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Ken Williams: The Numbers Can Be Overwhelming, but Help Is Here

A giving community can improve the percentages that point to homelessness

The air was cold and I was bundled up in my leather jacket, unlike the young man who stood before me. He was wearing a woman’s coat that may have been fashionably conscious at one time, but was definitely not built for foul weather. Our breath was visible with the early morning air as we stood and talked. He also carried an overflowing black plastic bag filled with whatever worldly possessions he owned. He was respectful, shy in fact, and clearly mentally ill. He refused my gift for him at first, until I reassured him several times that he was of course able to use it as he saw fit. When I tried to broach the idea of a shelter or the warming center, he withdrew into his armor of mental illness, acting like a hunted deer.

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

Because of the kindness of a few from Santa Barbara, I found myself embarking on a heartbreaking yet inspirational journey that led me to this encounter. One friend of mine, having read of the harsh conditions on the streets during the recent cold snap, ordered hundreds of pairs of gloves and rain ponchos. Another, a hidden saint of our community, when asked by his equally saintly wife and children what he wanted for his birthday stated: a shopping trip to a sports store for the homeless. Within moments, those very goods flew off the retail shelf, as this man’s concern for our friends on the streets took on a concrete response. And still, there was more help that came from others of our community. Thus armed with much needed supplies, I hit the streets looking for those in need. I furthermore kept in mind some of the responses to my attempts to humanize those who find the streets home via my articles; so, I decided to keep notes of who received their unnamed benefactors’ help.

Out of the first 20 recipients, 10 were clearly mentally ill with classic signs of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and/or severe depression. There was one person I was uncertain about, as he wouldn’t engage in meaningful conversation. Three were severally physically disabled, some in wheelchairs and a deaf-mute. These first statistics, in general, held up for the rest of my special project.

At the end of the day, while sitting at home and reading my notes of whom I served, I was sadly shocked. I should know better; after all, I live in that world day in and day out. To find 50 percent of the first 20 in need of mental health services tells us much. I would suggest that when people ask what can be done, or others imply that the homeless are just people out for a lifestyle choice, that we remember this statistic.

And instead of seeing stereotypical “homeless,” we break down this generic catchall into specific categories, see them as individuals first, and then ascertain what the unmet needs are. Based on my experiences, I would conservatively estimate the composition of the homeless to be as follows: mentally ill, 35 percent; families and children, 20 percent; those physically disabled, the fastest-growing subgroup of homeless, 25 percent; most studies show veterans making up 20 percent; and those afflicted by the curse of addiction, 30 percent. Of course, there is much overlap, but the point I would like to make is that the solution to this tragedy of homelessness can only be solved when we move away from fear-induced stereotypes and address the reality before us. This also offers a way out for those who find objectionable some of the behaviors of those who find the streets home.

None of us can save the universe, but we can address the needs of those on our own streets and come up with solutions from what moves our own hearts. If one finds it scandalous that a combat veteran should return home only to become homeless, then please make the Veterans Affairs Department finally fulfill its moral contract. If homeless children stir your heart, then make politicians put our children’s needs first. Our community can make a great difference if we move away from stereotypes to reality by reaching out a helping hand to one person at a time.

Another response to my articles comes frequently to mind. Many have written: What can I personally do? As the example that my friends showed, our community is blessed with many caring and compassionate people and organizations. For those interested in homeless children, Transition House is a godsend, as is the Mental Health Association in Santa Barbara County for the mentally ill. They are among the finest organizations I have been fortunate to work with.

While some may find a measure of fault with the Salvation Army and the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission, one can never take away literally the hundreds of lives saved by them. Sadly, the Rape Crisis Center and Domestic Violence Solutions for Santa Barbara County are still greatly needed by many and both do outstanding work.

Casa Esperanza is moving in the direction of utilizing volunteers. And the examples of the Organic Soup Kitchen, Consumer Advocacy Coalition and Jeff Shaffer’s efforts to feed the poor are other examples of local solutions.

I come back to my friends who insist on remaining anonymous but who have done so much good over the years. Your efforts lead to only one conclusion: Angels do in fact walk among us and we are much richer for this. I would like to thank each one of you on behalf of those whose lives you have touched and helped save. You also have uplifted me many times when despair has threatened to overwhelm.

A Sad New Beginning

Greg, a friend of mine who happens to be homeless, died suddenly Jan. 8 at Stearns Wharf. He was 53 years old.

— 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.

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