Wednesday, May 23 , 2018, 2:41 am | Fair 56º

 
 
 
 

Ken Williams: A Community in Pain

Homeless death toll reaches another milestone in 2009, with a possible hate crime thrown in for shocking measure

“Pete,” one should be careful about reading e-mails on a Sunday evening. That’s how I found out about you being on life support. No other information was available as the message was brutally short. It wasn’t till I hit the streets and shelters Monday morning that I heard what had happened. It was hard thinking of you strapped down to a bed in the ICU with tubes running in and out of your body like a science project run amok, your lanky frame bundled in white hospital sheets.

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

I remember talking to you just last week, helping you with forms — the bane of your existence. You had come to us from the streets, one of the lucky ones. You always had a devilish laugh for me, yet fear defined your eyes. Being on crutches on the streets must have been particularly threatening — a victim for any predator out there. There was also a sadness that seemed to grow darker the longer you were in the shelter. I have seen that reaction in many long-term homeless. While on the streets, the day-to-day struggle for existence takes all your energy. Where to find something to eat, where to sleep, where to be safe from the muggers who hang around Santa Barbara like a black cloud. When finally these bare necessities (and safety), are taken care of in a shelter, one’s defenses naturally become lowered. One has the time and inclination to see just how far you have fallen, to face the demons that have chased you for so many years.

In your case, Pete, it was that horrible accident that brutally mutilated your leg so severely that the doctors had to cut it off. I believe the term the medical people use is: traumatic amputation. I remember the first time I met you. You had trouble dragging the practically useless prosthetic leg behind you. Whoever gave it to you had done a poor job fitting it because you were always in constant pain. And after only a few years use it was already badly damaged. It creaked loudly that day, much like the Tin Man did in The Wizard of Oz whenever he needed oiling. Rather than helping you walk, it hindered you as you dragged it behind you.

I remember sitting across the lobby of the shelter, watching you. You looked both lost and scared. Then I remembered how you told me of the trauma of the accident — of being hit by that car while you were walking, the pain and confusion, the surgery, the shock of waking up without a leg. But I also remember a kinder memory, one that produced bouts of laughter for you and me.

I was at the front desk of the shelter when a conscientious citizen came in looking for me. He stated he was glad I was there as he had just seen a homeless man in the ivy at the underpass on Milpas Street. The man had a compound fractured leg with the lower part of it sticking out at a 90-degree angle. I grabbed nurse Jan Fadden and yelled at the staff to call it in. She and I ran to the underpass. Sure enough, you were in the ivy and, sure enough, your artificial leg had finally, completely broke. It was in fact sticking out at that crazy angle. The well-meaning Samaritan didn’t know, of course, that it was an artificial limb. After admonishing you for scaring the hell out of Jan and me, we returned to the shelter, retrieved a wheelchair and returned to get you. The shelter was kind enough to give us a medical bed for you.

I can still see Jan and me that day, bent over in laughter, you with that infectious chuckle rolling in the ivy. I am sure that more than one passing motorist thought Jan and I were crazy and/or cruel, laughing at a down-and-out injured homeless man sprawled out in the ivy. For us, it was a way of releasing the hard-charging adrenaline and the thankfulness that it wasn’t human flesh that had been traumatized. For you, it must had been the sight of us running down the street in great haste with looks of concern cutting into our faces. You got your revenge when I had to push the suddenly uncooperative wheelchair all the way back to the shelter. You and I continued the medicinal laughter while trading gentle insults and stupid jokes all the way, with Jan thinking we were both crazy. But that’s the way men bond, show their concern and friendship for one another: using jokes and kindly insults as the great equalizer.

But now the jokes are done with and we grieve your passing. I will try to hold onto the lighthearted memory of that day rather than the sadness that colored the last few weeks, the cruel turn that your life took and your untimely death. Know that your kind and infectious laughter will be missed.

Postscript

Pete, I ran the nature of your injuries past a professional. He has read thousands of autopsies and he said it is highly improbable that those injuries could be the result of anything other than from the hands of another. I asked him to call the coroner and request an autopsy. If your injuries were inflicted on you by others then the pain is hardened by yet another murder. Hopefully, a thorough Santa Barbara police investigation and an autopsy can lay my fears to rest and/or lead to justice.

Improbable as it may seem, this morning I learned of a homeless man who is in a deep coma at the Burn Center of Torrance Memorial Medical Center with burns covering 60 percent of his body.  While on my rounds this morning I stumbled upon this story. While true that he was deeply saddened by the latest deaths on the streets, it looks as if he might have been set on fire. If so, this is a hate crime that cannot be allowed to go unpunished. It should also call for deep soul searching by all of us.

The homeless community needs our help and moral support during these deeply troubled and painful times.

— 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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