Ken Williams writer: novels, books, screenplays, feature articles
Sadly, a good man died yesterday. Paul Walker was a successful actor. But to me he was so much more. Please scroll down to read my tribute to this man.
To read my article and poem, The Way A Man Dies about a homeless man who died around the same time as Gloria did please scowl down. Gloria’s unsolved and poorly---if any investigation was one of the primary reasons I decided to retire earlier than originally planned. Yet, this poor man’s death, captured on film has haunted me these last two years. Circumstances found him alone, without choices. Soundless technology recorded his tragic death. This article, and accompanying poem is my humble attempt to honor his passing. The poem before that is in reflection for Veterans Day 2013.
“Ken Williams writes from the heart. He understands, with great clarity, that there is no more powerful form of commentary than to tell moving stories of human frailty and hope. Whether he writes from a wartime battle zone or chronicles the passing of forgotten brothers and sisters on the streets of the city, we are there with him, inspired by his compassion, his sense of justice and dignity, and his appeal to our collective humanity.” Steve Lopez, author of: The Soloist, columnist, L.A. Times.
A Review Of My New Novel: Fractured Angel
"This brilliant and profoundly human novel by Ken Williams will take you into the heart of American society, into unknown territories - witnessed everyday but usually avoided. It has the qualities of a thriller and also of an in-depth, day-to-day study that draws upon the author's long experience in these dark matters. Santa Barbara - known for its beauties and its wealth - is the scenery for excruciating pain and solitude. The dramatic setting, however, leads us into a realm of human warmth and respect. This is an intoxicating novel written by a rebel who has every right to be so."
CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), Paris, France Past Visiting Professor, University of California, Los Angeles and University of California, Santa Barbara
I worked for over thirty years for the homeless of Santa Barbara. I have a wealth of experience working with the mentally ill, alcoholics/drug addicts, war veterans, the infirmed, neglected, survivors of sexual violence and, also the prejudices and fears of some and the incredible hearts of others who reached out to help the new lepers of our time. I use these experiences as sources and inspirations for my novels, screenplays and articles. I served in combat with the 9th Marines---The Walking Dead in Vietnam.
Writing Credentials: I’m am a columnist with noozhawk.com. All local news outlets including the Santa Barbara Independent and the News-Press have published my work. I have two published novels: China White and Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets. My nonfiction book: There Must Be Honor is a collection of my articles interwoven with my autobiography. I am looking for an agent or publisher for my most recent novel: Fractured Angel.
Films: "Shelter," a documentary of my work produced by Paul Walker---actor: Fast and the Furious, Flags of Our Fathers and Brandon Birtell; also "Streets of Paradise."
A Tribute to Paul Walker
With a heavy heart, I read of the death of Paul Walker. For me, Paul was more than a Hollywood movie star. He was also more than the producer of the documentary on the homeless in Santa Barbara, and my work with them. He was a gentleman without the pretenses that too often surround the rich and famous. He was kind enough, and humble enough to come to a book signing party for my novel China White. He was also kind enough to be the featured guest at a fundraiser for Casa Esperanza at the premier of “Shelter.” For the book signing, he arrived on a motorcycle---dressed down in blue jeans and a baseball cap. Of course, my wife thought he was incredibly handsome. As for me I remember his simple presence, one made without fanfare of any kind. I also remember his kind words about the novel.
Again, at the shelter fundraiser, airs and pretentiousness were absent. And again, he had kind words for my work with the homeless. I remember thinking that if anyone could be seduced by fame, it was Paul: Good looks. Great personality. Good man. Wealth. Stardom. Yet what truly made him great was his caring for those without. The homeless. The poor. The mentally ill. It speaks volumes that he died the way he lived. Paul died on his way to a fundraiser for his charity: Reach Out Worldwide that aids those in need because of natural disasters.
Paul, and his business partner Brandon Birtell, were some of my teachers along my life’s path. Fame and fortune were not an excuse for these two men to not care. Caring for those less fortunate than them was a part of who they were. For Paul and Brandon, to live life without compassion, would be to live life without the centerpiece of who they are; of who Paul was.
May Paul rest in peace, knowing that he made a difference for those most in need.
VETERANS DAY 2013
Heavy air, infused
steamed like morning coffee
Movement sluggish, efforts stifled
The air oppressive, humid
Yet sliced like butter,
the supersonic bullet
I felt the air compressed,
a tiny shock wave binging
Yet loudly it spoke,
nuzzling my temple that day
I felt the earth vibrate,
bullet digging into the bomb crater lip,
shuddering its violent message
Death the messenger.
an inch away
Life by an inch
Or fortunate luck?
or did odds speak?
You aimed high?
Or sighted low?
Too far left?
Too far right?
Were you shaken by fear?
Or blinded by hatred?
Your humanity crippling the sniper’s skill?
Or your faith served by a miss?
Were your sights not sighted?
Or did hands tremble?
Was the rifle’s stable robbed?
Or, perhaps God's breathe deflecting?
Because God cared?
Or odds played without god involved?
Life was chanced that day---
Death missed, forever postponed another day
THE WAY A MAN DIES
Two years ago, two of our neighbors without homes died. Gloria died by fire. Serious questions remain unanswered, evidence tragically lost when a potential criminal scene was scrubbed clean within hours of her violent death. There was no yellow tape posted to define a life lost. Justice for Gloria was as fleeting as her non-attempt to flee the painful flames that engulfed her that night.
Coincidentally, around the same time, the police picked up a man on a bitterly cold night. His breath had a hint of alcohol. He wore a light summer shirt; no shoes, only clogs on his feet. The outdoors was his refuge. He had no home where they could take him to escape the deadly cold that was insipiently stealing his life that night. He was taken to a shelter. Then taken to another shelter. Who knew then that a potential Breathalyzer failure might have such deadly consequences?
