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Tuesday, January 22 , 2019, 4:47 am | Fair 53º


Ken Williams: A Tragic Ending to the Friendship of Two Troubled Souls

“Betty” was young, in her mid-30s yet old enough to feel the hot breath of time panting down her back. She was a relatively young woman with flowing blondish-brown hair and a vibrant personality that resonated with her sparkling eyes. Secondly, she was smart enough to know that somewhere her life had taken a tragic turn.

She found herself without employment and broke, living among tragic people who were likewise with limited resources, and calling home a welfare hotel when Santa Barbara still had such resources for those without.

We talked often. She was not used to the crushing poverty that surrounded her — one that replaced hope with despair. Betty was guarded about her life’s journey but usually funny and articulate. Often, I would catch her sitting alone in the lobby with her eyes downcast, lost to the world of what-might-have-beens. At those times, her eyes lost their sparkle and became swamped in a dark sea of sadness. Friendship, other than me as her social worker, all but screamed as a partial solution to her misery.

“Tom,” on the other hand, was used to deprivation and loneliness. When mental illness struck out of the night to cripple, his future was lost to his delusional world. He grew accustomed to a world of lost hope and overwhelming aloneness, and a future held hostage by poverty and closed avenues.

The poor expect little, and they are seldom disappointed in such an outlook on life. His world was one of trying to deal with the multi-hydrate mental health delivery system. Until Betty came along, I never saw him speak to anyone. He would navigate the contours of the hotel draped in his invisible shroud that kept his aloneness intact — until Betty, that is.

The first time I saw them walk through the lobby together, it was somewhat startling. Secretly, I was sure it was a momentary wrinkle in the closed universe that such hotels usually become. But then, I began to see them more frequently together, sometimes simply sitting in the lobby together talking; other times, they would be coming and going in and out of the hotel.

During those brief moments, the sadness that had robbed Betty’s eyes of their joy of life rolled back and the vivacious woman that I had come to know was reborn. Still, there were moments during our conversations that the creeping despair of what she saw as a life imprisoned by poverty and, to her way of thinking, bad choices had robbed her of hope. My encouragements at those times were brushed aside like so much radioactive sage.

I received a call early one morning. Betty had died from a fall off a cliff. I rushed down to the hotel. Sorrow washed like the tide over the poor and mentally ill who called the hotel home. A bitter resignation of defeat clouded the lobby. I saw Tom, but he had simply withdrawn to his old self. No one who knew him could penetrate that shroud that Betty had somehow managed to.

Arrangements were made. Death on the streets, and in the welfare hotels, was a common occurrence then, as it is now. We have become experts at hiding these hidden tragedies from the community at large. We knew how to comfort each other, reach out to those impacted by death, and try to soften the crushing blows. Somehow there were too many deaths, too many ongoing crises that needed to be dealt with: Beds had to be secured for the homeless. Rooms needed to be secured for those living in shelters. Mental health services arranged for those suffering from life’s crushing blows. Medical care secured. Financial aid, and so many other things arranged, so that life could go on for the forgotten poor of Santa Barbara.

Tom quietly continued to steer his day-to-day existence like he always had. But something had changed. A friendship had been offered, and then it cruelly died. Rumors swept the streets that Betty had perhaps not fallen, but had rushed the only solution that she saw possible. Within weeks, Tom came to the same conclusion. I received another early morning call that his lifeless body had been discovered in his room.

Who knows? Maybe in the afterlife, two hurting souls would once again walk, sharing stories, human companionship, easing pain as friends are want to do. Here on planet Earth, a slow burning ache pays homage to two troubled souls who deserved better than what they got.

Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the past 30 years, and is the author of China White, Shattered Dreams: A Story of the Streets and his first nonfiction book, There Must Be Honor. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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