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Thursday, January 17 , 2019, 5:35 am | Light Rain Fog/Mist 60º


Ken Williams: Reflections and Cutbacks

Now is the time for good people to speak out on behalf of those who can only speak within.

The Santa Barbara County Department of Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services is proposing drastic cuts to those it serves. For me, I can’t help but see the faces of the troubled souls behind the cold statistics. And it’s not like we already do such a great job housing and treating those condemned to the streets because of their mental illness.

Ken Williams and his dog, Sampson. (Williams family photo)
The early Saturday evening foot traffic on State Street was bustling. 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 this 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 besides her. Buried somewhere under all that rat bait were my business cards, the one 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 …

With increasing despair, I had tried a variety of incentives to engage the wounded woman in question. Offers of a bed at a shelter, food, shower and even cash were all turned down. During my brief conversations with her, she hid inside the blanket that was pulled tight about her, like an American shroud — reminding me of the type that imprisons women in Afghanistan. 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: over there a terror-laden insurgency reinforces institutional hatred of women. Here, frightening delusions of mind terrorizes 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 is physically constricted to a narrow field of vision by the shroud, draped over her head and around her face. For her, life is lived within a tunnel. She keeps her head down, never to look another human being in the eye. Every person who passes her is 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 citizens of Santa Barbara as they walked by. Many ignored her. I’m reasonably sure they didn’t see her at all, so accustomed are they to bypassing in silence homeless people who suffer from her disease. Others cut a quick glance to her and then quickly looked away, trying desperately not to let others catch them looking at her. Perhaps they fear that if they are caught staring at her then she becomes their problem. Or maybe it is to trick their conscience: that if others don’t hold them accountable then neither can their own internal sense of right and wrong.

But it is the third group of people that drew my interest that afternoon. The clutched jaws, the hard set to their mouths, the narrowing of the eyes identified them. They looked about with expectation, trying to catch the sights of others. Their look cried out for witness to this tragedy before them. They wanted others to share in the suffering of this poor woman. They are the good citizens who still open their hearts to those who live on our streets in so much pain. They are the ones who question where does all the tax monies go to if not to help someone like this? They are the ones who refuse to accept that paradise is only for the select few.

I looked closer to the bench woman, wondering if she feels the compassion and even love of these people. And once again I questioned and then cursed why it is 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. Here 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 impact, the symptoms of the mind, are beyond us.

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

It is the yin and yang of life: The good citizens of Santa Barbara alongside the bad. It’s the age-old struggle for our soul — for what kind of people we are and just how much pain the homeless mentally ill must suffer before we step forward to end it. The answer is also the answer as to what kind of people we are, what kind of community we have become, and who we strive to be.

On April 22, the Board of Supervisors will address the proposed ADMHS cuts. Citizens moved by the plight of the mentally ill men and women who will lose their housing and treatment options and end up sharing the bench with the woman of this article can use their democratic right to attend that meeting or call or write each supervisor. Now is the time to speak out.

Ken Williams has been a social worker for Santa Barbara’s homeless for 30 years. He is the author of China White and Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets.

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