He sat outside the second shelter in the bitter cold. Security cameras captured the unfolding tragedy. Unfortunately, they didn’t record sound. This Shakespearian tale was as soundless as the man was voiceless. He fell. People looked on, puzzled. The silent cameras rolled on. 911 was called. The man fell again---and again. 911 arrived. It is stated that he refused offers of medical help. What the camera does record was shelter staff half-dragging, half-walking the man in. Violent shivers rolled him. Looking like death warmed over, a caring staff member rubbed his feet. Finally they dragged him into the shower, but it was too late. The death of a man soundlessly captured. Tragedy mimed. Winter stalked and claimed yet again another neighbor without a home. Shelter came too late. The poem below is an attempt to give this man’s death a voice.
The Way a Man Dies
A man dies
Clogs and Booze
The story is told
Harsh cold condemns
The wearer of summer’s shirt---
Supreme is winter’s deadly claws
A breathe test
He could not pass
Forced to pass.
A police ride,
Teetering he waits outside
Deadly coldness bores inside
Callous coldness shoves
Security cameras catches
Without sound his falls
Silence abounds, humanity absent
Technology created indifferent
Records fleeing chances of life
for someone who will soon be lifeless
Shelter is clean and sober now
Would he be welcome now?
911 went without
Soundless sound cannot verify
Claimed refusal for medical help
Security camera catches
more noiseless falls
Finally escorted in
‘Til a kind soul rubs his feet
Absent soaring orchestral
A sad story captured
Replayed a thousand times since
Shattered are quiet midnights
Sits clogged, shivers
Escorted into showers
Is savior a hot shower?
911 called again
Now comes the ambulance
Police cars return
The death gurney wheeled in.
Hypothermia already snuggled in
But it’s only a word
Humanity’s play is absent
Our faith absconded.
A lifeless body wheeled out
Another homie leaves the city
Homelessness a victimless crime?
Then why Capital Punishment
For so many?
Die without a voice
Souless security cameras
Birthed by machines
Absent apps for humanity
Captures Death’s dance
Compassion and justice shackled
Fear forged handcuffs
They die without sound
Clogs in winter
Excerpt from: Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets
Kyle reached over to turn off the torture the music had become to him. If only his own pain had such a switch. A middle aged African-American woman sitting on a bench just outside the Beached Whale caught his attention. She sat ramrod straight, a polished black stone in a tide of bronzed pedestrians. His mouth was hard. The woman had two black plastic bags at her feet that he knew probably contained all her worldly possessions. She was dressed in the clothes that had given her street name, a long, simple white dress that most assumed was some- how related to a mythical religious order. At first the streets had named her the Sister of Mercy, but over time she had simply became known as Mercy.
Kyle strained his mind trying to remember what he knew of her. He remembered that she was relatively new to the area. He had seen her a few times at the soup kitchen and the Sally. His attempts at initiating conversations with her had always been brushed off by her stony silence and practiced stare of indifference. At those times he backed off, having learned from his years on the streets to wait until his clients gave him an opening, some hint of willingness to accept help from him before he offered it. He had come to appreciate that it gave them a sense of empowerment, a sense that they had some control over something in their chaotic universe, a sense so important that it was imperative that he do so. Working with the mentally ill homeless had taught him what had not come naturally or easily for
Kyle leaned forward to better study Mercy. Her dress was not only heavily soiled and stained, but also caked with dirt. Her gray sweater was on backwards so it buttoned up in the back. She had liberally applied bright red lipstick. It swept up at both ends of her mouth, freezing it into a twisted smile that was plastered onto a sea of weathered pain unaffected by facial movement. But mostly it was the eyes that attracted his attention.
To the casual observer, it would appear that the vacant stare in Mercy’s eyes denoted just how divorced she was from her immediate environment. But Kyle knew it was a dodge, a mask that she hid behind. Nothing got past her. Everything around her was analyzed ad infinitum until the most innocuous comment, look, or stimulus could take on the most terrifying of significance.
Mercy’s hands shook badly as she pulled out a compact mirror and applied still more lipstick. She tilted her head so she could look at her hair. Her attempt at patting down her matted hair was futile. His heart ached whenever Mercy looked at the boisterous crowd enjoying drinks and fine foods on the restaurant patio. Mercy was trying desperately to fit in, to claim her fair share of happiness and human connection.
Kyle’s throat burnt with bitter bile as well-heeled pedestrians gave her a wide berth as they strolled down the sidewalk. Even worse were those who looked at her and through her without seeing her. And those who made their way into the Beached Whale without a second glance or thought.
Kyle grabbed the steering wheel harder and lowered his head to rest on it. Tears stung his eyes, but he forbade them to run free. A black, soul crunching depression settled over him inflicting more pain than he knew how to deal with. This dichotomy was tearing him in two: Rich and poor, housed and homeless, spiritually maimed and mentally ill. The gulf was too great, and the contrast too jarring. Kyle’s world was collapsing down on him, engulfing him in ever-increasing despair with no hint of escape...............
Shattered Dreams A Story of the Streets
Kyle Walker, a social worker for the homeless, finds life hard in his California coastal community. The horrors of his time in Vietnam haunt his nights, and depression and guilt over the death of his wife rule his days. Walker’s intense dedication to his job led him to neglect her, and his tremendous regret drives a wedge between him and his daughter, Cheyenne.
Mercy is a homeless schizophrenic, a "wingnut" in the vocabulary of the streets. Brady, a homeless alcoholic, is her protector. When he is brutally beaten by classmates of Cheyenne, Mercy’s life is endangered as the sole witness. Fighting her tormenting inner voices, Mercy seeks Kyle’s help, but he is distracted by the needs of his other homeless clients, including a hooker who is a junkie and has managed to touch his soul. Almost too late, Kyle realizes the very real danger Mercy and Cheyenne face when Brady dies, and his killers aren’t finished.
Shattered Dreams is a memorable story about the pain, fears, hopes, and dreams of the homeless and those who commit their lives to serving them. It portrays the human side of the mentally ill who find the streets their home.
Buy It Now!
Silent Tragedy Strikes Through Hunger, Poverty, Despair
Hunger: “The painful sensation or state of weakness caused by the need of food.”
