They came in the early morning in twos and threes, sometimes alone. The soft shuffle of the soles of their well-worn shoes on the cold pavement was a musical tapestry to those of us who had arrived early to set up the tables and chairs — to keep chaos under control. Their warm smiles or distant, self-isolating gazes were our welcome. The mumblings of the mentally ill commingled with hearty good mornings and “thank yous” from others. But all was well, for these were the people on whose behalf many of us had spent countless hours over this last year in planning, securing supplies, raising money and organizing this event.

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Ken Williams and his dog, Sampson. (Williams family photo)

The magic that is Project Healthy Neighbors — a mobile medical clinic for the homeless — was on full display earlier this month at Casa Esperanza.

One noticed a change from last year immediately as an additional tent was added to house the new services proved this year. The coming together of our community to reach out to our less fortunate neighbors who find the streets home was truly inspiring. From the doctors, nurses, social workers, the Casa staff and other providers and volunteers — numbering well more than 100, all reached out with respect and love to the homeless guests of the event. Nurses from Direct Relief International, the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department, Community Clinics, Parish Nursing and Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital manned a series of stations administering flu, pneumonia and tetanus vaccines among other medical services. Nurses Jan Fadden and Sandra Copley were everywhere those three days, dispensing professional services along with heart-warming smiles.

The staff of Casa Esperanza was especially gracious in its hospitality. Free haircuts bolstered fragile egos while professionals from the Council on Alcoholism & Drug Abuse, the Veterans Affairs Department, Santa Barbara Housing Authority, Domestic Violence Solutions, the county Department of Social Services and others took care of a variety of vital needs including HIV and tuberculosis tests.

This year, Soles4Souls provided hundreds of shoes, and as always the kind families of FUND (Families United to Nurture Dreams) ensured the success of Project Healthy Neighbors ‘08 with their hard work of buying and collecting the incentive backpacks, that included sweatshirts, rain ponchos, toiletries, socks and, most touching of all, personal greeting cards from the children of FUND. To witness these families giving up a Sunday to bring this all together — especially the joyful yet hard work of the children was moving.

We were able to add both women’s health and dental care components this year. Besides the greatly appreciated and indispensable youth infusion of energy from UCSB’s Health Outreach, the crowning addition to this year’s health fair were the students from Midland School in Los Olivos. They not only assisted the homeless as guides but helped with the distribution of shoes and, most important, showed the homeless that they mattered in someone’s life; that as our neighbors, we cared.

Of course, the stars of the event were the 450 homeless men, women and children who received these life-saving services and gifts. While many have bent heads resting on heavy shoulders due to the harshest of blows of life, most showed a grace, appreciation and love that was given to us as providers that day. A wise man told me that spirituality was the inner connection we all have with one another. For three days, that inner connection was on full display. Perhaps nowhere else is a project such as Project Healthy Neighbors ‘08 possible. Here in Santa Barbara, in our little corner of the universe, the darkness that can be the human condition was pushed back, allowing the warmth of human love to replace it.

To put all this into perspective, the literal life and death issues that Project Healthy Neighbors ‘08 faced and attempted to overcome, we were notified of the deaths of four of our homeless neighbors during those three days. We also learned of the insidious continuation of the TB epidemic that is affecting so tragically the homeless community, one that has finally turned fatal.

Thank you to all who served throughout those days. I wish I could name each one of you; yet I know it is unnecessary, as the homeless carry the gift of your concern along with the picture of your kind and caring smiles with them in their hearts.

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.