“The poor will always be with us.” “Homelessness has always been a problem.” General beliefs shared by many. Statements that are wrong.
When I started working at the Department of Social Services, homeless clients were few. Women, children, the elderly and the disabled were always placed in a hotel, should they somehow stumble into the tragedy of the streets.
It was not uncommon for the director of the agency, Arthur Nelson, to receive a phone call from a concerned community member about a vulnerable homeless citizen. He would direct me to go to the streets, find the individual and place him or her in a hotel.
Ironically, I led a strike against the county, and thus, Mr. Nelson my boss, over dignity for the workers I represented. But, I never lost the admiration I had for this man, even though we found ourselves on opposite sides due to the strike. He was a man of deep faith — a man who put the welfare of the disadvantaged and weak before personal power and ego. They don’t make them like him anymore.
In those days, I had several hotels to work with: The Virginian, the Californian, the Garvey, the Faulding, The Adobe, The Neal and others. All took payments from Social Services to house those who qualified for GR (General Relief). No more. In fact, the payments for those disabled and on GR hasn’t increased in over 20 years!
Try to imagine going with the same income over that same time frame. Now, no hotels offer refuge. While Santa Barbara was being upgraded and gentrified, the poorest of the poor were being not only neglected, but through no fault of their own, finding themselves thrown to the streets to live and die. Instead of a bed in a hotel, now through neglect and indifference, we sent the poor to homeless shelters — if lucky, and the streets if not.
The stagnant GR benefits level is only one cause of homelessness. Another was the absence of an effective delivery system for those among us suffering from mental illness. When the state mental hospitals began to empty out their wards, there was neither systematic triage nor ongoing help for many. For those who suffered from mental illness over the last 30 years meant to be lost to a system that was prone to breakdowns on a perpetual basis.
Valuable time, endless meetings and constant battles by those of us who worked the streets to secure mental health services for those in need was the new norm. Finding that jewel within the mental health bureaucracy who really cared was the new paradigm.
This template of searching for such people would be repeated in other bureaucracies such as Veterans Affairs, and sadly, in shelters and other social service systems purported to be helping institutions. Shelters, hammered by some in the community, lost their moral bearings and instituted more and more rules denying more and more homeless people with wounded minds a safe bed.
These days, the morally challenged habit of running shelters on a half-full basis for months at a time is the acceptable new normal. One must look this fact full on. Shelter beds go empty while our homeless neighbors die alone on the streets. This trickle to the streets of the disabled, displaced, unwanted and abused over time turned into a flood. And death swept those streets looking for victims — hundreds of victims.
One only has to walk downtown to see the casualties. It should shame us all to see our mentally ill neighbors standing on tiptoes to dumpster dive for their meals, and to listen to incoherent mumblings and heart-wrenching cries of those battling unseen demons. Furthermore, witnessing the elderly, physically disabled and others living like Third World refugees in our land of plenty renders deep lacerations to our souls.
The state of perpetual wars added victims to the insane machine feeding the streets the disabled. Vietnam, Iraq I, Iraq II, Iraq III (?), Afghanistan. Hallowed eyed, combat veterans, searching for meaning to it all stumble through our streets, looking for a reason for the absurdities of war. For compassion and healing, for lost dreams and souls crushed by unspeakable violence.
Our government seems to have no trouble taking our sons and daughters to fight in dubious wars. Unfortunately, that government, our government, our society seem incapable of securing help for those maimed in body, mind and soul once we come home. “Welcome home” rings a bit hallow when veterans die on hidden waiting lists. When bonuses are handed out for this clever sleight of hand. When it takes years for the government to acknowledge and then legitimize the awful effects of Agent Orange, post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.
Part 1, to be concluded with Part 2.
— 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.