Silent tragedy strikes. Nationally. Locally. The House of Representatives is on the verge of massive cuts in what is commonly known as Food Stamps. This cold-hearted attack against the poor comes at a time when the country’s recovery from the Great Recession is the weakest in almost a century. Anywhere from four to five million of our fellow citizens will be cut off from this life-giving program. Seventy-two percent of the recipients of this program are families with children. Unfortunately some in Santa Barbara view this track to hunger as too slow and rejoice at the closing of the Community Kitchen’s program at Casa Esperanza.
I have had the honor of serving lunch for over twenty years and have witnessed the incredible job that the church volunteers have blessed this community with. Sadly I have witnessed the disabled hobbling on crutches and wheelchair bond securing their only meal of the day there. Also senior citizens who built this country and defeated the existential threat of fascism have. They have stood before me
with bowed heads shamed by their basic need. But also humiliated by those in the community who harshly condemn them for daring to attempt to negate the pain of hunger in their twilight years.
I have swapped war stories with disabled veterans eager for a meal while their veteran’s disability claims languish. (Last week when I call the veteran’s 800 number I was informed that the average time for a disability appeal is six hundred days! This comes on top of the original denial that took a year. How is a homeless veteran without resources supposed to survive?
I lost count in the thousands of those waiting in line with eyes framed by the hideous symptoms of mental illness. Did these people transgress some boundaries of propriety that sentenced them to hunger? Is starvation a cure for bi-polar? An antidote for schizophrenia?
Yet some in the community compare the homeless and poor to birds they once fed. What has happened to our compassion? Have we traded it in for easy pot shots at the down and out? Does it make us manlier to act as a bully to the weak and defenseless?
Poverty: “The state or condition of having little or no money, goods, or means of support; condition of being poor.”
There are many ways to poverty. Millions were thrown into it by the greed of Wall Street and the contempt of financial institutions. Yet hardly a cry is heard of their transgressions. How many how faced the consequences of selling junk bond derivatives? None. They walked away with golden parachutes worth millions while programs for the poor are ruthlessly devastated. Yet how many workers lost not only their jobs, but also their homes? Husbands? Wives? Children? Their very lives via suicide?
And still we somehow find it honorable to condemn those who are made to suffer?
Despair: “Someone or something that causes hopelessness…to lose, give up, or be without hope.”
Casa Esperanza shuts down twenty-five overnight beds. That means twenty-five of our neighbors go without shelter every night, as those beds stay empty. At one time no beds were offered during the eight, non-winter months. The remaining shelters, filled to capacity turned away the needy. One of these men decided to sleep on a bench in front of a shelter hoping that would give him some protection. He was brutally murdered in his sleep. Two friends of mine, reading the despair in my eyes the following day gave me the money to open the original emergency shelter. Thousands since had been give a simple bed. Rest. Safety. A shelter in their stormy life. Now cutbacks, due in part to the harsh voices and demands of some forced closer of these life-giving beds.
A rude shock to some and a disclaimer for prejudice: This poor man was a stable member of our community. He was a hard worker with decades of work behind him. Yet, like all of us susceptible to the harsh blows of life---to despair. Family. Home. Community, all were lost. Finally his life when: “no shelter at the inn,” became a death sentence.
There are consequences to our actions. Hunger. Poverty. Despair. Our Coroner will be a busy man.
Published: noozhawk.com, 9-19-13.
With the closure of the soup kitchen and the resulting hunger for so many I have a solution for the poor and homeless who are discourteous enough to go wanting for this basics of life. I’m not saying that closing the soup kitchen and shutting of the drop-in-center for the homeless and poor isn’t a good start. But really---death by hunger and exposure to the elements is way to slow and---shall we say retrograde and not very creative. And why should we be made to witness their slow death? Remember when the city wanted to spend $50,000 so they could reorient the benches on State St. so we wouldn’t have to see the face of poverty? (I surely do. I was read the riot act. Emails and phone calls lit up the ether universe of bureaucrats looking for a Trojan Horse to dethrone. It seems that social workers weren’t supposed to point out the obvious. Apparently my comments upset the bagel and Latte crowd as much as the sight of the poor does. But I digress.) We could open coliseums and have the poor and homeless engage in violent combat to the death. The brutal beauty of heartless Rome can be reinvented. A truly brilliant idea!
There are so many winners in this new paradigm on how to treat those impolite enough to be unable to play the new corporate---greed based game of bare bones survival for the many and materialistic paradise for a select few. And think of the benefit for those of us who tire of the low intensity conflict that Afghanistan has degraded into. We can tune in high definition, super realistic home theaters and become inspired by the shock and awe of personal combat---of death and mayhem up close and personal. And for those of us who think that food should be used as a motivator to get the lazy and those looking for a cheap handout off the mythical dole what a win! If you kill in the arena then you eat. If not, then you don’t deserve. No free handouts in this media blessed, herd-thinning.
I grant you that this concept isn’t much different than the current reality of homeless women being hunted after dark by vicious and cowardly men. But why should this be done out of sight? If building coliseums is too expensive then we could simply attach portable cameras to these women and film their terrified and pathetic attempts at survival. And we could come up with medals for their abusers! Maybe a bronze star with a picture of Gloria facing a flamethrower?
This isn’t cruel but simply a just outcome to those who dare to be unfortunate enough to be without the protection of housing. Besides we tire of the lame excuses of anemic job growth, a dysfunctional mental health system, corporate war against the middle class, alcoholism, physical disabilities, domestic abuse and P.T.S.D. Isn’t this what they deserve? Another upside is that this will discourage the millions that are now huddle around homeless campfires with their laptops open making plans to invade our community to pillage and loot like Attila the Hun. Stop for a moment and bring this image to a full view. Crackling campfire. The faceless, homeless masses. Threat worn clothes. Weeping wounds and protruding ribs. The thinness that only hunger can give. The soft glow of brand new Apple Macs. It sets the heart aglow. Kinda of Norman Rockwellish. Can’t you just seem them coordinating their efforts via the Internet, searching for those communities that dare offer a helping hand to those without. And we know there are so many communities with helping signs welcoming the poor and homeless.
I know this will set well with those who compare our homeless neighbor to pigeons. To these upstanding citizens a helping hand to the victims of the downsizing of compassion and the closed parameters of community, hunger is merely the natural selection via the hidden hand of the market. But one shouldn’t look too long at that “invisible hand” or one might see the elite raiding the public coffers for ever-increasing obscene profits and bloated salaries for ex-politicos who reinvent themselves into corporate lobbyists.
