The homeless men stood about me, rubbing sleep and the after-effects of forty-pounders — as 40 ounces of beer and malt liquors are known on the street — from their eyes. To a man, they looked like a casting call for Lord of the Rings. All bore long hair and beards and had the scruffy hard look of the troubled and unforgiving lives they led. After I had exchanged the morning’s pleasantries with them and made sure there were no immediate emergencies to take care of, I turned to leave, only to be stopped cold.
“You need to check up on Captain. He got jumped by three guys.”
“Also Chuck,” one of the others added. I knew Chuck to be Captain’s road dog — his traveling friend, a genial and good-hearted fellow veteran of the streets and of the military.
“Why Chuck?” I asked.
“He got knifed,” came the casual reply.
“Was he hurt bad? Did he go to the hospital?”
No on both accounts was the response.
I turned and continued my journey down the street, my mood darker than moments before. Captain and I had long history together. We were both Marine combat vets from Vietnam. The war had taken us down different paths upon our return — one to the streets, one to serve the streets, but in the end, the war took its pound of flesh and blood from both.
My steps rang hollow along a deserted State Street. Only the cleanup crews, the homeless and I walk the streets this early in the morning. The city is ours alone for a brief time — time enough for me to remember something Captain had told me a few weeks back: He had been deep in sleep one night only to be suddenly awakened when someone picked up his wheelchair and crashed it down on him. I asked if his assailant had said anything. Anything that might help identify him.
“Bum. He simply said bum.” Captain laughed his good-hearted retort that said he accepts these travesties of life as normal.
My mood became even darker thinking back to the handiwork of some real heroes a few weeks back who had “tuned up” a homeless woman sleeping alone in her camp. Of course, she shouldn’t be sleeping alone in a camp. But nobody should be homeless in such a rich country as ours. Nor should a hundred-bed shelter go empty because it’s convenient for some to have them do so. And it should go without saying that neither should men go around beating up either housed or homeless women. I remember how she had stood before me, her eyes partially shut, her wounds a deep purple spilling out from under both. She was a fragile yet hardened woman of the streets, lucky to have survived this beating — perhaps not so lucky next time.
And now death comes violently to a gentle homeless man who called Santa Barbara home. He was not a transient but a longtime resident of our community. His crime? He succumbed to life’s trials and tribulations and sought refuge on the streets. Some sick individuals took prejudice to an extreme degree and beat Gregory to death in Isla Vista. Of course, rumors flood the streets as to who did it. I will not add to the conjectures that are adding so much fear and confusion to an already reeling and vulnerable population. I expect the police to do their job as professionals and find these sick men who kill for thrill. But I would like to remind the community where prejudicial language leads the morally weak among us.
George Orwell taught us that words have power — that they could be used to enlighten or enslave. That war can be waged as peace and enslavement couched as freedom. “Bum.” “Transient.” “Fruitcase.” “Crazy.” “Drunkard.” These words are used to dehumanize the homeless and/or the mentally ill, anyone who becomes a casualty of the human condition. We all should be cognizant that some among us find justification for their violence behind these words. We demonize the powerless — dehumanize those who are easy prey to the darker recesses of our mind when we carelessly banter these words about.
It would do good to remember that the Buddha walked with the untouchables and broke bread with them. That Christ cast his lot with the lepers and the undesirables. In fact all great religions and moral codes teach us to reach out to the less fortunate and in doing so, we honor their teachings.
There is no glory to be found in portraying the defenseless and unhoused in language that speaks to our prejudices and fears. Just as there was no glory in beating a gentle man to death, or jumping a Vietnam vet in the middle of the night nor “tuning up” a homeless woman. As Captain deserved a better welcoming home than he got, Gregory deserved our compassion and understanding and the beaten woman should find love and caring rather than violence. As Orwell so elegantly wrote and wisely foresaw: our language can lead to tragic consequences.
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.