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Thursday, February 21 , 2019, 6:46 am | Mostly Cloudy 43º


Ken Williams: Firsthand Perspectives of Pain, Suffering on the Streets

Three stories offer a sense of the struggles facing Santa Barbara's homeless

I’m cold. I know I’m sick. I smell bad. Is this what they mean when they talk about the smell of death? Also, my feet are blue and no longer have feeling. I know that some will think that I am drunk because I stagger, but you try walking when you don’t have feeling in your feet.

It’s early morning in December, and it’s in the mid-30s. Doesn’t sound too bad — that is, if you are housed and just have to run in to get out of the cold. But try living without shelter. Try living without hope. The coldness is a physical presence that seeps into the pores of your skin. Not only does it hurt but it robs you of strength. I am deadly tired. I just want to get warm and go to sleep. But if I fall asleep, will I wake up?

We’ve been driving around for a while now. The first shelter has rules and I don’t fit in. But at least they know I’m not drunk because they breathalysed me. As the saying on the streets go: I didn’t blow numbers. Now I sit in front of another shelter, but I fall. I’m confused. Which shelter am I at? Time passes, then some men in uniforms come and question me, and then the gates of the shelter open. With help I am led into the building.

But I am really sick now. I shiver. It won’t stop. I hurt. The thin sweatshirt given to me by a kind soul does little to warm me. They take off my clogs that do little to warm my feet, but like I said, I no longer have feeling in them. At least the pain in them is gone. My feet are really blue now.

Panic overwhelms me. I’m frightened. Something is deadly wrong. I can feel my body shutting down as the core tries to maintain a life-sustaining temperature. The shivers try to warm my body, but I fear it is too late. I want to cry out — to beg for help — but my thought processes are becoming increasingly fuzzy. Why am I here at the shelter? Why am I not at a medical facility where I can get help? I want to cry out.

Gentle hands help me stand. They support me, but I still stagger. We are going to the showers. I think they want to try to warm me with a hot shower. My legs are of a different mind. They rebel and refuse to cooperate. Am I being captured on the security cameras? Is my death walk immortalized? I don’t want to die this way! I’m only 59, and I want to live to see 60. Please God, no. I collapse.

I will linger for a few days in the hospital, but for all purposes I died in that communal shower with kind souls hovering about. They tried to help, but they are not medical professionals. Why? Confusion rakes my brain. Would I have lived if medical professionals and equipment were around? Do I die like this because I’m poor? Am I one of the new leapers who no one wants to touch? “Now I lay me down to sleep ...”

. . .

Fire. Intense pain. My eyes open, but I’m floating above where my plastic tent is — where my body lies. Below I see the fires of hell surround me, consume me — the body down there, that is. Why am I not I crawling for help? The driveway is mere feet away, the street an easy crawl. But I don’t move. Not even inches do I crawl. How is that possible?

I know that it is natural to run from pain, and there is no greater pain than fire. How is it that someone like myself — a woman fighting existential issues day in and day out — finds myself in that stupid lean-to, soon-to-be coffin. I know, I know. The shelters are full and sometimes they don’t want a woman like me. But the streets are not home, and they are definitely not safe. Just last week another vicious rape and beatdown of a homeless woman occurred.

But all of that is beyond me now. Looking down at my body below I wonder if I feel the all-encompassing pain. Or am I already incapacitated? Or does something else mask the pain? Is this really how I will die? Will I exit this life alone and on fire? Even from this vantage point, a few feet above the tragic scene, I know this: To die such a terrible death is not right. Will the powers that be seek justice for my death, or do I simply not count in the grand scheme of things? Do I not count because I’m a poor homeless woman? Is justice only for the rich?

. . .

So many people have tried to help me over the years. There was Isabel, the kind reporter who contacted Ken a few years back when infection ate at my eye. Then there was the kind doctor, Lynne Jahnke, who tended to my medical needs and saved my eye if not my sight back then and all the times since when she administered to my breathing problems and a score of other medical issues. I know there were times that I behaved badly, but she was always there for me. There were also the kind souls who would buy me dinner when they saw me eating out of trash cans — circular restaurants for those of us on the streets.

And then there’s Ken, a follow Vietnam War vet who had troubled eyes whenever he sees me, a fellow combat vet surrendering to the streets. Sadness tears at his soul when he sees homelessness, and pain tear me down, beat me — defeat me with Death hovering about. Ironically, the streets of Santa Barbara and demon rum are trying to finish the job that the North Vietnamese Army was unable to.

Multiple bouts of pneumonia, at least three scary rides in ambulances with hypothermia, a life-threatening medical condition when body heat flees are now my lot. And of course there is always demon rum.

At first I drank to mask the pain of war. Now I drink simply to survive the hideous withdrawals of alcoholism. When did it all turn so bad? This life has nothing to do with the dreams I had in high school. Vietnam — the war that keeps giving.

— Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the past 30 years. His writings and opinions reflect only his personal views. He does not speak as a representative for or on behalf of any organization with which he may be affiliated. He is the author of China White and Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets. He has just completed his first nonfiction book, There Must Be Honor.

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