But, then again maybe this isn’t such a good idea. Someone might want to include a struggling author and former social worker as a good subject for the cannon folder of this downsized and domesticated war solution.
“We who are about to die salute you!”
Words of Remembrance, Fifty Years After Dr. King's 'Dream' Speech
Fifty years ago two hundred-fifty thousand people gather in Washington to demand human rights for all. Also to hear Dr. King speak. As a nation we stood tall. Five years later Bobby Kennedy was to announce Dr. King’s death before a street crowd. I cried that day as the world wept. We were never the same---
Jarring television framed
Hues of black and white
cursed with family violence
taking a moral man---
of the best in us.
He preached peace
in the ravaged face of violence
love, non-violence preaching
at Bull Conner’s whip.
The moral godfather
of four little girls
Their lives stilled
their innocence crushed
by terrorist bombs,
The voice of peace killed
The crier for the innocent of war---
the soother for victims of racial hatred
announces the saddest of news
to join his friend---
Our moral leader
time before religion divided,
condemned the different,
warriors of peace
Before shock and awe inspired
Time before fear peddled---
our new national creed.
to embrace love,
talk of peace
insist on justice for those without.
Two men gunned down
Manhood now measured by
the devil’s tools---
30 bullet clips
weapons of national destruction.
It all went so wrong
Now King on a pedestal
The warrior mythicized,
ignored once home
We are less now
Our moral judgers
eat out of trashcans
sleep with concrete quilts
Haunting cries more plentiful now
but simply echos in the wilderness now
If a tree falls---
is a cry in the wilderness
The powerful once again safe.
Have We Turned a Blind Eye to the Suffering of the Poor, Homeless
A shelter drops twenty-five beds for those who are amongst the most needy. Did the need end? Did we decide that sleeping out in the open is just? If so, will we no longer ticket the homeless? Or have we embraced the poor and insisted on solutions from the powers that be?
Have we insured that war veterans no longer suffer from PTSD and homelessness? Or did we decide to truly support our troops by giving up war as a national pastime? Have we brought a functioning mental health system to those cruelly inflicted with mental illness? Did those crippled with physical disabilities and poverty miraculously recover?
A safe haven, known as a drop-in-center for the weary and weak, lost. Homeless women, victims of violence, are no longer welcome. Violent men have turned into sheep? Has the bull’s eye on these women’s back sharpen in focus now? Is Gloria’s death the glorious future that more and more homeless women will now face? My question is: Has the need for assistance ended? Or have we simply turned a blind eye to the suffering of the poor and homeless?
Homeless man and woman crippled by alcohol are no longer welcome. Has the human condition become negated? Has human weakness turned into concrete? Has the Nietzschean state of “over-man,” one who has overcome the human condition, been achieved?
The hungry are forced to forgo another meal. Did we emerge from the Great Recession by solving hunger and securing good paying jobs? Or have our trashcans miraculously turned into Horns of Plenty?
We borrow monies to finance wars of choice. We hock our children’s futures so tyrants in Egypt and Afghanistan can access Halliburton, Blackwater, McDonnell-Douglas, and other peddlers of war---corporations soaked in the blood of our uniformed children and countless faceless citizens of far away places. But we can’t afford to feed the hungry. Or offer sanctuary to homeless women hunted like animals on our streets. Something as simple as a roof over one’s head has now become a luxury out of reach for the homeless poor.
When did a meal become an unreasonable demand? I am a simple man. But I do know that there but for the grace of God go I. And for those who profess to live their lives by the Bible, I vaguely remember a phrase saying, as you did it to one of the least of my brethren, you do this for me. But I’m paraphrasing. I’m simply a simple man with his guts torn to shreds.
Failed Health Care
“Berry,” a short, slightly built man in his early fifties struggled to stand, but his damaged knees refused to hold him upright. He teetered and then swayed precariously threatening to fall hard onto the unforgiving blacktop. With traffic already stopped for him, the last thing he needed was to take a header with an audience looking on. Panic warred with the pain that was already tattooed onto his face. I saw him quickly look back to his useless walker by the curb. He had been given knee braces but he had discovered they prevented him from accessing a standing position once seated at the curb, thus he had discarded them. Yet without them even the walker couldn’t prevent him from toppling over.
Cutting a quick glance to the stalled traffic left and right, I hurried over to him with a wheelchair. I promptly grabbed him by the arm and as quickly as possible sat him down. Time became an enemy as the stopped traffic was unsure what to do. It was a testimony to the good people that none of them blew horns or cursed us. Instead, looks of compassion and sadness leaked from the cars as did confusion.
My plan to rapidly expedite us from this situation ran into the hard reality that Berry’s legs didn’t have the strength to lift his feet. If I pushed the wheelchair forward they would become trapped under the chair and flip him onto the ground. But where there’s a will there’s a way so I turned the wheelchair around and instead of pushing it I pulled it backwards. Still his feet dragged along the ground. Dr. J rushed over, grabbed Barry’s pants leg and gently lifted them up, allowing greater speed for us and less pain for him. A moment later, success was obtained when we wheeled Barry into the homeless shelter. After confusion was cleared as to if he had a bed or not and only after Dr. J and myself pled our case to Imelda Loza, the assistant executive director of Casa Esperanza, was his placement secured.
It had been a hard day at the shelter. During the morning, I met with the kind and harried social workers at the shelter, David, Katie and Maureen, trying to get beds for an impossible flood of disabled and senior citizens who found the streets their mocking safety net. Was the man with a deadly disease more in need of a shelter bed than the one crippled by a car accident? Or was the woman trapped in her wheelchair by a life long disability more in need of a bunk rather than the man who could hardly walk due to a stroke? Was the senior citizen supposed to sleep on the street so a mentally ill homeless woman who thought terrorists were after her could get one night sleep in the safety of the shelter? This is what the healthcare delivery system has come to: lifeboat ethics---who lives and who dies due to lack of resources: lack of affordable housing and shelter beds.
