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Tuesday, December 11 , 2018, 5:46 pm | Fair 62º


Thoughts on Writing about Santa Barbara’s Homeless Women

Our writer thought she had it all, then she saw herself in three faces.

I have a confession to make. Until I read the May 20, 2008, article on CNN.com about a 67-year-old Santa Barbara woman who was laid off and became homeless, I did not really give much thought to the issue of homelessness. I’ve spent many years raising funds for social issues, but, for some reason, homelessness had never caught my philanthrophic radar. Something in that article sparked my interest.

Nancy Shobe
Nancy Shobe
Could it be that the “invincibility” of my 20s and 30s had somehow transformed into a sense of “vulnerability” in my 40s? What had triggered this vulnerability? Divorce? Aging? The economy?

Perhaps, it was something greater than external forces. Perhaps it was an internal realization that, despite having a loving family, a secure roof over my head, and satiating work — my life could easily turn on a dime. I had survived and even thrived with my choices, but I was capable of making ones where I might not. There is such a thin line between health and illness, stability and instability, solvency and bankruptcy. At our core, aren’t we all just as uncertain and fragile as the homeless?

I decided to issue a journalistic challenge to myself — to interview Santa Barbara’s homeless, specifically homeless women. I had read enough statistics. I understood that California had twice the national average of homeless people in 2007 — 44 homeless persons per 10,000 versus the national average of 22, according to National Alliance to End Homelessness statistics — and I knew there was a dearth of information on homeless women. Enough with the black-and-white facts-and-figures of the homeless issues, I decided. It was time for me to put “a face” on homelessness.

I called social worker Ken Williams, a frequent Noozhawk contributor who is known in Santa Barbara for working with the homeless. “Ken, will you arrange for me to meet and interview three homeless women in their mid-40s who are homeless because of life events instead of physical or mental illness?” He agreed, and within a couple of days, Ken had introduced me to three remarkable women: Lauren*, Chris and July.

I spent several mornings listening to their stories. I watched them laugh. I watched them cry. I shook hands with their homeless friends as they introduced me. It didn’t take me long to realize these three women were no different than me, with one exception. Luck hasn’t been on their side.

While they told their stories, I had a heavy heart. When July told the story of her near-suicide, I struggled to hold back my tears. At one point, I held up my hand. “Please stop ... just for a minute,” I asked. “I need to compose myself.” Each day, I went home after the interviews emotionally exhausted. I would lie down on my bed with its fluffy comforter and fresh linens and sleep for an hour. Their stories had shattered my “bubble world” of the good life in Santa Barbara. All three women were victims of domestic violence. All three had made one wrong choice that had led to another and then another, until they had no choice left but life on the streets.

The juxtaposition between living in the prosperous town of Santa Barbara and its large homeless population doesn’t square with me. Although there are well-run shelters like Casa Esperanza, Transition House and others, there aren’t enough. Although there are dedicated professionals such as Williams and Casa Esperanza associate executive director Imelda Loza, there aren’t enough.

Every day, the homeless face violence on the streets. They face a degradation of spirit, fear and intense shame. Every morning they awaken to the incredible challenge of keeping their own spirits buoyed, of remaining optimistic. As Lauren said during her interview, “I no long have dreams. I only have hope.”

The stories of these three women remain tattoed on my heart. I can still imagine July emerging from the dark forest of death and into the light of her resurrection. I can still see Chris petting her German shepherd, Max, and thanking him for his loyal protection. And, I can still hear the well-articulated words of Lauren’s life story and remember wondering why this well-educated woman was homeless.

By talking to these women, by spending hours truly listening to their stories, I unmasked their label of “homeless” and let them become real to me. I am now less afraid of “them” and infinitely more compassionate and understanding.

It has been months since I interviewed Lauren, Chris and July. Shortly after the interviews, I helped facilitate (along with Ken and several others) the placement of Lauren in a residential drug and alcohol recovery-care shelter. It was a positive outcome. July has disappeared without a trace except for some poems still posted on poetry.com and a pencil drawing she gave to me. And, dear, sweet Chris, who longed to work with animals again and assume a permanent staff position at a homeless shelter, has inexplicably met her ultimate demise — having died of a seizure while in jail. As a beloved member of the homeless community, Chris’ death has cast a shroud of sadness on her many friends and left a host of questions, such as to where her loving protector, Max, has gone. He, too, has inexplicably vanished.

There must be something more that we can do.

Click here for a related article.

*Lauren is a pseudonym. She asked to have her name changed because of family residing in the area.

Noozhawk contributing writer Nancy Shobe can be contacted at Nancy Shobe .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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