A tiny bottle of whiskey sits on the light switch near Joel Escarcega’s front door, a reminder of what stands between home and life on the streets, life and death, order and chaos.
The 60-year-old has been sober for three years since moving into the Faulding Hotel on East Haley Street in downtown Santa Barbara. The residential hotel owned by Santa Barbara Community Housing Corporation houses 81 low-income people, a mix of formerly homeless, elderly and some with mental health or substance abuse struggles, most of whom live on less than $1,000 a month.
Sitting near the window in his room — at about 100 square feet it is just large enough for a bed, desk, television, computer and mini-fridge — Escarcega’s reality is an obvious shift from his former life.
Escarcega lived on the streets of Santa Barbara for 17 years before graduating from the city’s Restorative Court program, which required his sobriety and eventually helped connect him to housing.
A life-long struggle with alcoholism kept Escarcega cycling mercilessly between jail and the streets.
Now, the only alcohol in his apartment is the tiny Southern Comfort near the liminal space of his doorway.
He keeps it there “to know I don’t have to have a drink.”
These days, Escarcega can be found at the Alano Club of Santa Barbara, 235 E. Cota St., twice a week. The Alcoholics Anonymous meetings there have become a kind of second home.
Some days he walks into the building, sitting in the circle, speaking in muffled tones about his struggle with addiction and how it led him to a life on the streets.
Sometimes, he just listens to others tell their stories.
It’s quite a juxtaposition from his life four years ago, when he entered Restorative Court with 747 citations on his record, ranging from open container violations to being drunk in public.
Escarcega was a fixture in the 1100 block of State Street, according to Santa Barbara police Officer Keld Hove, who is part of SBPD’s restorative policing effort.
There, on the benches outside what is now Peet’s Coffee & Tea, Escarcega often could be found, intoxicated and sometimes holding up a cardboard sign reading “disabled veteran.”
“He was always polite enough,” Hove recalled in an interview with Noozhawk. “You could just keep giving him the ticket, but it wouldn’t change anything. He would hide the bottle, but we all knew he drank.”
Escarcega remembers meeting Hove, and that “he gave me a break sometimes.”
“Back then, I hated the cops,” he said. “I like them now.”
Escarcega was frequently arrested and taken to Santa Barbara County Jail, but when he was released, the alcohol would be waiting for him.
He had a stash of booze and cigarettes he would hide outside of the jail, so that when he was released, his drink of choice was on hand.
Arrest or citation was the only thing police could do for people like Escarcega, chronically homeless and addicted to booze.
Until April 2011, when the Restorative Court program began, “we didn’t have any other tools,” said Mureen Brown, who works with the Restorative Court and knows Escarcega well.
“Every cop in town knew who he was,” she said.
Escarcega was born on Montana’s Fort Peck Indian Reservation, which is home to Assiniboine and Sioux tribes, of which he is a member, and grew up in Los Angeles.
He’s a Vietnam veteran and served in the Army infantry from 1972 to 1974. He was 17 years old when he enlisted, and during his service, began to turn to alcohol.
When beer wasn’t enough of a buzz, whiskey became Escarcega’s drink of choice.
He first arrived in Santa Barbara 17 years ago, and stayed because the town was “peaceful,” he said. He recalled spending his time being homeless, drinking and finding hiding spots.
Escarcega also has a bullet in his skull, the result of a confrontation that occurred during his time living on the streets.
“God saved me from his bullet,” he said.
Escarcega also suffers from a traumatic brain injury, the origin of which likely occurred on the streets in 2000, when he fell or was hit from behind — he doesn’t know which — and struck the back of his head, causing several blood clots to form.
He described walking around in “a fog” from that injury. Although he was later admitted to the hospital, the consequences were already permanent.
Escarcega’s senses were affected — he can no longer taste or smell because of the injury — and his speech was also permanently altered. Logic and reason can also be difficult sometimes.
During their many drives to jail, Escarcega told Noozhawk, Hove would talk about sobriety and housing, and ask him to “give it a try.”
For his part, Hove doesn’t remember saying anything special during those rides, but “at some point, I got my hook into him about housing.”
Hove began helping Escarcega with the housing process, and sobriety also came onto his radar at that point.
After several other housing options fell through, Escarcega eventually found a room at the Faulding Hotel, and was one of the first four to be housed there through the restorative policing program.
Hove said the key to success has been good case management for Escarcega and others living at the Faulding.
“These are people who had never had housing before,” he said, adding that keeping people in housing is the hard part.
The transition to life inside four walls wasn’t an easy one.
Escarcega began drinking shortly after moving in, and he complained that his back had started hurting.
After talking about the problem, Hove ultimately figured out that Escarcega wasn’t used to sleeping on a bed, but rather on cement. His apartment was bare at that time, with no furniture, just a mattress on the floor.
Hove said he and another officer brought in some cardboard boxes, and constructed “a little nest” on the floor so Escarcega could sleep more comfortably. He was also able to take Escarcega to the doctor to deal with chronic back pain that had been an issue for the man.
Physical pain wasn’t the only problem, however.
When he first moved into the Faulding, Escarcega also began having panic attacks.
He’d been used to watching the weather for storms, keeping an eye out for the next place to find shelter. Because many of the local shelters don’t permit alcohol, Escarcega recalled that many people, himself included, would go to jail just to get out of the rain.
That’s not an issue anymore now that he has permanent housing. Over time, the anxiety eased.
That newfound sobriety also allowed Escarcega some clarity, even prompting him to reach out to his 28-year-old daughter, whom he had not seen since she was a toddler.
After searching multiple states and finally finding her listing under a married name on Facebook. He contacted her and they arranged to meet at her home in Seattle.
Escarcega and his girlfriend, Dena, who also lives at the Faulding on the same floor, traveled by train to Seattle to meet his daughter and her children.
“We were so close yet so far away,” he said softly.
Dena has also been sober, for a much longer time, and the pair go everywhere together — she with her walker and Escarcega by her side.
They often try to reach street friends and turn them toward recovery, and Escarcega recalls his own struggle to get sober.
During the first six months of Restorative Court, “he relapsed and relapsed,” Brown said.
“I was kind of lost,” Escarcega admitted.
Then, seemingly all of the sudden, “he just stopped drinking,” Brown said.
Escarcega said he asked God to help him quit, adding that “it’s a miracle that I’ve stopped.”
But he also admits that people have to want to turn their lives around — for themselves. That’s what made the difference for him and what keeps him in recovery.
People like Brown and Hove helped get him there, though.
For now, that tiny unopened whiskey bottle is the last thing Escarcega sees as he leaves his apartment for the world outside, and the first when he comes home.
— Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.