I flashed back to a few days earlier to the Community Kitchen, where I am privileged to serve lunch once a week. We have a custom of allowing the disabled to be served first. The first four people in line were in wheelchairs, the next four on crutches and canes, the ninth man walked with his blind stick held out in front of him. Then came the women, seniors and the disabled who hold their wounds within---the legion of mentally ill who roam our streets.
I think fondly of “Nancy”, a mentally ill homeless woman whom Dr. J and myself have been treating in the streets for weeks. The knowledge that the tenuous link of Dr. Lynne Jahnke and myself running her down two to three times a week so her wounds could be cleansed and bandaged was all that stood between her losing her leg. This propels us on our weekly hunt through the bright city streets and dark back alleys.
Every one of these tragic tales speaks to a health care delivery system not only in crisis but in a state of failure. Their stories speak to the denial of us all to this tragic fact. Politicians debate if healthcare is a right or a privilege in today’s America? How about if we view it for what it is: a matter of life and death. Who amongst us can be certain that we are not the next Nancy? The next Berry? Or the others, all those unfortunate souls who instead of homes and nursing facilities to care for them after catastrophic illnesses or injuries, find the streets or a shelter their recuperating station? Who amongst us is next?
An Odyssey of a mentally ill homeless man
A few years back… A hard winter storm blew in. Days before, a gentle-hearted donor had bought me a great deal of winter survival gear to give out to the homeless. Having given out most but not all before the days long rain settled in I drove and walked the streets looking for the vulnerable homeless in the downpour.
I’ll call him, “Stan.” I had met him years before at a shelter. He told me later that after our talk he walked to the beach and threw his dope pipe into the ocean. He soon relapsed. But it was a start of his journey to being reasonably clean and sober. He was even able to fight the tormentors of his mental disease to a standstill. He got off the streets and did reasonably well till…
Early morning. Rain poured down in sloshing buckets. State St. was deserted except for the homeless. Stan was prompt up against the side of a building. White tee shirt. White socks. Jeans. No hat. No jacket. No shoes. “Soaked to the bones,” was more than a phrase. His wet, shoulder length brown hair lay heavily on his thin shoulders. The intense stare of his paranoid disease radiating hostility. I approached cautiously. His mental disease stilled conversation, as did my sadness for his current condition. Only, “no,” was allowed in reply to my offer---then pleading for him to accompany me to a shelter. Offers of a hat, jacket, and sweatshirt received the same response. Leaving, I told him I would look him up later.
I saw him a few more times that morning. Leaning against another building. Walking slowly up and down State. Dragging his water soaked socks in his wake. Just after noon. The rains coming harder. I found him again sitting against a building. His head turned upwards. Rain pounded his face. Same requests as before, same offers from me. Sadly. Same response. I told him I would walk back to my car, get a raincoat and bring it to him. Hostile stare produced by a wounded mind radiated out from him. Returning, I laid the jacket and tennis shoes before him.
Late afternoon. Driving up State to return to Social Services, Stan walks slowly---rain dogging his every step. He wears the new rain jacket. His satiated white socks half off---dragging. A glass: Half full? Or, half empty?
This poem, dedicated to Stan and all who suffer cruelly from untreated mental illness.
Hell Alone Will I Face?
(An Odyssey of a mentally ill homeless man)
The rain is of two minds.
Fluffy white clouds weeping soft tears.
Dark siege-towers, rising menacingly,
hurling torrents of watery terror.
My mind is ravaged---
hungry vultures of mind illness eats.
Your heart ravaged---
victim of fear-begotten-hate.
Steel tipped psychosis-claws,
tears my mind to shreds.
Your heart frozen clueless,
your conscience torn to shreds.
I should be cold,
but illness of the mind masks.
Your heart grows colder,
self-delusions not up to task.
Always this way?
once toys and shoes under tree were mine.
No shoes now,
watery-bloated socks now mine.
People walk pass jacketed,
sit I tee shirt is all.
Frightened glances so jaded,
a frightful thing I am to all.
It became this way when?
When did I become this way?
A frozen heart became you when?
This tragic play came which way?
Hunger stirs me not,
yet torturous voices hurt me.
Spirituality inclusive, am I not?
Guilt splits your heart, hurt because of me.
A mind illness is my ravenous beast,
conscious-less by fear, your cross.
Indifference a subtle beast,
aloneness, we each, forbidden to cross.
You are scared,
I am sorry,
I am scared,
You are sorry.
This storm front moves in,
cold rain lashes my face.
Will warmth of heart sneak in?
or my hell alone will I face?
posted online: noozhawk.com 7-17-13
Murder by Words
The homeless men stood about me rubbing sleep and the aftereffects of forty pounders---as forty ounces of beer and malt liquors are known on the street as, from their eyes. To a man, they looked like a casting call for Lord of the Rings. All bore long hair and beards and had the scruffy hard look of the troubled and unforgiving lives they lead. After I had exchanged the morning’s pleasantries with them and made sure there were no immediate emergencies to take care of, I turned to leave only to be stopped cold. “You need to check up on ‘Captain.’ He got jumped by three guys.”
“Also ‘Chuck,’” one of the others added. I knew Chuck to be Captain’s road dog---his traveling friend, a genial and goodhearted fellow veteran of the streets and of the military.
“Why Chuck?” I asked.
“He got knifed,” came the casual reply.
“Was he hurt bad? Did he go to the hospital?”
No on both accounts was the response.
I turned and continued my journey down the street, my mood darker than moments before. Captain and I had long history together. We were both Marine combat vets from Vietnam. The war had taken us down different paths upon our return---one to the streets, one to serve the streets, but in the end, the war took its pound of flesh and blood from both.
My steps rang hollow along a deserted State St. Only the clean up crews, the homeless and myself walk the streets this early in the morning. The city is ours alone for a brief time---time enough for me to remember something Captain had told me a few weeks back: He had been deep in sleep one night only to be suddenly awakened when someone picked up his wheelchair and crashed it down on him. I asked if his assailant had said anything? Anything that might help identify him.
“Bum. He simply said bum.” Captain laughed his goodhearted retort that said he accepts these travesties of life as normal.
