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Wednesday, January 23 , 2019, 12:10 am | Fair 41º


Ken Williams: Survival

In the here and now of the streets, there is no promise for a better tomorrow — nor even a guarantee that there will be one.

Coming out from behind a dumpster — her home — she looks left and right, tense, making sure danger is not rapidly closing in on her. It’s early morning and the traffic is light. The menace she looks for is not one of violence, not yet; that comes later, when the sun falls. It is rather a danger that subconsciously gnaws at her; she has become the “other” to many, the cause of the economic downturn that has produced so much chaos and pain.

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

She knows the times are hard, better than most. After all, State Street is her home, a place she resides 24/7. She passes the empty storefronts and wonders why. It’s hard for her to use her rational mind to process the screaming headlines of the newspapers telling of massive layoffs, skyrocketing unemployment rates, falling housing prices, obscene golden parachutes and outlandish rewards to businessmen who have run their companies and banks into the ground. Instead, her mind is controlled by a sickness that produces delusional and hallucinatory thought processes. When her mind is free of the terror of her disease, she must figure out where to eat, how to avoid getting hurt and being arrested. This is what she is searching for on the streets this morning.

A frown darkens her face. She has heard rumors of the homeless being murdered. She didn’t know Ross Stiles but he was a brother of the streets, thus her family. Neither did she know Gregory Ghan but the same holds true for him. And then there are all the street beatings as of late. She tries to be careful at night when she crawls behind the dumpster that offers her shelter from the prying eyes of others. Her frown carves deeper trenches into her face, knowing it offers no help should the haters of the night come looking for her; the young men who pass her in the day uttering words of disgust and glances of contempt always followed by mocking and cruel snickers. What would they do to her should they find her alone at night? A shudder shakes her. It’s best not to think along these lines. Her mental illness offers up enough terror without adding reality on top of it.

Seeing no police, she begins her awkward gait, an offside stride hobbled by the pain of her crippled knees and hurting back. She needs to hit the trashcans on State Street before last night’s food is thrown away. Her lips pinch down as her heart aches from the conversations she has been hearing as of late; some blame her for the economic downturn devastating the city. The words cut deep for she would never hurt anyone intentionally — but still they blame her. They blame the homeless for driving the profits from the city. For the most part, she finds the beggars in Santa Barbara to be a gentle kind, much more polite than the ones she is used to in the big cities. But she knows a few are rough — she also knows many of them are not homeless. That is the way of prejudice, broadcasting the wicked deeds of some of the larger community onto the defenseless few.

She guesses that is the way of the world, knowing that she and others, especially those with her mental disability who look and act different than most, must take the blame. Does she wonder, does it scare her, what the penalty is for in that difference? Have Gregory and Ross already paid that price?

Survival is the name of the game for her. Nothing luxurious or glamorous. Nothing about treating her disability or securing her a future away from the cold and lonely streets. Survival until society decides it’s time for a change, offering her and others like her a helping hand and a welcome home. Till then, simply survive. She looks cautiously behind her. Did she hear her name being called? Did she hear the sound of running feet rapidly closing in on her? Will she survive until the promise of that better tomorrow?

— 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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