown into town. I had met Bill days earlier and told him I would bring him a rain jacket. The storm had moved in earlier than anticipated and now guilt played me like a musician playing his instrument. Dr. J was kind enough, brave enough to venture into the storm with me.
We found Bill soaked to the bone, shivering with the storm’s cold embrace. He refused placement in a shelter but allowed us to change his clothes under the eaves of a public bathroom. The overhead didn’t offer us much protection from the raging wind and rain. He was again somewhat soaked — as we were when we finished — but something was better than nothing and he did survive the night. I’ll always remember walking into the shelter with Dr. J at dinnertime with my wet shoes squeaking with each step I took. She smiled that coy smile of hers and suggested I get better, weatherproof shoes.
“One would think that after all those years you would know better,” the shine in her eyes said.
Subsequently we’d frequently go out to hunt for Bill to offer him shelter, a change of clothes, hope. She would tend to his medical needs, which included frequent head wounds from the seizures that slammed him into the ground. We became quite efficient in the removal of stitches in the field.
On more than one occasion we would convince him to come into the shelter. Inevitably he would stay a handful of days but the delusions, terror hallucinations and the need for a drink would drive him back to the streets. Hundreds of tickets, scores of arrests and hospital admits were his life. Lynne and I, on more than one occasion, would hit the streets, convinced we were looking for a dead body. But life took a funny turn.
“Sam,” was also a hard-drinking man. Word came to me that he wanted me to find him and get him into a shelter, help him kick the curse of the drink. The message was that he lived along a Goleta riverbank but was too weak to get out. I talked to my friends, Jon and John with Casa Esperanza outreach, when the shelter had outreach before budget cuts forced the program to close. I gave them a vague description of his whereabouts and made arrangements for them to pick him up. The shelter was gracious enough to give me a bed for Sam.
Fortunately, Sam entered the shelter at a time that Bill had also agreed to stay there. One morning, I offered to buy Bill a cup of coffee that turned out to be half the magic ticket. Bill ended up staying for that cup of coffee each morning. It became an honored routine between the two of us. The other half was Sam. Something burned in Sam — a need to help others.
Seeing the crippled old man who could barely walk and was being lost in the hustle and bustle of a busy shelter, Sam became Bill’s guardian angel. When I needed Bill to go to social services or Social Security, it was Sam who would take him and his rickety walker on the bus to the appointment. It was Sam who would research Bill’s history on the Internet and fill in missing gaps of his life. It was Sam who would run after Bill when he attempted to return to the street life. It was Sam who saved Bill’s life and, in the process, his own.
These two men, with hundreds of tickets between them and a shared hell that would easily have killed me, gave each other hope and strength to kill their addiction to demon rum and beat Death at his game. They have been clean and sober for more than a year now and ticket free. They did it their own way and are living proof that nobody is a throwaway, nobody is hopeless. Salvation came in a cup of coffee and caring friendship.
“Existence is rebellion,” Camus wrote. Sam and Bill lived long enough to rebel against the hell of their old existence. With incredible courage Sam looked to his own need to help others as a way to literally crawl out of a drainage ditch and help a crippled homeless man on to a road of recovery of his own.
— 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.