My mood became even darker thinking back to the handiwork of some real heroes a few weeks back who had “tuned up” a homeless woman sleeping alone in her camp. Of course she shouldn’t be sleeping alone in a camp. But nobody should be homeless in such a rich country as ours. Nor should a hundred bed shelter go empty because it’s convenient for some to have them do so. And it should go without saying that neither should He Men go around beating up either housed or homeless women. I remember how she had stood before me her eyes partially shut, her wounds a deep purple spilling out from under both. She was a fragile yet hardened woman of the streets lucky to have survived this beating---perhaps not so lucky next time.
And now death comes violently to a gentle homeless man who called Santa Barbara home. He was not a transient but a long time resident of our community. His crime? He succumbed to life’s trials and tribulations and sought refuge on the streets. Some sick individuals took prejudice to an extreme degree and beat Gregory to death in I.V. Of course rumors flood the streets as to who did it. I will not add to the conjectures that are adding so much fear and confusion to an already reeling and vulnerable population. I expect the police to do their job as professionals and find these sick men who kill for thrill. But I would like to remind the community where prejudicial language leads the morally weak among us.
George Orwell taught us that words have power---that they could be used to enlighten or enslave. That war can be waged as peace and enslavement couched as freedom. “Bum.” “Transient.” “Fruitcase.” “Crazy.” “Drunkard.” These words are used to dehumanize the homeless and/or the mentally ill, anyone who becomes a casualty of the human condition. We all should be cognizant that some among us find justification for their violence behind these words. We demonize the powerless---dehumanize those who are easy prey to the darker recesses of our mind when we carelessly banter this words about.
It would do good to remember that the Buddha walked with the untouchables and broke bread with them. That Christ cast his lot with the lepers and the undesirables of his time. In fact all great religions and moral codes teach us to reach out to the less fortunate and in doing so, we in turn honor their teachings.
There is no glory to be found in portraying the defenseless and unhoused in language that speaks to our prejudices and fears. Just as there was no glory in beating a gentle man to death, or jumping a Vietnam Vet in the middle of the night nor “tuning up” a homeless woman. As Captain deserved a better welcoming home than he got, Gregory deserved our compassion and understanding and the beaten woman should find love and caring rather than violence. As Orwell so elegantly wrote and wisely foresaw: our language can lead to tragic consequences.
Excerpt from: There Must Be Honor
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Posted online by noozhawk.com, 10-08.
HOMELESS BILL OF RIGHTS
The Homeless Bill of Rights
Developed by Ken Williams
1. Right not to be murdered
2. Right not to be physically assaulted
3. Right not to be raped
4. Right to shelter when sick or injured
5. Right to medical care when sick or injured
6. Right to shelter, food and treatment for people with a mental illness
7. Right to shelter in severe rain, cold or heat that threatens health & welfare
8. Right not to be demonized by private or government entities & treated with respect by all
9. Right of women and men not to be hunted by sexual predators
10. Right of children for clothing, food, shelter & education
Family, Friends of Dead Among Casualties of War
The uncounted dead from wars come in many forms. The casualties are not restricted to the veterans alone. It also sweeps out and engulfs family, friends and those unknown to the combat veteran. The only sure bet of war is that it always comes home in the end.
Years ago I met this man, his wife and his kids. He was an African-American, a veteran, young and severely damaged by the war. Our first encounters were often harsh and laced with the threats of violence. Whenever he came into the Department he would scare the employees with his angry and bellicose manner. Also, the Rambo of Hollywood did not do him, or other Vietnam Vets any favors---predisposing others as well as the workers of the Department to expect the worst. America came to know Vietnam Veterans as psycho killing machines, just looking for an excuse to go off. Whenever this man crossed the doors of the agency, the front desk clerks would immediately call me, in near panic, since I was the only one who could talk him down. Our connection crossed racial boundaries. It was a relationship forged in the jungles and mountains of Vietnam, in the darkness of the malignant heart of war.
He was a thin man with pronounced neck veins that bulged whenever he went manic, which was most of the time that I saw him. I could see the madness of the war in his dark eyes---the intense---thousand yard stare and the struggle that he put up trying to outdistance its deadly grasp. Once there came an unexpected clarity to them. I was unsure if it was insight as to how to put the war behind him, or if he saw himself on the other side when his life of pain would be finally put to rest.
My heart would break when he went ballistic with his children in tow. Their eyes would widen to the size of saucers with fear and confusion. The look his wife would first give him, and then me, was almost too painful to bear. Her sorrowful eyes seemed to ask, “Why him? You’re both combat vets, so why him and not you? What did he see, what did he do, that broke him so? Why couldn’t it have been you, and not him? Why are you relatively normal, while we live in the hellacious backwater tide of that insane war? Why?”
Sometime later I was called to his murder trial---that is, he as the victim. The defense attorney wanted me to testify to my interactions with the dead man. He wanted to exonerate his client, the killer of my fellow brother-in-arms. He needed to establish the fact that my dead comrade had engaged in suicide: “at the hands of another.” I couldn’t disagree. The man was killed by that war as surely as if it had been a North Vietnamese soldier, and not an American citizen who had pumped him full of lead. His name will never be on the Wall, but it should be. The man who had killed him will never be counted as a casualty of that crazy war, but he should be. His wife and children will never receive a medal for the courage they showed nor the hurt and pain they endeared, but they were war victims and veterans in every sense of the word.
His death and their pain should be branded into all of our hearts. It is in mine. I often see the eyes of his children and wife floating in the hellish afterlife of war’s nightmarish memories; a place where all too many vivid recollections and harsh truths fight a rearguard battle, to hold the center against the spin doctors and chicken-hawks who try to act as the gatekeepers of history. War is not glorious nor is it a game. It is brutal, mean, a savage and soul-crushing endeavor. The wars in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam left millions dead---MILLIONS and MILLIONS more wounded, the land ravaged and incalculable damage to the veterans, their families, our society, the peoples of those lands, and total strangers.
posted: noozhawk.com, 5-22-13
ALONE, MENTALLY ILL, HOMELESS
Her murky brown eyes were turned inwards, searching. Periodically, they cleared, only to become fogged over again as if shifting cataracts allowed her to play hide and seek with the bustling crowd at the Farmer's Market.
