[Noozhawk’s note: This is the second essay in a two-part series. Click here for the first essay.]
A nightmarish consequence: What happens to those who are turned away from a shelter when it goes to 100 beds from 200? The journey of “Danny” was in some ways different from that of so many other homeless, and yet all so familiar. She had repeated the by now all-too-common flight for far too many years: She was a woman suffering from the ravages of mental illness, along with more than a hint of a substance problem. She, also like many women was chased from secured lodging by domestic violence. She did what she always did when the brutal man came after her — she ran. She was desperate to put distance between herself and the destructive forces overwhelming her life. In plain English, she was looking for sanctuary — for a helping hand and understanding, no different than what most of us would want in our moment of need.
Sadly, her journey took a tragic turn when she found wanting that need for help — for a calm bay to shelter her from the churning waters of the storm threatening to overwhelm her. She ran to Santa Barbara as she had in the past, but times are different now, harsher, and the shelters this last spring and summer were full. She secured an emergency bed for the night but the city was at war with its homeless, resources are scarce, beds tightly controlled, and many only saw a vagabond, a transient, not one of our own; in some absurd way the reason for our economic downturn. (I guess the banks and Wall Street get a pass.) I wonder how she saw herself, and, if one believes in God, if He saw her that way?
I anticipate that some will fault me — that I’m championing a foreigner in our community — but in truth I do not see her as a transient. I see a woman who was in a desperate search for help, for a life free from the torments of the mentally ill and the terror of domestic violence. A human being trapped in her aloneness not knowing where to turn for help, and when she did the inn was full.
When we restrict beds at the shelters during the worst economic downturn in 70 years, it quickly boils down to lifeboat ethics — to who lives and who dies. Cruelly we put the shelters in the unwinnable situation of trying to save the most vulnerable while acknowledging that we aren’t God and that we don’t have the resources that are needed. The staffs of the different shelters do an incredible and, in many ways, a heroic job with very limited tools. It is the staff of each shelter and the outreach workers who must look into the eyes of the homeless and send some, many, back to the streets, back into the violence and the cold and the terror of the unknown. And we sent some back to the terror of the known. Back to the drug dealers who prey upon the weak and the vicious men with hardened fists who do so much damage to the body and soul.
I look into the picture that I hold of Danny and there’s no denying the pain in her dark eyes. Her brown hair falls softly to her shoulders. She holds her head tight and defiant, slightly upward, expecting, preparing for the next blows to be delivered.
In the end she retreated back from where she came — back to her death. Within days came the call from the police trying to trace the footsteps of the last days of her live. For me, life is a little sadder knowing that we were unable to help this woman when she attempted to escape her fate. And I have the uncomfortable, sinking feeling of what it must feel like should I stumble and need that helping hand. Will it be there for me?
I don’t have all the answers: of limited resources and bad state governance wasting hardworking taxpayers’ money, nor how to fix the severest recession since the 1930s, nor a dysfunctional mental health delivery system. But I do know that in the end the labels that we put on one another to shut ourselves off from each other makes us all a little less. “Transient” is such a word.
Danny was a woman in need of our help and I’m sure most would have wanted to help her in some way. She was a wounded woman who found no place to escape the pain. I hope she has now finally found the peace that so cruelly eluded her in this life. Danny was all of 43 years old.
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
— Dylan Thomas
— Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the last 30 years. He is the author of China White and Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets.