Friday, February 23 , 2018, 5:54 pm | Fair 58º


Ken Williams: Bench Woman Hides Behind Her Shroud

Some are sympathetic to her struggle, but most just pass on by

Being jostled by the tourist crowd decked out in loud clothes and boisterous voices that is Fiesta took me back months to another type of encounter.

The Saturday evening foot traffic on State Street was bustling as it was now. Then as now, tourists and locals were hustling for a good time, trying to leave the troubles of the world behind. The problem was that in the middle of all that hustle and bustle, trouble slept on a bench huddled under her blanket. Days worth of food crumbs lay scattered about her, empty water bottles stood like lonely sentinels beside her. Buried somewhere under all that rat bait were my business cards, the ones she refused when I had tried to offer her help a few days earlier, and the ones from the time before that and the time before that.

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

With increasing despair, I had tried a variety of incentives to engage the wounded woman. Offers of a bed at a shelter, food, shower and even cash were turned down. During my brief conversations with her, she hid inside the blanket, which was pulled tight about her like an American shroud — reminding me of the type that imprisons Afghanistan women. The difference is that over there, it’s a politico-religious medieval system that enslaves women. Here, the diseases of the mind do so. In both incidences, terror is used as enforcement. There, a terror-laden insurgency reinforces institutional hatred of women. Here, frightening delusions of mind terrorized her daily existence, making her an internal refugee in her own city.

I tried to understand, to see from her perspective how the world — how Santa Barbara — must look. Her view was physically constricted to a narrow field of vision by the shroud, draped over her head and around her face. For her, life was lived within a tunnel. She kept her head down, never to look another human being in the eye. Everyone who passed her was a tool of her internal repressive system rather than a fellow human being to engage with, to share the joys and the sorrows of life.

I watched the Santa Barbara residents as they walked by. Many ignored her. I’m reasonably sure they didn’t see her at all, so accustomed were they to bypassing in silence homeless people who suffered from her disease. Others cut a quick glance to her and then quickly looked away, trying desperately not to let others see them looking at her. Perhaps they feared that if they were caught staring at her then she would become their problem. Or perhaps it was to trick their conscious: that if others don’t hold them accountable, neither could their internal sense of right and wrong.

But it was the third group of people who drew my interest that afternoon. The clutched jaw, the hard set to their mouth and the narrowing of the eyes identified them. They looked about with expectation, trying to catch the sights of others. Their anguished look cried out for witness to this tragedy before them. They wanted others to share in the suffering of this poor girl. They were the good citizens who still opened their hearts to those who live on our streets in so much pain. They were the ones who questioned: Where does all the tax money go if not to help someone like this? They were the ones who refused to accept that paradise is only for the select few.

I looked closer to the bench woman, wondering if she felt the compassion and even love of these people. And once again, I questioned and then cursed why it was that the delusions and hallucinations of the mentally ill must always be so cruel. Since it’s all make-believe anyhow, why can’t it be of the gentle kind? I once had a client who saw colors with sounds. Gentle voices had soft, muted colors. The songs of birds came in vibrant colors.

But then reality came crashing back. A young man out with his girlfriend saw bench girl and threw her a hateful stare. Unheard banter brought stinging laughter from him. There I was, questioning the harshness of hallucinations when the world we live in has so much heartless cruelty. At least reality we can try to effect, I told myself. The symptoms of the mind are sometimes beyond us.

I remember making a renewed commitment to look up bench girl with a new incentive — as soon as I could think of one. I sucked up my courage and told myself to once again go to the powers that be and see if they could reach out to the troubled girl. I’ll always remember the young man with the cruel laugh, but I also will remember all the good people who were troubled by the sight of the young woman.

But there is another player, one we ignore at our peril. Death hides in the shadows with his dark cloak pulled tightly about him. He ignored the homeless during July, raising false hope that his speed run through them had come to an end. Then his cruel mockery went on full display as his lethal embrace touched three more homeless people. The one common thing they all shared was that they dared to be old — ancient, in fact, by his standards.

All were in their 50s, two men and one woman. One died in a shelter, another on the streets and one in a medical facility. All fell victim to his siren beckoning within a span of four days.

Our indifference, such as to the young mentally woman above, evolves a gusty game of chance, one with a terrible price to pay.

— 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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