Dawn breaks cold and blistery. Clouds colored gray with arctic breath lazily drift by without care. The coffee is hot in my hand, strong and with a bite. I exhale with trepidation, breathe in courage and look back on 2007 as it finds its resting place in the history book.
The power elite in Washington will gather soon to hear the president deliver his State of the Union address. They will affect concern over the economy and the war in Iraq, but otherwise congratulate each other on a job well done. But how does the State of the Union look from the streets — our streets — for the homeless, especially those who are mentally or chemically impaired and are forced to live their Dante existence on them?
As I look over my journal, I sadly count 22 deaths, a truly startling figure for a community our size. But beyond numbers is the reality of each death — of individuals — not just sterile stats whose lives ended on these cold and unforgiving streets before their time.
Foremost among them is the death of John Doe II, or Darth Vader as many knew him. A deaf mute, he was famous for the welding mask he wore that completely covered his face. He was a fixture in Santa Barbara and Goleta for more years than I care to remember. He was a very secretive man.
With a weary smile, I remember how I once stumbled upon his clandestine campsite: Sitting down with him my eyes suddenly teared; he smelled heavily of smoke, telling me he camped in the burn area behind the county Social Services Department right after the Painted Cave Fire. He was tragically killed while walking on the railroad tracks, unable to hear the approaching train — or did he? Was his tormented life just too painful to continue the struggle? Three other homeless people likewise found their lives cut short in the form of crushing tons of railroad steel. As usual in such situations, low voices question the real cause of death as stories of the pain that each one endured was bantered about.
Next, there was the gentleman whose body was pulled from the ocean at East Beach. Did a passer-by pull the body from the cold surf only to leave before police arrived, not wanting to get involved, or was there something more sinister involved? And did the man take a midnight swim knowing the morning outcome?
Poor Charlie was beaten to death at his camp. No dignity here; just a travesty of justice, the betrayal
of the precious gift of life. And then there were the poor men — one aged 63 — whose stone-cold, lifeless bodies were found in their camps where they had laid their heads for rest. What were their last thoughts? Were they of family and friends, of better times such as when they had an actual bed to lie down on and a pillow beneath their heads? Or did they simply long for human connection, someone who cared that the stars were their ceiling and the hard dirt their bed?
I wonder about the pain of my friend, “Linda,” as her life slipped away at another camp on the freeway onramp. There was always sadness about you like a whispery cloud of melancholy blue. And I question the loneliness and pain that chased you to the streets — your quiet stare of despair branding my heart and framing my memory of you. And “Chuck,” a homeless man labeled “transient” by some even though he had lived decades in Santa Barbara, only to die on the freeway, losing the dance of death.
Matthew died next to his wheelchair in a park with the ocean off to one side. It had been only hours before that I had talked to him. He ignored my concerns, saying, “I’m OK, Ken,” when I asked him how he was doing. I find myself looking about at times, listening for his voice and those words whispering in my ear. Many of us watched in sadness when the coroner wheeled away his broken and lifeless body, each one of us lost in thought of what might lie ahead. And, of course, the curse of substance abuse continues its terrible slash-and-burn assault on the streets and the mentally ill still fall prey to their abandoned illness.
A good friend “Mike” was. He was a man who was never at a loss for words — always a story on his lips that led to another story and yet another one. I had known him more than 20 years, only to watch the cruel sickness rob him of his health. For his good fortune, he had the caring love of the of the hospice house in his final days. Family and friends were able to connect and, hopefully, heal old wounds. As did my friend, “Michelle,” who was able to reunite with her family with hospice’s help. I’ll always remember the day when she approached me and told me the cancer had returned. She always dressed so nicely in flowering dresses in her homeless journey — always giving others a helping hand. Much did she teach me about compassion and the proper dimensions of life.
And the others … all of whom I will miss greatly. All were not only our brothers and sisters, but someone’s mother and father, our precious sons and daughters; children of god. You all will be missed.
Ken Williams is a social worker for the homeless in Santa Barbara. He is also the author of China White and Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets.