The street was cold — stark in its crystal clarity. It was as if the winter had frozen time into space. Morning chill, typical of this time of year, accented the early hour with foggy breath. The seasonal storms of a few weeks back had washed the skies clean. The usual business of the city was frozen-in-step — all eerily quiet.
As I stood on the corner, I watched “Beth” a few yards away as she sat on a bench. Alone we were. No tourist, no locals running errands or simply enjoying the beautiful winter weather. Long hair fell onto her face in a feeble attempt to hide the sorrow captured within her eyes. Beth has lived in Santa Barbara a long time — long enough to remember when parking was allowed along lower State Street. She’s been residing here long enough for her to remember the low-income hotels that played such a key component in the prevention of homelessness.
Her mouth is pulled tight, fine spider lines attesting to the harsh life on the streets. Perhaps she is thinking: if only the Virginia, the Garvey, the Faulding, the Adobe, the Southern, Hotel State Street, the Carrillo Retirement Center or, most missed of all, the California Hotel were still catering to Santa Barbara’s nonrich, then perhaps her existence wouldn’t be so hard.
Beth is a proud woman. She is also intelligent but has trouble articulating when and how her life turned suddenly harsh. And the gut-wrenching feeling that delivers body blows to her as she witnesses the sands of time leak through her fingers adds yet more terror to her existence. When I talk to her, she has the same concerns — the same wants and needs as the rest of us. She especially doesn’t want to lose her worldly possessions that are stacked precariously to the heavens on top of her cart. She worries that when she must leave it unattended, even for a moment, that someone will come along and steal what little she has left. If she loses her rig, it would crush her, and we both know it.
I slowed down my busy morning and watched — really watched — Beth. What does she have to teach me? Which layers of ego will she help me peel away? She doesn’t see me. Her voice drifts over. It is strained as she carries on a one-sided, a lonely-sided, conversation. It becomes angry and then suddenly stops …
When I first started this job, I often visited the low-income hotels dealing with people like Beth who stayed in them while waiting for SSI, Social Security, veterans benefits or retirement to kick in. Many, in fact, found those hotels their homes after I was able to secure their benefits for them. Maybe it wasn’t much by the standards of some but the doors had locks on them, the beds were softer than the concrete the homeless now sleep on and the walls kept out the coldness and rain — as well as the predators of the night.
It was a time when we humanly had housing for the mentally ill, physically disabled and the aged and infirm. Now we offer the disabled and the displaced — out of work — worker alleys, beaches and parks as a final destination. Or we try and run them out of town — anywhere other than here. The problem is that is what every other town and city does. It is the time-honored solution, one that John Steinbeck so poignantly portrayed in The Grapes of Wrath.
There are many causes of homelessness: The recession, the abandonment of the mentally ill to their terror symptoms, veterans from an never-ending stream of wars trying to overcome experiences no person should be made to live through. Locally, when we allowed the low-income hotels to either shut down or convert to tourism, we abandoned those who stumbled along the road of life to the streets. Unlike Los Angeles, San Francisco and others cities that took concrete steps to save their stock of low-income hotels, we did nothing. Now those cities have witnessed a drop in the long-term homeless because they have tools available to work with.
We, on the other hand have a hole on lower State Street that attests to the power of money. We wink and shrug and pretend work is ongoing so conditional-use permits can be extended from here to doomsday. No such creative endeavors are offered to the homeless, however. No help was forthcoming for Beth. Her voice rises in anger, in pain arguing with the demons that hound her existence. If only she knew the real demons that shaped her trip to hell …
— Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the past 30 years. His writings and opinions reflect only his personal views. He does not speak as a representative for or on behalf of any organization with which he may be affiliated. He is the author of China White and Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets. He has just completed his first nonfiction book, There Must Be Honor.