Her long brown hair hung in a tangled web down her back. It had been some time since a comb brushed through it. I watched as again, her eyes briefly flared to life sweeping those around her with intensity, only to slowly dim again. Was it the absence of a threat that she failed to see, or the lack of human connectedness that allowed it to do so? Despair carved a soft sadness into her face as if asking: Where had her life gone so terribly wrong? When and how did she become invisible to those around her? How bad of a person must she be to be punished and banished so?
No one paid attention to this young woman who sat on the curb, imprisoned alone in a “glass bell jar” amongst the bustle of the market. People like her, shabbily dressed, gaunt from hunger and with stress lines dug deeply into bronzed skin were simply too common to notice anymore. Perhaps it is simpler to ignore them than to ask unanswerable questions about decade’s long, economic war against the poor and homeless. It is also a societal one against those who suffer mental illness.
In small and large cities across the land these internal refugees can be found securing their meals out of trashcans. Those heading home to the security of their houses, condos and apartments as night approaches, witness the mentally ill homeless nervously scurrying about, trying to find a safe place to lay down for the night. They also seek seclusion from the prying eyes of others. But this isolation comes with a price for they put themselves at risk of becoming victims to the creatures of the night who prey on them and their vulnerabilities. In addition, homeless women, many who suffer from the ravages of mental illness, must also fend off the rapists and brutal men with hardened fists who hunt them like ravenous predators. Some are also mothers who must either take their children into overcrowded shelters---some of which offer their own layers of hell or risk the dangers of the streets.
“Go elsewhere,” some, plead. But where is that? Tell me which community hangs a welcome sign for the mentally ill homeless? Or the laid off worker, the displaced homemaker, or the damaged war veteran? The superfluous elderly or the throwaway physically disabled? Instead of addressing the root causes of poverty and the devastating cutbacks to the safety net that at one time helped those without, including the mentally ill, communities try ever more creative and punitive methods to punish and drown them in a sea of infractions and misdemeanors, to make life so unpleasant, so down right miserable, that they will simply pack up and move on to another community. Anywhere but here is the operating paradigm.
In older times, the term, “Ship of Fools,” came into being. This referred to the practice in Europe of rounding up the mentally ill, putting them aboard ships and sending them to the next harbor; again, anywhere but here. In the seventies and eighties, we updated this calling it “Greyhound Therapy;” the dumping of the mentally ill to the next county via, you guessed it, a Greyhound bus.
As I watched the young girl, I saw how the stresses of being a mentally ill homeless person had aged her, until it was impossible to see the mid-twenties of her age. But when I approached and spoke to her, a sudden transformation brought forth a priceless smile that gave her back some of her stolen youth. I tried imagining what it must feel like if she had been my daughter? How the heartache of a loving parent caught up in this particular Dante's Hell must be unbearable. Would they even know if she were alive? Would they get cryptic phone messages in the middle of the night? Or perhaps postcards from parts unknown that added another bleeding wound to their heart? Would cold calls from police and shelters map a life gone tragically wrong? And would her parents be desperately dependent upon the generosity of the hearts of total strangers to offer their daughter a warm meal, or something as simple as a safe bed; or as precious as a smile and a kind word?
This young woman disappeared a few days after my encounter with her, yet I cannot forget her. She joined the diaspora of the discarded and the throwaways of our modern times. Unlike the plastic that we collect and recycle, homeless in general and the mentally ill in particular are allowed to perish on our streets---unwanted, uncared for and unloved---except by their grieving mothers and fathers---sons and daughters---brothers and sisters, and strangers moved by the blight of those damaged in hearts and minds.
The young woman’s soulful eyes, the despair and pain captured within, float before me, when quietness ushers in contemplation and memories, of questions of the nature of spiritual values and what it means to exist in what is often an inhumane world.
posted: noozhawk.com, 5-4-13
THE BOSTON TRAGEDY
Again we hear the screams of the innocent. Still again sick men---always men, speak to the world with bombs and the blood of children. They will rant and rave about “causes” that drove them to murder the innocent, but their rhetoric is merely that: rhetoric that hides sick minds, callous and deformed souls. When you strike at children, I no longer care what your so-called ideology is or to whatever god you pretend to serve, for I cannot hear your pleas above the cries of the innocent. And I really do not want to hear that the “ends justify the means.” I would simply point out that the means are the ends---blood begets blood and nothing else. You worship a world full of blood. Of a make believe warrior ethos when in reality you are simply twisted with hatred and made small by your cowardly deeds. You may see yourself as a warrior engaged against the evil west or the foreign occupiers in Washington who scheme to take away your rights as wild men of American mythology, but you are simply a creature of the night defined by your murderous deeds.
I will not dignify your actions by ennobling them in using the language of war. This is not war---this is simply murder of the innocent by a coward. You already see yourself as a martyr---I see you as a murderer of children; the innocent in Boston, Baghdad, Oklahoma City, in Somalia. You see yourself as a warrior simply because you have become seduced by the language and propaganda of violence and hatred: A belief system that feeds off of violence in word and deed. To me you are pathetic and a coward who hides behind macho imagines and gutless and spineless deeds. You shrivel in your hiding hole like the rat that you are, hoping others will engage you as a warrior or patriot. We should see you as the coward that you are, afraid to engage others in peaceful debate because they will see the impotent weakling that you are.
There is nothing heroic in the slaughter of the innocent, regardless of how it is delivered. From out of the sky or hidden in a trashcan, when the innocent are used as dead messengers to terrorize, the message becomes lost. Violence is a straightjacket that imposes a belief system by killing the innocent.
Nor will I lend credence to your unholy worship of violence by juxtaposing your deeds with self-serving violence of my own. I will not threaten your children, or the innocent of your lands like you have done mine. Be your belief be jihad, or some crazy militia seeking to honor Ruby Ridge, Waco, Hitler or the Oklahoma City bombings, I see the blood of the innocent and hear their pathetic cries that turn to whimpers, and then the silence of the dead. I find solace and comfort in the teaching of the true revolutionaries---mostly those of faith that preach to us of a world of brotherhood and sisterhood, of peaceful relationships and respect for one another. Of a god that cherishes us all, regardless of color of skin, nationality or professed religious differences and has little patience for those who preach hatred.
