As usual, there is another side to this story: the hidden heroes of Santa Barbara who shined brightly in the shadows.
John J. ran the Salvation Army in the beginning of this crisis. He was also the manager of one of the hotels mentioned earlier. This man was deeply religious. His problem was that he took the teaching of Christ to heart. For him, the homeless neighbor was neither a bum nor transient, but rather a child of God in need of help.
His compassion was endless. When he ran the shelter, he never came up with creative ways to deny services to the poor. Instead, he would throw open the doors of the shelter during savage rainstorms to offer a helping hand, even though the powers that be threatened to shut him down. I remember climbing over a prone mentally ill woman once so John and I could strategize how to get mental health to offer her services.
Rosemary V. worked at Catholic Charities. She would always call me “My Kenny.” She was the most kind-hearted woman I have ever known. In her gentle way, she would insist on government agencies helping the increasing flood of homeless refugees she found sleeping in her parking lot and on her steps. This remarkable woman helped me establish a children’s soup kitchen, Maritza’s Cosina, and a home for pregnant mentally ill homeless woman, AMBR House.
Throughout the years, Dr. Bloom worked quietly to help war-damaged veterans at the V.A. Clinic. Dr. Gaines, chief medical doctor, did the same. He also volunteers weekly to help the homeless in general at a feed program. Both men treat veterans with dignity and respect that is often lacking within Veterans Affairs. If one truly wants to fix a dysfunctional V.A., duplicating these caring men would be an excellent start.
Several years back, one of Santa Barbara’s premier oncologists approached me. She wanted to volunteer to go out on my rounds, to offer her services free of charge to those who needed medical help. For years, on a weekly basis, this incredible woman did just that. Countless lives were saved, and compassion and dignity were shown by this woman to those who usually go without. She affectionately won the nickname Dr. J from those she touched.
Then there were the countless nurses who never forgot why they had chosen nursing as a calling. Jan F., Linda H., Kathy M. and Donna W. come readily to mind. (Disclosure: Donna is my wife.) More than any other profession, nurses as a whole hold onto their humanity and caring hearts regardless of the strait-jacketing, mind-numbing bureaucracies they work for. For seven years I was privileged to run Project Healthy Neighbors — a mobile medical clinic for the homeless and poor. The real backbone of this project were the nurses from Public Health, Cottage Hospital and the private section who worked countless hours making it a success.
Over 30 years ago, I was introduced to Chuck, a philanthropist who wanted to help not only the homeless and poor but also those who served them. I was warned that he might be a CIA plant. (Luckily, I chose to ignore such flights of fancy.) Little did I know then that that meeting was the beginning of a deep and ongoing friendship, and that he was the first of many well-off individuals who cared deeply for those less fortunate than themselves and would do anything to help: Merryl B., Roger H., Leslie R., Sara M., Nancy A., Ken S. and the FUND families, and my Jewish saints who insist on remaining nameless.
I must also acknowledge the local media that chose and choose freedom of speech, and the right for the homeless and poor, for a voice by running my articles. First and foremost is Noozhawk, but also the Independent — Nick Walsh and Marianna Partridge — and most surprisingly, the News-Press, which, back in the day, ran my article for years. If the harsh emails and rejoinders that I received are any indication of the pressure that it was under to silence my voice, it took real courage and dedication to the ideas of a free press for it not to do so. In fact, one of the editors told me that every time they ran anything approaching a compassionate article on the homeless, a delegation from the business community would find their way into his office the next day.
I know there are people not mentioned in this article who should be, and I apologize. At the end of the movie Platoon, Charlie Sheehan, riding on a chopper out of battle, commiserates on how his soul was being torn between the two sergeants he fought with. At times I find myself in the same dilemma. On the one hand are the saints I have been privileged to know and work with. Finer people, more compassionate people simply don’t exist. On the other hand are my journals and memories of hundreds of our neighbors without homes, many without hope who died on these cold and unforgiving streets. Their memories, their plight, their faces lacerate my soul.
I know the truth lies somewhere in between. Pain and gratitude battle on their own terms. And Death becomes the arbitrator of good versus killing indifference.
— 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.