Dark clouds, bitter coldness and hard rains slam the streets. Restless ghosts of those who have passed on roam aimlessly. 2010 was a particularly harsh and deadly year for our neighbors without homes. This column is in reflection of and to honor them. As incredible as it is, death outpaced its work from last year when 27 homeless people died. This year, this tragic and sad body count is 31 so far.
Greg was a good friend, and his death caught me off-guard coming so early in the year and so soon after Freedom’s death. He was one of those special people I could always share a joke with. With so much pain and despair on the streets, this was a precious gift.
The next to die was a homeless Vietnam War veteran who passed away in Isla Vista. Then came the reality-warping weekend when three homeless people died within a 24-hour period. This cluster of deaths was not only shocking in and of itself, but the fact that one woman’s body had been subjected to a crime after her death added another layer of sadness.
But caring citizens of our city along with the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors rallied to this tragic weekend, and within days the Freedom Warming Centers were up and running thanks in part to the caring and compassionate hands-on management of Dr. Lynne Jahnke.
The deaths continue to pile up with Van, Andrei and an unnamed homeless man whose body was found in Goleta adding their names to the grim roll call, as did Troy, Richard and Earl. Then I heard that Ray, a man crippled by his disabilities, was hit and killed by a car on State Street. Many of us knew this kind and gentle man, and his death cut deep.
A man known as the Professor was the 16th homeless person to die. He had lived on and off the streets for more than a decade. The youngest person to succumb to the streets died next. Cyrus’ body laid for hours at East Beach as hundreds of tourists passed by this poor kid.
Jerry, another homeless veteran, was the 20th person to die. He was a quiet man who fought valiantly against the cancer that mercilessly ate away at his body. Ruth, at 74, was the oldest to die. Her very public downhill fight against death and the human condition saddened many, showing us that we aren’t God and our best efforts are frequently not enough.
The police, in responding to a fender-bender on Highway 101, discovered the body of a homeless man. Cancer claimed Terry, and still another homeless veteran, Shopping Cart Raye, finally saw his war memories laid to rest.
Death found the weakness in Crisco and Larry. He used this defect in their armor to add them to his morbid collective. When I heard that the unidentified body of a 50-year-old woman had been found in Carpinteria, it was with a great deal of sadness that I reflected on the lonely life and death of way too many homeless friends. Citizens had reported seeing her, acting out her delusional symptoms for some time in the general area where the body was found.
Another clue to her homeless status was that nobody had filed a missing person’s report. The aloneness of that statement is harsh. No one missed her. No one thought it odd that she didn’t show up for work, for coffee with friends, for meals or visits to family. This woman lived out one of the cruelest symptoms of her disease — to be disconnected from others. She died as she had lived — all alone.
Wendell died in a parking lot, and sadly, almost exactly a year after Freedom died from hypothermia, Robert succumbed to the same cold. In the end, he, too, died of the human condition.
Thirty-one deaths. The community of the homeless is not that large, and this toll cuts deeply among survivors. Over two years, nearly 60 — sixty — of our homeless neighbors have perished. That is truly a shocking and grime statistic.
I communicated this troubling count to Dr. Jim Withers, a dedicated doctor who works the streets of Pittsburg. It is an eastern city with severe weather that harshly impacts the homeless. According to Withers, its homeless population is 5,000 to 7,000. When I asked him about the death count, he said it was three. He told me that over the years the city averaged eight to 10 deaths, and that people feel fortunate for this year’s reduced count.
He said that if the deaths in our community had been because of a disease, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would have flooded our city with doctors, nurses and mobile medical clinics. But these deaths are merely caused by extreme poverty — lack of housing, prejudice, untreated mental illness and deadly attempts at self-medication.
In such circumstances, it is up to a doctor and social worker to sadly note these deaths in our journals. The good people of our community, in which there are many, also refuse to turn a blind eye to this scandal, and they, too, mourn these deaths — good people who know death by extreme poverty is morally wrong.
The deaths of so many should give us all a moment’s hesitation in our daily rush. At the least it should cause us to reflect on the fragile nature of life, on our good fortune as well as the humbleness of all life as well as its interconnectiveness.
Hopefully, lifetimes of struggle, defeat and despair have been replaced with gentleness and acceptance for those neighbors of ours who lived and died wanting. And for those who believe in a spiritual dimension, a welcome home is finally attained.
— 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.