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Ken Williams: Homeless Memorial a Gesture of Grace

With 17 homeless deaths so far this year, a community memorial service is planned for July 13 to mourn their passing

That so many homeless people have died this year, it’s hard to remember them all — that is until I walk the streets and sense their absence. Although some may not care, the essence of our community has changed. Many of the homeless who died had talents and were caring souls who did what they could to help those in even worse shape than themselves. And, as in any group of people, the homeless who died run the gauntlet of different types of personalities. While some had gruff exteriors hardened by the unforgiving streets, others were highly sensitive and deeply wounded by the harsh judgments and mean-spirited words of others directed their way.

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

Since those individuals without homes have been taken by Death, it was all but impossible to honor their individual passing. Their deaths came too fast and unrelenting. To help rectify this, and in conjunction with the Greater Santa Barbara Clergy Association, a pair of memorials will be held. It is our hope that the services will remind us all of the fragility as well as the sanctity of life. The first memorial service is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. July 13, next to the East Beach public restroom — the location where Ross Stiles was murdered — across the street from Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort. It will be held here to keep us all focused on the violent death of this man and to remind us that his and Gregory Ghan’s killers still roam free. This first service is particularly for the homeless and those who serve them, day in and day out. But it is open to anyone who wishes to show respect and share the loss of our homeless friends who have died.

So far this year, 17 homeless people have died. Here are their stories.

Chris and Stephanie were perhaps the deepest loss, the ones that hurt the most. When I think of Chris I cannot help but think of her dog, Max, the gentle and always faithful German shepherd, her constant companion. Whenever Chris was in the shelter, Max was never far from her side. To think of her dying away from her best friend was a particularly bitter insult. Max was always there as her protection; he was Chris’ attempt to deal with the violence that had chased her to the streets in the first place. As for Stephanie, she was a warm woman who added brightness to the most dreary of street mornings. Unfortunately, the pain that colored her eyes such a deep brown never left her for a moment. She was a good friend and is missed by many.

Stiles’ death was particularly shocking in that an infirm, disabled man was cowardly killed over a sleeping bag. How life can be reduced to the price of a used sleeping bag is unfathomable.

As for Joe, it was hard to witness the gradual collapse of first his body, then his will to live over the prolonged time he spent with us at the shelter. He was a man condemned to his wheelchair and haunted by an unbending system that he just never seemed to fit in.

The death of military veterans is always poignant. We pay special honor to Robert and “Michael.”

Alan’s death was difficult to handle. He fought daily against the depression from the accident that crippled him. The unanswered questions for me as to the true nature of his death adds a somber note to his memory. I will always see the sadness that defined this man’s existence as he questioned how his life had gone so terribly wrong.

Sometimes the death of an elder is as surreal as the death of a child. Perhaps it was Gayle’s advanced age that set him apart, but his passing sent ripples of sadness through the providers at the shelter. Maybe it was because he was so terribly alone when he became ill, and died without friends or family at his side.

Damon had a host of friends who cared deeply for him. His youth made him the youngest and arguably the best liked of those who have passed away since Jan. 1. I will always remember his conflicted look when he told us a bizarre story of how a citizen had unwrapped his bandaged foot and then walked away, leaving it so. Had the individual simply forgotten him or become distracted? It was a small mystery but in many ways one that defines the surreal world of the streets. It is a story that I will always think about when I remember Damon.

The sudden deaths of EZ and Anita came at a particularly low time on the streets. It followed Stiles’ murder, and the weird nature of their demise cut deeply. Jeremy died at the shelter and Ron on the beach. Perhaps the cruelest deaths are the ones of those unknown. First, there was a man who died in Montecito, then the unknown body found at Milpas Street, and finally, the man who died across the street from the Santa Barbara Family YMCA.

I am deeply grateful for the upcoming memorials and would like to thank those who make this noble gesture possible, in particular the Rev. Teena Grant, Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital chaplain, who helped give birth to this idea; the Greater Santa Barbara Clergy Association; the Rev. Don Johnson of Montecito Covenant Church; The Community Kitchen of Santa Barbara and Casa Esperanza; Larry Jewel; John Buttny of the 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness; and, most important, Morris Bear, a world-renowned artist who has agreed to create a sculpture to honor our deceased friends. These people show us all by their example that spiritual values are not simply to be preached and listened to once a week, but lived daily. They remind us that regardless of our positions in life, we all possess a soul — and that a community is all-inclusive, from the richest to the poorest.

We are all less for the untimely passing of our homeless friends. I deeply miss them all.

— 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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