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Monday, March 25 , 2019, 12:10 pm | A Few Clouds 59º

 
 
 
 

Ken Williams: One Death Touches Many Souls

Unexpected passing reverberates with the city's homeless

Sometimes when Death visits the streets, he is in stealth mode. A homeless man or woman dies alone and is barely missed. Frequently in this case, it is a person who struggles with mental health issues.

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

Too often the symptoms of their disease drive them into isolation and despair — hammering them to live life as an internal refuge in our city — hiding from real and imaginary threats. It’s like Death slips in with the fog of night to hunt down the hunted, taking his prey without being seen, without notice. At other times, a death on the streets will touch many souls.

During my early morning street rounds, the rumor mills are in full swing: “Earl is dead. Is Earl dead? Earl is on life support. He died last week. He died yesterday.” These statements pour forth from those who knew him — from those who cared for him. They are spoken in whispers as if Earl’s friends are afraid that Death is still lurking about looking for other souls to collect.

Earl’s death touched many people. Perhaps it’s because it came as a shock. For a street person, he seemed to be in good shape. He was only in his early 50s. Nobody could remember him having seizures, a heart problem or any real medical conditions of significance. And he shared one tragic similarity with many of the people who found the streets their homes.

Nobody seemed to know much about him. When I inquired about next of kin, nobody knew of any. When I asked about his hometown, again a blank look was the response. Some people on the streets are runaways — running from bad family situations, broken lives or sad memories, of the memories of sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, friends from a lost life or the lost life itself. Earl seemed to have fallen into this category.

His death touched many and retaught me a lesson that my wife never tires of drumming into my thick skull. Life is short — too short to take for granted. His death was the ninth out of 10 homeless people who have died on our streets so far this year.

Later in the day, I watched as John, bundled up inside a heavy navy coat with his long beard defiantly sticking out, dug through a trash can looking for dinner. He is someone special to me: A fellow Marine combat veteran of Vietnam. It would have been easy to turn my back and walk away, to perhaps give my money to some organization on his behalf. That way he could become someone else’s problem.

Except, he was a close friend of Earl’s, and his death saddened him. And we share history — history of a tragic war, of the sounds of angry guns and the cries of grown men in pain, and nightmares that live in the light of day. Also of coming home to a country that wanted nothing to do with the war or the veterans who fought that war. I figured I owed him something — a personal connection, a personal recognition that he deserved food to quiet a hungry stomach.

In honor of Earl, in honor of the “brotherhood of arms,” I slowed my busy life down, walked him into a restaurant and bought him dinner. At least this one night he wouldn’t join his dead friend because of hunger or malnutrition. Death could retire alone for the evening, as John wouldn’t be joining him.

A Story

A friend of mine told me this following story. While riding the bus, she befriended a homeless woman. The woman in question was sad. She had been riding the bus a week before when a mean man followed her off. He then proceeded to follow her into her homeless camp, where he confronted her and threatened her should she not turn over the duffel bag that held all of her worldly possessions. In fear for her life, she did as he told her.

Besides a pitiful sleeping bag and a scattering of clothes, it also contained an urn with her brother’s ashes. It seems that her brother had never had the chance to travel before his death, so in his honor she carried his ashes around with her. Now, the ashes are gone. I wonder how much humanity was lost along with the stolen ashes?

To Feed the Hunger of Prejudice

Several citizens who are without homes have told me that a fast-food chain restaurant on Milpas Street has refused them services because of their housing situation. According to multiple reports, they were denied services and told that since this establishment now gives to homeless service providers, it no longer has to serve the homeless. It’s like saying since one gives to the NAACP that one is now free to discriminate against blacks.

I guess this establishment is now in the business of fast-frying prejudice. Perhaps the government needs to set up stations where our housing status is tattooed on our arms to help with this endeavor.

Imagine its embarrassment should it mistakenly refuse services to someone who is housed.

— Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the past 30 years. He is the author of China White and Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets.

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