I was trying my best to flow with the highs and lows of Project Healthy Neighbors — to find that middle path.
To witness our community coming together on behalf of the homeless and poor is an uplifting experience. The generosity and compassion of some in our community never fail to impress — and humble — me. To be part of an event in which scores of professionals and volunteers put the needs of the poor first is awe-inspiring. The most common words I heard during this event were: What can I do to help? Where is the need?
Then you must deal with the unexpected that one inevitably stumbles upon in a project of such complexity as this. These unforeseen challenges tax one’s spirit. This paradox creates tension and apprehension. Then came the stories — the real lives on the streets who reminded me what this is really all about.
Visiting “Cheyenne’s” camp along the railroad tracks is always an iffy proposition. To reach her, I need to walk the tracks and constantly be looking over my shoulders to dodge the speeding trains that are surprisingly quiet. But I don’t really have a choice. Cheyenne is sick, very sick.
More than once I literally had to carry her down those same tracks to Dr. J’s van to get her into a shelter so the medical staff could evaluate her. I remember holding her once in the shelter when a “gravity attack,” also known as a seizure, slammed her to the ground. Cheyenne is at the end stage of a very hideous disease. But fate, faith or God has allowed her to retreat into a childlike state to cushion the symptoms — to lessen her fears. She is a delightful woman with a soulful presence.
Unfortunately, the last time I visited her the man who takes care of her, cooks her meals, washes her and protects her was complaining of intense pain and loss of weight. I gave him money to catch a bus and get to Cottage Hospital. That weekend, a call from a nurse informed me that the boyfriend wanted to get a message to me: He was extremely ill and would be hospitalized for the foreseeable future. Who would take care of Cheyenne?
The next week brought another tragedy. Dr. J and I walked slowly into the bowels of the park. The evening was cool, and the grass was bright green and recently cut. Multiple and conflicting rumors and stories about this man who lay at our feet had made their way to us. Was he truly ill? Or was he deathly ill? Or was he just plain sick? What would we find?
“Danny” was at peace. Yes, he had received extremely bad news. No, he didn’t want shelter or much in the way of help — perhaps a sleeping bag. “Save your money for others more deserving,” he told us. That was the kind of man he was.
Danny is close to my heart, a brother-in-arms. He, too, served with the Marines in the Vietnam War. He is someone I feel completely comfortable with. No pretenses of the glory of war stand in our way; we know. Looking down, I can’t help but wonder if the maladies that are taking this man down a one-way road have anything to do with Agent Orange. It’s a thought that you can never truly put far away.
Unfortunately, the strong chemical taste of the water we drank from Vietnam’s abandoned rice paddies, jungle rivers and lakes that were sprayed with that chemical is never far away. It is a taste and fear you can never shake. As is the knowledge of the cancers and diseases linked to it. If he should die, is there a cause and effect? Does anyone care if there is? Will his name be added to a cold, black wall?
Then word came of a body of a woman found in Carpinteria. The authorities suspected that she was homeless. One of the reasons: Nobody had missed her. No missing person’s report had been filed. Sadly, she died as she had lived — alone. And if the word that I got on the streets is true, she was trapped in that aloneness by her mental illness. She was the 29th homeless person — two more than all of last year — to die this year on the streets of Santa Barbara.
Some, like others in the past six years who also had participated in the Project Healthy Neighbors event, will die this winter. But those who die will at least have comfort that for three mornings, caring and compassionate citizens of our community put aside our differences to reach out with a helping hand in a noble attempt to cut down on the death rate among our neighbors who find the streets home.
Recognition to those who made this event possible: the doctors, nurses and others from the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department, Cottage Hospital and those unaffiliated who are indispensable and highly valued in a project such as this. There were also the sweatshirts, backpacks, gloves, hats, shoes, phone cards, meal tickets and other items provided by Families United to Nature Dreams and the Community Angels Network, Soles4Souls, Chinese Laundry, McDonald’s, Direct Relief International, private donors and Spenser Wyatt.
Haircuts provided by Underground and others were highly prized. Cottage Hospital, as before, was gracious in providing us with tents, tables, chairs and volunteers. UCSB, Westmont College and Midland School provided many student volunteers. Thank you to the Casa Esperanza staff for their incredibly hard work, and to all of our fellow citizens who came out and gave of themselves.
Again, mere words fail to express the depth of appreciation of this incredible outpouring of love. Spiritual beliefs and common, humane decency ruled the day. Whatever outcomes await Danny, Cheyenne and her boyfriend for three days, grace and compassion were given to them.
— Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the past 30 years. He is the author of China White and Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets.