Hunger: “The painful sensation or state of weakness caused by the need of food.”
Silent tragedy strikes. Nationally. Locally.
The House of Representatives is on the verge of massive cuts of a program commonly known as food stamps. This coldhearted attack against the poor comes at a time when the country’s recovery from the Great Recession is the weakest in almost a century. Anywhere from 4 million to 5 million of our fellow citizens will be cut off from this life-giving program; 72 percent of the recipients of this program are families with children.
Unfortunately, some in Santa Barbara view this track to hunger as too slow and rejoice at the closing of the Community Kitchen’s program at Casa Esperanza.
Personally, I have had the honor of serving lunch for over 20 years and have witnessed the incredible job that the church volunteers have blessed this community with. I have sadly witnessed the disabled, hobbling on crutches and wheelchair-bound, secure their only meal of the day there, as well as senior citizens who built this country and defeated the existential threat of fascism. They have stood before me with bowed heads shamed by their basic need, but also humiliated by those in the community who harshly condemn them for daring to attempt to negate the pain of hunger in their twilight years.
I have swapped war stories with disabled veterans eager for a meal while their veteran’s disability claims languish. I was recently informed that the average time for a disability appeal is 600 days! This comes on top of the original denial that takes a year to complete. How is a homeless veteran without resources supposed to survive?
I lost count in the thousands of those waiting in line with eyes framed by the hideous symptoms of mental illness. Did these people transgress some boundaries of propriety that sentenced them to hunger? Is starvation a cure for bipolar? An antidote for schizophrenia?
Yet some in the community compare the homeless and poor to birds they once fed. What has happened to our compassion? Have we traded it in for easy pot shots at the down and out? Does it make us manlier to act as a bully to the weak and defenseless?
Poverty: “The state or condition of having little or no money, goods, or means of support; condition of being poor.”
There are many ways to poverty. Millions were thrown into it by the greed of Wall Street and the contempt of financial institutions. Yet hardly a cry is heard of their transgressions. How many have faced the consequences of selling junk bond derivatives? None. They walked away with golden parachutes worth millions of dollars while programs for the poor are ruthlessly devastated. Yet how many workers lost not only their jobs, but also their homes? Husbands? Wives? Children? Their very lives, via suicide? And still we somehow find it honorable to condemn those who are made to suffer.
Despair: “Someone or something that causes hopelessness … to lose, give up or be without hope.”
Casa Esperanza shuts down 25 overnight beds. That means 25 of our neighbors go without shelter every night, as those beds stay empty. At one time, no beds were offered during the eight, nonwinter months. The remaining shelters, filled to capacity, turned away the needy.
One of these men decided to sleep on a bench in front of a shelter hoping that would give him some protection. He was brutally murdered in his sleep. Two friends of mine, reading the despair in my eyes the following day, gave me the money to open the original emergency shelter. Thousands since had been given a simple bed. Rest. Safety. A shelter in their stormy life. Now cutbacks, due in part to the harsh voices and demands of some, forced the closure of these life-giving beds.
A disclaimer for prejudice: This man had been a stable member of our community. He was a hard worker in retail. Yet, like all of us susceptible to the harsh blows of life — to despair. His family. His home. His community. All were lost. As well as his life, when “no shelter at the inn” became a death sentence.
There are consequences to our actions. Hunger. Poverty. Despair. Our coroner will be a busy man.
— 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.