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Thursday, January 17 , 2019, 12:10 pm | Overcast 59º


Ken Williams: Beyond Prejudice

To truly make a difference, we must see into the souls of the homeless and not look through them

“Michael” sat across from me, hip deep with the symptoms of his disease: Blood-shot eyes staring back, his speech slurred and the odor of stale booze hung about him like personal smog. I know he is an alcoholic, the kind of homeless person whom many would label “bum.” There are even some who would say that he and Santa Barbara would be better off if he were dead.

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

But then I think back to the drive to work this morning, listening to my favorite country western station when the lyrics of the song, “Feed Jake,” had caught my attention. It was about the “bums,” sleeping on the city streets. It went on to tell how some don’t care about them. But then strangely, especially for a so-called redneck station, the singer reminded us that their moms’ do — and that he did. As I thought about it, the confusion lifted, for it became obvious that the singer’s spiritual values dictated that he not judge; that as a moral man, he accepted that we are all less than perfect and nobody is beyond redemption.

With that, a deeper knowledge was given to me, a hidden strength to look beyond the superficial. I then dug into my memory banks to what I know about Michael. Before his disease drove him to the streets, he was a hard, blue-collar worker. There was nothing glamorous about his work. He was just the kind of man who built the wealth of our country, kept businesses clean and the economy functioning. Maybe pushing a broom and office cleaning for years is neither sexy nor financially rewarding, but people like him enable all of us access to clean establishments and decent food in our restaurants. He also worked a lot with animals and paid the price with painful injuries.

A Christmas scene with him came to mind. I tried giving him a gift with the one proviso, that he not exchange it for booze. I asked him this solely for his word of honor. Of course, most of us would take the gift giving false reassurances. After all, for many honor is simply a five-letter word. Not for Michael. He gently gave me the gift back saying his disease would force him to do the dishonorable action. Honor for this man was deeply ingrained. For him, no matter how far down he had fallen, nobody and nothing could force him to betray it.

I think of another man suffering from alcoholism. Many pass him daily only seeing the long beard, the greasy hair; the unsteady gait. I have another vision of him. I see him, as he looked in Vietnam — a brother Marine dodging the bullets, praying that the deadly mortars wouldn’t find him. I imagine him smelling the odor of rotten eggs as white phosphorous bombs hideously burn human flesh. I watch him seeing the darkest of black and the brilliant red of a napalm strike, feeling the ground shake and the folding of the air caused by the heavy concussions from a massive B-52 strike.

I also know that there will be those who will never know the terror of combat or its crippling legacy, and who also hide their cruel words and harsh judgment behind the anonymity of an Internet response, wait to condemn this “fall-down drunk.” For me I see a fallen hero, wounded in his own way, someone who also paid the ultimate price except in his case it is, “death on the slow” delivered by a bottle. When he dies, his name will not be on the Wall — but he and I know different.

I ask that we not demonize those whom we do not know. We can disagree on solutions. We can all have our own conclusions to the problems of homelessness but we are not entitled to our own set of facts. And, we cannot judge a person till we get to know them beyond our prejudices. When fear rules our hearts, tragedy inevitably follows.

The murderers of two homeless men, Gregory Ghan and Ross Stiles, still roam free. How much longer till justice? When were the last murders in our community to go unsolved?

— 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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