The mentally ill of our community face cruel cuts in services that will condemn many to the streets. Without the cooperation — and full funding — of the Santa Barbara County Department of Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services and community-based nonprofit organizations, those in desperate need of shelter, medication and help will be forced to go without.


Ken Williams and his dog, Sampson. (Williams family photo)

Before those damaged by this cruel disease face the streets, we need to look beyond the cold statistics to the very real people who make up those stats.

She was older than her age would indicate.  Sitting motionless, mostly lost in a faded, overflowing granny dress, she played nervously with her brown hair that was twisted with oil and dirt.  Her face was colored a hard bronze by a life on the streets.  She struggled hard to control her pressured speech but her jet-driven, tangled thoughts spewed forth like a Mount St. Helens eruption.

She rocked the baby stroller while we talked.  Looking down to it, her face was torn with concern.  She wanted to know where she and the baby would sleep that night.  And when would her doctor began to prescribe chocolate baby formula?

Suddenly the noise of controlled chaos that percolated over from the shelter floor into the office receded.  An uneasy quietness froze the room.  I looked from the empty stroller into her eyes. Confusion was not to be found there.  Only genuine concern for her phantom baby, as real to her as the pain that creased her lips reflected back.  Gently I told her the doctor would do what was best in this particular situation, but in the meantime she needed to focus in on survival.  Where would she stay if not at the shelter?  Where were her Social Security checks being mailed?

She politely made an excuse of why she needed to leave, got up and left.  The last I saw of her she was wheeling the stroller that held her phantom infant down the busy street.  Would the sight of this disheveled homeless woman pushing a baby stroller turn heads?  Or was she invisible, just another heart-wrenching sight to be avoided at all costs?

Phantom babies and phantom pregnancies are a common delusion among mentally ill homeless women. They look around, seeing other women of their age settling into expected roles of parenthood, of family. It is a realization that burns deeply into their innermost mind, as is the knowledge that their illness, especially if left untreated, forbids them this passage.  They have so much love to give, and know all too well the ache of loneliness, of human disconnect that their souls bleed when they look down life’s road and see nobody looking back.

“Linda” — not her real name — was a sex worker to the more refined, politically correct professional helpers.  To me, she described herself as a “hooker; a working girl.”  She was also a “strawberry,” a woman who sometimes exchanged sex for drugs.  I have seen a lot, heard even more, but when she told me that her going rate was five dollars a trick, a black cloud washed over me.

I studied her closely when she told me the unmitigating horror story that her life had been:  Of suicidal depression overwhelming her until it could only be held at bay by an infusion of street drugs; how addiction soon became the center, and then the bane of her existence; and, of her life on the streets and the johns who engaged her body and exploited her mental anguish under the pier.

Even today when I close my eyes, I can still see their handiwork:  Her face colored a hodgepodge of bruised-blues and dark purples, with black dried blood frozen over hellish wounds.  An inner voice within me cried out:  How could anyone do this to another human being?  How could anyone not see — feel the profound sadness that bled from her large, chocolate colored eyes, the gut-wrenching pain that radiated from her soul?  How could anyone see anything other than a severely mentally ill woman who cried out for understanding for human warmth and understanding?

“Kathy” — another pseudonym as are the rest of the women in this article — brought me flowers once. Dirt fell from the roots of the plant that she had just pulled out of the ground.  A gasp came easily when I tried to imagine the gardener discovering the empty hole in his carefully manicured garden.  As gracefully as I could, I received the gift from her, dirt falling on my boots.  She rushed off, late for meeting a rock star, the phantom father of her unborn baby:  a gestation period that ran somewhere in the years according to her ongoing story.

I found “Julie” in a shelter and eventually moved her into one of the low-income hotels when we had them. She was a short woman who carried her carbohydrate-heavy diet as excessive poundage that she hid under self-sewn dresses from discarded colored sheets.  Once in the hotel she slipped into a reclusive life.  She also made sad-faced dolls that hung from a string around her neck.  Julie’s mental illness trapped her inside herself, a lonely, desolate existence.  The walls grew more impenetrable with the passage of time until hardly a word was to be heard from her. Likewise, the warnings about her habit of sitting on the window ledge of her fourth-floor room with feet dangling out were ignored.  Of course, the tragedy played itself out.  One day she either fell or jumped, rushing an end to her misery.

None of these women asked to be born mentally ill. Some would say that they are simply junkies, crazies of no concern to the rest of us; that the homeless will always be with us.

The problem is — I remember.

I remember a time when this army of the night: the legions of homeless men, women and children who haunt our streets did not scar our moral conscience.  In my professional career, I have gone from experiencing absolutely no women on the streets and very few mentally ill to State Street becoming an open-air asylum, with trash cans as cafeterias.  Bushes, bus benches, alleyways, parks and alcoves have become our new low-income hotels, while street drugs have replaced the psychotropic medicines that should take care of the terrors that haunt the deep canyons of these women’s minds.  I have seen the mentally ill homeless become invisible refugees from our undeclared war against those who act differently than us, especially if they’re poor.

As it is there is not enough help.  Cuts to the county ADHMS budget will only add to these stories — these memories of the women above who have each touched my soul.  State Street will become even more the cruel and final resting place for those damaged by the diseases of the mind.  Is this really what we want?

Ken Williams has been a social worker for Santa Barbara’s homeless for 30 years. His new novel, Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets, has recently been released.