Tuesday, February 20 , 2018, 10:13 pm | Fair 43º


Ken Williams: No Honor in Societal System That Fails the Homeless

Below is the introduction to my book, There Must Be Honor:


I was scared and lightheaded. Weakness draped her arms around me as if I were a long-lost lover, her cool embrace chilling me to the core. Hoping against hope, I tried to will my suddenly weak knees not to give out. The air trapped painfully inside my lungs became heavy. No matter how much I tried, it was all but impossible to force oxygen past my stone diaphragm. Forget even trying to swallow. My mouth was as parched as the deserts east of L.A. The buzzing sound, like a swarm of bees, trapped in my ears set my mind spinning, making rational thought all but impossible.

My world had become pure emotion. As in other situations where decision-making became crippling, “damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” I forced myself to simply put one foot in front of the other. Anything was better than the gut-wrenching pain. Or so I thought.

Slowly I approached Joshua, fear impeding each step. I do not consider myself a coward, but it was too much. I swore that it would be the last time I came to one of these things, a vow that I was to break only a few times over the next 10 years. That was saying a lot, because the crack and AIDS epidemics that were to cut through the homeless community with cruel efficiency were still to come.

Thank God Joshua’s parents weren’t there. I wasn’t sure how I would react to their presence. It wasn’t that my heart didn’t go out to them, especially to his mom, but issues remained between us — too many encounters on the streets, with Joshua in tow. Too many conflicting moral issues were outstanding, and now was not the time to deal with them. And Vietnam cast its long, heavy shadow even there —always Vietnam, a living, fiery presence that I could never outrun.

I found myself standing alone next to the baby’s coffin, his pale, impossibly tiny body cocooned within. Shock and dread clawed at me, ripping my insides to shreds. How incredibly small the coffin was. Briefly a slow-frame movie flashed though my mind: I saw myself picking up the coffin, tuck it under my arm and storm off, taking Joshua away from the tragic play, this madness.

This was America. That particular horror is reserved for poor Third World countries. Babies don’t die on our streets — not in the richest country, the richest state, one of the richest cities in history. But then reality — my reality, Joshua’s reality — returned. I looked down. How peaceful he looked, how small he looked. Someone had put a dollar bill in his tiny hand. Was that supposed to be a statement of some kind? Wasn’t his death on American streets enough?

Thank God his eyes were closed. I wondered if that was because no one wanted to see his accusing stare from the beyond. No one wanted to take responsibility. Maybe I should, as a social worker for the homeless. But the agency I worked for, the Department of Social Services, didn’t view me as such — not back then, not for another 10 years. Maybe they do now, but that’s not what my job description said back then.

Technically, my job was to help General Relief (welfare) recipients fight through all the loopholes and roadblocks that the government set up to discourage disabled poor people from receiving Social Security. All that other stuff — billions of office hours and uncountable visits to the homeless shelters, low-income hotels and soup kitchens sprinkled around Santa Barbara like afterthoughts — wasn’t what I was supposed to do. Finding the disabled and discouraged homeless in those shelters and on the streets and trying to help them steer a course that would lead to a life of normalcy just wasn’t on the agency’s radar. The unofficial plan of many in the public and private sectors was to move them on to another community — to any place but Santa Barbara.

Then there were the miles of streets I covered every week, searching out the homeless, discovering who was still alive and who was in an advanced state of crisis — those who, due to medical neglect, untreated psychosis or crippling despair had given up hope and greeted death with welcoming arms. The more mundane, run-of-the-mill crises — lack of food, shelter or appropriate clothing — that would kill most housed citizens were relegated to mere background noise.

As I still do now, I searched out those who lived off the bottle or found solace in a needle or crack pipe, plus the legions of the mentally ill who ran from the terrors of their diseased minds and the judging stares of some of the more fortunate citizens of Santa Barbara. I sought them out not only to offer services but, even more importantly, friendship. When all else was impossible, when housing was priced out of existence and death lurked in the shadows, friendship was still possible. Who could deny even the most strung-out drug addict, washed-up alcoholic or spiraled-out mentally ill person the one saving grace that we all need? It cost nothing — if you ignored the chunks of your soul that were chipped away by the pain that you shared in the process.

Did I feel privileged that I had managed over the 35 years that I had worked for the county to convince (outmaneuver) the system into allowing me to do what my conscious dictated me to do? Or had I merely survived — the last man standing, while others moved on to more prestigious and better-paying jobs — leaving me with my passion for service to those without hope?

Or should I feel angry that the system — the hodgepodge of city, county, state and federal government entities that the poor must relay on for survival — has failed so miserably in dealing with this modern-day plague?

The first is of small comfort, since it involves only me, and my life. On the other hand, my anger reflects how thousands in Santa Barbara and millions across the land have been relegated onto the streets, with trash cans as their restaurants and cardboard boxes their condos, their lives appear inconsequential to our society’s mad dash to ever-greater profits and comfortable lifestyles.

Society has little room and even less tolerance for those who falter in the race, the casualties of the barbaric economic times we live in — the poor in general and those broken by drug addictions and alcoholism, cursed by the terror of mental illness, or the idealists whose only claim to fame is survival in the midst of this man-made disaster.

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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