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Thursday, March 21 , 2019, 1:36 am | Fair 49º


Ken Williams: A Shocking Statistic

Homeless death toll hits 19, but the numbers only tell part of the story

This was not the article I had anticipated submitting or wanting to write. This one is depressing and I’m tired of all this sadness. But to ignore this reality is just too disrespectful to those who have fallen and those who knew and loved them, and I cannot do that.

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

So far this year, at least 19 of our neighbors who have been pushed to the streets by personal demons, war, untreated and mistreated mental health issues, the disease of addiction, illnesses, injuries and the fallout from the Great Recession have died — a truly disheartening statistic. We need to keep in mind that, in comparison, 27 homeless people died in all of 2009. The average for the preceding years was in the low twenties. Also in comparison, Santa Monica, a coastal community comparative to our own in population averages 14 homeless deaths yearly.

This march of Death is astounding. I hardly have time to record and verify the avalanche of bad news before reports of yet still more fatalities flood my phone. I found last year’s spike in homeless deaths to be gut wrenching, but this is shocking. Nineteen and we are barely halfway through the year. And, I have another problem with this statistic. It is cold and uncaring — numbers only that do not recognize the flesh and blood — the who of each person in this shameful statistic. Humbly let me try:

Greg was the first to fall. He was a tall and gentle man with a wicked sense of humor. He died in January during the cold storms that swept our city. Then James, a Vietnam vet was found dead in Isla Vista. The first month of the year was to end in a horrendous wave of homeless deaths as the bodies of Christin, Mario and Mike were found in one weekend. The violator of Christin’s body has still not been brought to justice. Van died in February and Andrei in March.

The body of a homeless man was found in a creek bed in Goleta. Apparently he died of natural causes as he had been medically treated and released. Hard to imagine what it must feel like to go back to a homeless camp in the winter when one is sick.

Next, Earl’s body was found by the train station and Troy’s in Carpinteria. Richard, young at 32, died at the beach and gentle Raymond, a fellow Vietnam vet, was struck and killed by a car. I’m sure his deteriorated physical condition crippled his efforts to move fast enough to live.

Gordon was good with his hands but found himself living in his truck. The youngest one died next. I am still trying to ascertain all the facts surrounding his death. There is no mystery of the heart condition that crippled Steve and probably led to his death. Being poor and sick condemned him to live alone and die alone in his vehicle. He was already beaten down and old by 57. He was well known and liked by many who had likewise traded their middle-class homes for a life in a vehicle — a modern-day version of the covered wagon.

The Professor, the intellectual of the group, was also well known. He died in June as did another well-respected young man, Cyrus. Someone told me a story of him sharing a meal with another homeless person who had nothing to eat.

Manuel’s body was found down an embankment in Carpinteria. He was also old for the streets — in his mid-fifties. He died in June, as did Jesus, whose body was found on Milpas Street.

Most were friends; some were very close to me. Greg in particular comes to mind. As men often do, we traded sarcastic humor to show our mutual respect and friendship. I’m sure that Dr. Lynne Jahnke thought we were frequently nuts when she and I ran into him and she was forced to put up with our banter. Raymond was quiet. Once I found out he was a Vietnam vet I tried to get to know him better but Death had already targeted him. Steve’s illness was hard to take and the unexpected death of The Professor particularly cruel.

Some were mere acquaintances, and still others I did not know. But I do know that Death once again has targeted the streets of Santa Barbara. I also know it is important that those without homes not feel alone in this situation. That the least we can do is to take a moment and give a caring thought, a prayer perhaps, an acknowledgment of the pain that our homeless neighbors are going through.

A telling problem is that all these deaths are no longer truly “news.” A friend reminded me that news means something is different. That the homeless are dying at such an alarming rate is no longer that. Disheartened, I wonder if he is right? I contemplate that the deaths of so many unhoused people is now simply mere background noise. Have we become so accustomed to the homeless dying at such rates that it is no longer worthy of concern? Sadly, is this something that we now accept as a given? Stubbornly I cling to the perhaps idealistic notion that my city does care, that many fellow citizens are as saddened and moved by this shameful trend as I am. And I can’t help but believe that they will be moved to not only offer compassion to the survivors on the streets but also demand that this problem be addressed.

— 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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