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Deborah Barnes: Kami and Kami, A Fortunate Change ...

One woman's experience affirms that you can make a difference, one person at a time

[Noozhawk’s note: For the sake of protection, the author has changed the identical names of the women mentioned.]

Kami emerged from the bushes in a Calle Laureles alley early one morning as I went to my shop after dropping my daughter at school. Disheveled and dirty, her tall lanky body and pretty face were not yet awake. Her light brown shoulder-length hair was full of leaves and Lord knows what else. I know I will see her later. She has always covered much ground in a day and will eventually head up State Street to my shop. I will offer her coffee, tea or cocoa, one of which she might accept, depending on her mood. She will smell all my flowers. She will touch a few things, being ever-so-gentle. I always welcome her and try to get a bit more information out of her. I have offered over the many years to buy her breakfast, lunch or some fruit, but she always declines, saying sweetly, “No, thank you, Sweetheart. I’m fine.”

Over the years, in her homeless state in the San Roque area, her health declined. Kami always wore a lavender sweater in all weather; rain, shine or extremely hot, that sweater was her trademark. I would see her from Five Points Shopping Center to downtown, but her hub for more than 15 years that I know of was San Roque, right near Longs Drugs and the HoneyBaked Ham store.

Several years into her visiting my shop, she started walking with trouble. Then she started dragging her leg. My friends and I spoke of her often, wondering why she was ignored. I called everywhere I could for help, but none ever came. Everyone knew this sweet woman, but no one helped her get off the street. She never caused them any trouble. So they left her alone. I wondered where her family was. Was she left on her own or kicked out of an institute during Ronald Reagan’s governorship when they shut so many institutions due to budget cuts.

I closed my shop, traveled abroad for a few years and, upon my return, I met Kami in Trader Joe’s on De la Vina Street and now the sweater had faded to pink. She was clean and in new shoes and jeans. Her brown hair — still shoulder-length, sparkled with golden hints.

She never responded with recognition but I spoke to her as she made her cash purchase. She said she was fine and gave me a slight smile, and off she went. I inquired about where she stayed at a few places but no one could tell me. Much later, I learned she lives in WillBridge of Santa Barbara over off Milpas Street and still makes her daily jaunts over to San Roque after her chores and school. She is inside and I praised God for her obvious care. She no longer drags her leg. She is clean, has cash in her pocket to spend, and seemed more stable and in control. Now a participating, contributing part of our society!

More recently, I was with a friend delivering food for shut-ins. She stopped at a church next to a mall and got out of the car to drop something at the church. As I stood nearby, I met a woman in seriously bad shape sitting on the ground. She had a brain aneurism and could not walk straight nor feed herself well and she drooled. I was astonished that she was on the street, and two male street friends helped her each and every day. Her glasses were smashed and askew. When I inquired gently, her friends said she fell face down in her unstable condition and smashed her glasses and had really harmed herself. She previously walked very far every day.

Her favorite place is San Roque but now only in the dark because she is afraid in the daylight. Afraid of people, her friends told me. She is a tall young woman, dark, short hair and a pretty face. But she has leaves and dirt clinging to her body and she is in clothing that was once black but had turned gray from sleeping on the ground. I heard from my friend that she lived in a ditch near Highway 154 but also in a park area in San Roque. I imagined being homeless and how hard that is, but then having an aneurism, too — having surgery but being released to the streets again. My heart ached. This is America, not where I had traveled to Third World countries.

I asked her name as I handed her a food bag and she said “Kami.”

My heart jumped. How and why is this woman alone? Where is her family? Why are these two men caring for her? I know we have no place for women. No specific shelter. She is so lovely and in so much need. I called everyone I knew when I got home. They knew her but said recent budget cuts by our governor make it impossible to get everyone inside. She never causes problems for them, so they leave her alone, they said. Is this de ja vu?

God, is that all there is? If not a troublemaker, leave them alone?

Kami and Kami. This time, it will not just be coffee and small talk or a bag of food once in a while. I am called to fight and get her taken off the streets for help. Her homeless friends said gently, “Please, lady, do something for her.”

Indeed I will. This time there is someone to call. An agency that has already made a remarkable difference in our mentally ill neighbors of Santa Barbara. I will call WillBridge and find out all the steps needed to get her cared for. Kami of San Roque is safe and healthy. Now let us do something for Kami of La Cumbre. We are called to “be a voice for the voiceless.” We are to care for “the lesser of these.” It’s time to support those who are stepping out to do so.

Click here for more information on WillBridge of Santa Barbara.

— Deborah Barnes has been an active volunteer in Santa Barbara for 28 years. She now serves as a homeless advocate and abolitionist, as well as a voice for people of poverty who don’t have a voice.

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