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Tuesday, February 19 , 2019, 9:46 pm | Fair 46º

 
 
 
 

Ken Williams: A Deadly Count That Shouldn’t Be By the Numbers

Since Jan. 1, 13 homeless men and women have died. Don't they deserve more than a tally?

The new year roared in on a deadly wind. With this strong gale to his back, Death was on a frantic race toward a macabre finish line. He sprinted through the homeless community as if he were behind on some cruel quota. Eleven people, who had found the street their home away from home, have succumbed to his deadly charms. His choice of weapons was as broad as they were ruthlessly mundane. He found his work to be easy. The victims, all longtime homeless with deep roots to that community, were weakened by years on the streets and in homeless shelters. Hunger exhausted their bodies. Shattered self-esteem lowered the mind and body’s natural defenses. Stress of an unimaginable quality gorged on them as it tore at vital organs. There were some who turned to the numbing quality of alcohol, an attempt at self-medicating that damaged livers while also eating away the will to live. Exposure to the elements also had a hand. Imagine sitting in a rainstorm or sleeping in winter rains being awakened by bone-shattering shivers — a cold so intense that it threatens to shred muscles to ribbons.

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

Sadly, a considerable number of the homeless are the vulnerable mentally ill. And increasingly, many homeless are the long-term, physically disabled who lack the financial means to medically fight their conditions; and increasingly it’s the frail elderly and women who have been turned out to the streets.

A problem, one of many with this pace of death, is the inability to process and grieve the recently departed — to show them proper respect. An example was when I first heard of Ross’ death, I was talking to someone about the death of a veteran who had gone to a Los Angeles medical facility to fight and then die of an infection. Someone came up and interrupted us to notify me that Ross had been murdered. This news was unreal and hard to take as I had talked to Ross just the week before. I questioned the deliverer of the bad news thinking he had misheard my conversation: was he talking about the vet whom we had been talking about? “No,” he replied, “Ross.”

The next day I hit the camps and beaches looking for answers to this cowardly crime. After all, it must have taken a great amount of courage for two men to beat a nearly crippled man to death. But suddenly the tragic death of “David” fought for attention. I remember his sad, downcast eyes over the years as he fought his losing battle with diabetes. It is a disease that many Americans fight successfully, but such a contest in a homeless shelter chases losing odds. I can still see him; how the hard knowledge that his last months on earth would be in a shelter shattered his will to live. But before I could properly honor his passing, I find myself upstairs at the shelter looking down on the lifeless body of “Doug.” Lying on the floor at my feet his unfocused eyes stared back at me. I knew Doug well. He was a man hounded with physical disabilities that pounded depression down his throat. He was a gentle man with many friends in the shelter and the streets. Walking away from his body and down the stairs, I cringed knowing how those who knew him would take the news. Reaching the lobby the pain was etched on many faces.

Fighting to maintain control in the face of all these recent deaths, I started to approach the streets with caution. I needed time, we all needed space from Death’s presence. But it was not to be. The news came to me like a bomb going off that Chris had died. An image of her soft face framed by her brown hair came easily. Her cautious eyes were also sorrowful — which is the way I would describe the others in this article. Something about living on the streets shows most the frailty of life and its harshness — a knowledge that cripples many and ushers in Death. Immediately, I began to ask around about Max, her German shepherd. Having owned shepherds all my adult life, it was a magical connection between Chris and me. We often passed the time talking about our dogs. I think she did so as a means of escape, of pushing the violence that had shoved her to the streets into the background. I guess she no longer needs this.

But before I could track Max down, still more devastating news came to me of two more homeless deaths; two citizens trying to keep warm by bringing a generator into their RV. They died peacefully in their sleep. But why? They knew and in fact had never brought the generator inside before. They always ran it outside the rig. Why this time? Why?

I approach my friends on the streets and in the shelters gingerly now, looking into their eyes to see if liquid pain is to be found there. I exhale gratefully when I see just run-of-the-mill sadness of the homeless and not another death notice. Just “run-of-the-mill sadness of the homeless.” How sad that it has all come down to this.

Update

While writing this article I am informed that “George” died of heart failure. This elderly man’s death is the 12th since Jan. 1. And, since the original update another homeless person has died. “Sherry” was a good friend of mine going back years. This latest news is a crushing blow but her story deserves an article of its own. It feels as if I’m standing on the railroad tracks with Death an onrushing train. This good-natured Native American woman is his 13th victim.

Click here for a related Noozhawk multimedia presentation.

— 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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