Tuesday, November 24 , 2015, 3:55 pm | A Few Clouds 65º

Ken Williams: Santa Barbara Has Become a City of Ghosts

By Ken Williams |

His heart grew heavy as the train entered Santa Barbara. He held onto a protruding side bar with a death grip. It was a hard ride. Noisy. The sound of steel upon steel — the clanking like water torture. He couldn’t turn it off.

The biting cold of winter swept into the open boxcar. Sitting at the opening, he dangled his feet over the side. Looking down, he realized that they were at the spot where Sherrie and Rambo had a fairly nice camp at one time. It had been their home for 10 years. Now, Rambo was dead. Sherrie was also dead. They were killed by a lifetime of hard living. A soft smile eased his tight lips. He fondly remembered how she used to cling to her Bible and stuffed animals like they could ward off the increasingly harsh endgame of her life.

He had left the city a year earlier, soon after the badly burned body of Gloria had been discovered. Her death and the pain that it branded into his heart were the final straw. He had seen too many of his friends die, and too many mysterious deaths of the homeless gone unsolved by the police to have any doubt how this would end up.

The train next passed the place where the body of another homie had been found. The temperature had been in the high 20s the morning he was found outside his tent. Shirtless. Shoeless.

Slowly entering the train station, he looked up State Street to the bus bench where the body of Freedom, a homeless Vietnam vet, had been discovered a few years back. Wheelchair bound, he died of hypothermia in the middle of winter. “Welcome home,” he muttered ironically.

He jumped off the train shy of a full stop, making an undetected getaway possible. Walking along Cabrillo Boulevard, he looked up: Tall palm trees were swaying gently to the ocean breeze. To his right, slow-moving waves slapped against the sandy beach. The purple foothills of Santa Barbara framed the sight before him.

He was soon at the public bathroom entrance where Ross had lived for years. It was the place where two men, in an unsuccessful attempt at stealing Ross’ sleeping bag had hit him, a cripple, in the head with a bottle. Ross died soon thereafter. With bitter memory, he recalled how the police had closed the case in mere weeks, even before the coroner had concluded his investigation. Unfortunately for the police, the coroner had found Ross’ death was due to blunt-force trauma. The case was quietly reopened, but too much time and too little interest doomed it.

Within hours, he stood before the gazebo at Alameda Park. The place still gave him the creeps. Here on a quiet early morning in the middle of one of America’s premier small parks, a homeless man’s throat had been cut. He is reported to have told his killers: “No, my friend, no.” In the end, they were no "friends" of his. He bled out.

Walking across the street to Alice Keck Park, he paid his respects to another homeless man who had been kicked to death by two youths out for a good time. He wondered, when had killing the homeless turned into a blood sport for bored youth?

At the park he sat on a bench to watch the koi fish lazily swim by. His eyes were sunk deep into his face. Deeply troubled, he mustered up a pleasant picture of Kathleen. She had a beautiful smile, long blond hair and tragic eyes. A park on Haley Street was home. He thought of the time when flesh-eating bacteria had infected her arm. The doctors wanted to cut it off, but she resisted.

What they did not know was that she had seen doctors hack away at her daughter — first the toes, then the foot, then the leg below the knee, then at the hip in a fertile attempt to outrace the speeding cancer that was to claim her life. Kathleen beat the infection only to die a few years later. Everyone who knew her considered her a real lady.

Then the sad and gentle eyes of “Claudia” came to him. She was Native American and liked to walk the streets in the very early mornings. Sadly, he remembered the morning she stumbled into camp complaining of not feeling well. A woman in her 40s shouldn’t have died that way.

The painful memories started coming like waves at high tide: Stephen who had died in Carpinteria due to a brain bleed; the mentally ill woman who wore a doll around her neck, and had either fallen or jumped from the window at the Faulding Hotel. And there was the memory of the homeless woman whose body had been found at the bottom of the cliff. Rumors of suicide swirled for days afterward. And Diane, shy and reserved she was. She had been beaten to death with a tree branch in her camp alongside Highway 101.

He also recalled hearing about a homeless guy who had been jumped in Isla Vista, and beaten to death. It took a lot of courage for a group to jump one humble guy. In the end, he was simply another homeless man; a murder unsolved. There were the mean-spirited attacks against the soup kitchen — the losses of shelter beds. How could shelters run empty while the homeless died on the street? The war against the poor and homeless seemed endless.

Standing abruptly, he decided that his visit to Santa Barbara had been a very bad idea. The place was a sucking chest wound of death by indifference — death courtesy of hate. It was a dark cloud that hung over the jeweled city and bathed his heart with acid. He knew that there were people who cared. There were the funders whose donations kept the shelters open and other social programs running. And workers like Nurse Jan, Dr. J, Shanti at the shelter, and Nancy, Sally and others who genuinely cared and tried to administer help along with love and dignity. But hate, prejudice and indifference by others ruled the day. Just as sad were the rule-bound bureaucrats who ran many of the nonprofits and most governmental agencies.

His head dropped. His chin rested on his chest. He was beaten down by bitter memories of good friends lost. His heart was heavy. His feet dragged along the ground. He buckled with the weight of sadness as he made his way to the railroad tracks. He would wait for a freight train, jump aboard and leave Santa Barbara. He tried hard not to think of how many of his friends had died along these tracks, many in a final suicidal statement. There was nothing left for him in Santa Barbara.

It had become a city of ghosts.

Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the past 30 years, and is the author of China White, Shattered Dreams: A Story of the Streets and his first nonfiction book, There Must Be Honor. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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