Pixel Tracker

Wednesday, November 21 , 2018, 5:31 am | Fair 50º


Ken Williams: A Little Piece of Me Died Along with Art

When it's time to go, each of us deserves no less than death with dignity.

Coming back from vacation and rereading my journals, I ran across this article that I had written two years ago about a sad death of an old man:

“Art? What’s wrong?” I asked, hoping against hope to keep my voice from cracking.

Article Image
Ken Williams and his dog, Sampson. (Williams family photo)
“I don’t feel so well. I hurt,” the old man replied through crippled lips. I leaned closer to better understand. He had lost his false teeth somewhere along the line and his speech was slurred as a result. With mounting alarm I noticed that his cheeks were hollow, like life was being sucked out of him.

Art was in his bunk at the homeless shelter. I had gone upstairs with a nurse to check on him. He needed to be in a hospital, a nursing home or a hospice, not here, nor sleeping on the streets where we found him.

The night before he had returned to us from the hospital. Working that evening — watching him wheel himself into the shelter in his wheelchair — my heart broke. He looked worse than before his hospitalization. His skin color was all off — a deadly ashen gray, a hue that I had come to know well over the last two years. It is the color of death — of skin deprived of oxygenated blood — of hope slowly crushed by poor nutrition, cold and indifference. We had sent Art to the hospital five days earlier in a walker and by ambulance. He came back to us in a wheelchair, delivered by taxi.

Upon his entrance to the shelter, I sat down with him and went through his few belongings. He had seven bottles of meds but no overall instructions on when or how to take them, at least none that I could find.

In mounting frustration, a sigh escaped my own lips. I thought back to just last week. I found him on his hands and knees in the upstairs dorm. When I asked what he was doing, he replied, “Going to the bathroom.” He was dragging his faltering body along on all fours, hands and knees, while trying to hold up his beltless pants — his dignity dying along the way.

Rushing over, I helped him stand. Without his missing false teeth, his tongue protruded out between swollen lips. I remember thinking it was the same way Michael Jordan used to play basketball. But this was no multimillionaire athlete. This was an old man dying in pain, alone and in despair in a homeless shelter.

“Dumping” of the poor by jails, hospitals and others, to homeless shelters and the streets is, all of a sudden, newsworthy. But it has been a fact of life for most of my professional career. The so-called safety net was reduced years ago to a funnel that poured the neglected and poor into almshouses: homeless shelters. In these places, partially by design but mostly because good people answer the call of hurting times, a desperate attempt is made to connect to and help the new lepers of our age, to those who are shunned by some and despised by others.

This connection of soul to soul is often by the homeless themselves: Men and women who find the time — the need to reach out to offer help and hope to those without. Often it is the low-wage earning staff who go beyond their job descriptions to look out for those too sick to take care of themselves. And sometimes it is the outreach workers who have the privilege to care for their clients.

But sometimes, all too often, it is not a feeling of privilege but pain that paints my world black. Two weeks ago, that morning I helped Art back into his bed, with his moans slicing through the air lacerating my heart; he pulled the blanket up tightly to his chin with only his head sticking out. His eyes darted about in panic. His tongue was still sticking out. He reminded me of a child who thinks he can keep the night monsters at bay with a thin blanket. But Art’s monsters came with the morning sunlight exposing harsh realities.

Art looked away. I could feel his embarrassment — the crushing knowledge that he was dying, dying in front of all of us — death coming before an audience of strangers.

“Art, everything is going to be all right,” I said. “The ambulance will soon be here. They’ll be taking you to the hospital.”

“They don’t want me,” came the reply.

Of course, what he meant was: Nobody wants me. Nobody wants a poor, old, dying man.

Art went back to the hospital that morning. He was sent back to us — and again readmitted to the hospital. After engaging the heart and professionalism of a certain doctor (thanks, Dr. Bordofsky), and Sarah House, a sick old man was welcomed into a hospice where he died surrounded by love within days of his last stay at a homeless shelter.

This death cut deep. The images from his last two weeks on earth will stay with me for a long time. Who knows ... maybe it is myself, years down the road, that I see, crawling in pain just to get to a bathroom, one shared by 200 others. It’s not a pretty way to go. Art will be missed, the manner of his death branding many of us to the core: mocking all of us — contemptuous of our spiritual beliefs and trashing our self-respect. Where did it all go so wrong?
Two years later, so much has changed. But so little has, too.

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.

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made using a credit card, Apple Pay or Google Pay, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments and a mailing address for checks.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Select your monthly membership
Or choose an annual membership

Payment Information

Membership Subscription

You are enrolling in . Thank you for joining the Hawks Club.

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover
One click only, please!

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.
You may cancel your membership at any time by sending an email to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.