She used to sit at the Farmer’s Market — quietly alone, her sight cast down, lost to her inner world. Her face was drawn long with overwhelming sadness. Her blond hair hung long in dreadlocks. She would sit like this for hours, locked within the confines of her prison. For her it was a sadness so pervasive as to cut her off from her fellow human beings, from anything that approached happiness.
Sometimes when we talked, I would be rewarded with her smile. Not only did the beauty of an inner glow that came miraculous to life suddenly transform her face but its radiance also would enlighten the immediate area around her. In wonder, I saw that all near her shared in her overwhelming sense of joy. I remember thinking what an incredible gift to possess: an awe-inspiring spiritual blessing. I couldn’t help but juxtapose this simple woman with others who bring so much pain and violence to the world. Then there were the other times when she was hunkered too deep into the pain of sadness to acknowledge me; an isolation so profound that it was as if a brick wall encircled her.
The last time I saw her I had bought her a rose. Her smile was even more shimmering in its brilliance than usual as she received it. She thanked me in a soft voice. I was not to see her again after that. Did she run because the simple act of buying her that flower threatened her? Did the voices warn her that kindness was a danger to self? Of course, the alternatives — jail, the hospital, a dead body by the tracks or under some bush — is too painful for me to contemplate.
For years, “Doug” would push his shopping cart down our streets. With his busted foot that refused to heal, that cart was more like his walker than the vehicle that contained his worldly belongings. We often talked about the curse of alcohol that had such a hold on him. At times, he would struggle mightily against the curse, but then alcohol freed the voices — and the sadness returned. Here was a choice to end all choices: the damnation of alcoholism and all that came with it, such as aloneness and homelessness, or sobriety and the door that that opened, the terror voices and crushing sadness.
Somehow Doug fought through both and ended up clean and sober, on psych meds and housed. The voices were contained, the sadness controlled but not eliminated. He was a brave and courageous man fighting overwhelming odds to a draw. I often wonder: Would I have the same strength and courage?
Dr. Lynne Jahnke, better know as Dr J on the streets, her medical assistant, Klea Kalionzes, and I would frequently go looking for “Ben.” One would think an old man overcome with the disease of alcoholism and barely able to walk even with the aid of his walker wouldn’t be much of a challenge to find, but he was. When he wasn’t at his favorite trashcan or bench, we would eventually run him down in jail or in the hospital. It was hard to share this man’s rapidly downhill spiral to death but that is the journey we have chosen to travel with Ben. When offers of help are repeatedly turned down, the only alternative for us was to be there as part of that journey. We tried to lessen the suffering and the loneliness; to share with him the indignity of the streets and to help with his medical needs; and to provide this old man with warm clothes in the winter and companionship year round.
He would share with us the story of his children, and bits and pieces of his life. We found victory when he smiled, a sweet innocent smile of an old man passing to the other side. Someday, somewhere, his children will mourn when he dies but, hopefully, they will know that their father had company and friendship on his final road trip; that people tried to lessen his burden and pain, and that Santa Barbara was kind to this old man, and he got a measure of respect and honor that we all deserve as we prepare to embark on our final journey.
These streets, our streets, are home to so many sick and wounded, many suffering the hell of mental illness. Sometimes good citizens unintentionally feed into hateful stereotypes that have devastating consequences. Recently the streets have witnessed numerous beatings of the homeless — in Santa Cruz, it’s called “troll bashing.” I think of “Carl,” a fellow Vietnam combat Marine who woke to find someone smashing his wheelchair down on him while yelling, “Bum!” I think of the woman treated recently by Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, the victim of a severe beating. I shut my eyes and a horror show of bloody faces and survivors of rape roll before me.
And with the proposed county mental health services cuts, even more mentally ill people will find these harsh streets home. For those of us in the service community, and for those kind citizens who find homelessness a national disgrace, we need to remember and honor those of our neighbors who through life’s circumstances find themselves homeless. Someday, all this will be behind us. Someday, we will look back and see what we did and didn’t do during these trying times. Till then, our friends on the streets need our help and our friendship however we as fellow citizens are moved to show it.
Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the last 30 years. He is the author of China White and Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets.
Postscript: The issue of budget cuts that will drastically affect the mentally ill of our community will be before the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors on Monday. Please let your voice be heard.
1st District: Salud Carbajal, board chairman, 805.568.2185, email@example.com
2nd District: Janet Wolf, 805.568.2191, firstname.lastname@example.org
3rd District: Brooks Firestone, 805.568.2192, email@example.com
4th District: Joni Gray, 805.737.7700, firstname.lastname@example.org
5th District: Joseph Centeno, board vice chairman, 805.346.8400, email@example.com