I look to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the other brave men and women who lead a peaceful struggle to overthrow institutional racism in my own country as examples of how to change what needs to be changed, without the killing of children and the innocent. I also hope to learn and be inspired by Gandhi and the brave men and women of Eastern Europe who led peaceful revolutions that overthrew the tyrannical Soviet Empire.
I would say to those cowards who slaughter the innocent in a pathetic attempt to man up to your sorry self-image that if you have a grievance, a cause, an injustice, use the tactics of peaceful resistance so I can hear your argument. I cannot, and I refuse to listen when you speak with a bomb and ask me to ignore the smell of blood.
I would say to my fellow countrymen not to speak the language of terror in return. Already the talking haters have come forth demanding that, in order to combat their terror, we become terrorists ourselves. Erik Rush, a frequent Fox News contributor, was quoted as saying: “Lets kill them all.” Here he was assuming that the terror was the result of Islamic extremists, ignoring the unfortunate yet all to real domestic terrorists that have waged terror against our own. But even taking for a moment that it was a sick individual seduced by jihadist hate filled rhetoric, think for a moment what he asks: The wholesale slaughter of men, women and children---genocide that would do Hitler proud. He wants to avenge the horrendous death of an eight-year old boy by killing their eight-year old boys? He wants to give cover for their murderous and cowardly hatred by inflicting others with our own murderous and cowardly hatred?
There is an old saying: When digging the grave for vengeance, you need two: One for them, and one for you. My heart aches for the victims in Boston as it does when I hear of terror bombings in Baghdad, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. I despair today of what kind of a world we have become. Yet I caution myself that is ultimately what terror wants: to despair, to see a world inflamed in order for me to betray my belief system and transform it into theirs: A world run by violence by little men with big hatreds. I would rather die than see this come to be.
A DEAFENING SILENCE
Sometimes the absence of a sound speaks volumes. When Pushcart Greg used to walk down Haley on his way over to the recycling center, his rickety shopping cart would announce his presence. That cart not only held his recycling haul for the day but all his worldly possessions. Talking to him I would look down into it and realize EVERYTHING---EVERYTHING he owned in life was in it.
Pushcart Greg had been in poor health. Alcohol, malnutrition and despair robbed his lanky frame of weight, something he could ill afford. He was forever bent over using the cart as a “poor man’s” walker. When the streets became quiet with the absence of his clanging cart, I asked around. He had become deathly ill; I was told and taken to the hospital, then to a nursing home where he died.
It’s been a bad summer on the streets. Since June sixteen homeless men and women have died. No headlines screamed their deaths, instead it was one body at a time; one lost soul at a time.
Four lives were claimed on the freeway between June and the end of August. Three men and a woman, all in their mid-forties to early fifties. The last one was a gentle giant with a hellacious drinking problem.
Charlie was well known and well liked, everyone’s favorite street drunk, much like the lovable family uncle, warts and all. Someone told me that he could sing like no other. He would entertain some with his singing and honor others with his honesty. Now he’s gone to be missed by cops and the homeless equally.
The police were deeply concerned. They tried outreaching to the shelters, to the providers, and to the homies to warn and to understand themselves what was going on. They thought there were enough shelter beds for everyone who wanted one. They learned differently. They tried to understand the despair of the streets. They shook their heads in wonder when we tried to explain. In sadness, they returned to their jobs a little wiser, a little more jaded.
The man I had been brought into the Intensive Care Unit in an attempt to identify was just the opposite of Charlie. It would take days to find out just who he was. God knows I couldn’t identify the man but maybe that had more to do with the tubes running in and out of his body, not to mention his swollen face and head. Death’s not pretty when it’s the result of human flesh verses a couple of tons of car metal. When would family and friends finally miss him? How long does it take for the silence to scream its warning, its finite message?
For a change of pace, death came by train crushing the life from Mason. Rushing to the scene, the cops heard classical music from his radio serenading the stilled air that he had been listening to when his life was stolen from him.
Gentle Ed died at Sarah House, finally finding peace at the end of his life; a peace that had eluded him for years on the streets. At Sarah House, he found himself surrounded by kind people who served him without judgment of any kind. They simply wanted to make his transition as peaceful and meaningful as possible. They gave him the love, not to mention the shelter that so desperately eluded him on the streets.
Vickie came home to Casa Esperanza when Death let her know that he was looking for her. When I saw her sitting in the wheelchair, bent over from pain that radiated throughout her absurdly thin body, part of me wanted to chastise her for leaving the nursing home down south. But how could I? She simply wanted to be with those who loved her when he finally caught up with her. Isn’t that what we all want in the end? Family. Friends. Love had been in short supply for the last several years for Vickie, but she had found it in the staff, providers and other homeless who call Esperanza home.
Suicide is a complex affair. It’s a cry for help, an end to a journey, and sometimes a hostile act against others. Who was “Krista” so mad at and for what reasons that she would want to hurt them so badly, would want to burden them with so much pain and so much guilt? How much inner pain, how much inner guilt did she have to want to exit life like that---punishing herself so badly with that kind of physical pain on the way out?
Krista for the most part hid her pain well. But calling forth the memory of her sad-sweet face, a certain sorrow can be found in her blue eyes just beyond reach. She had fallen so far in life that she saw no way to make the journey back.
Then there was the peaceful death under the freeway. The homie had crawled into his sleeping bag the night before and had fallen asleep never to awake. That’s the way he left this earth: listening to the citizens of our community as they rush to their busy lives not knowing the dying man they were literally driving over.
Will this carnage slow down? Or are the homeless to continue to die at an ever-faster rate, finally succumbing to lack of food, lack of shelter, lack of medical and psychological help. Exactly the same causes that the poor in New Orleans died from.
Will the homeless continue to face their fate alone, weakened in body and spirit, waiting for the traditional dying season of winter when coldness and wetness, hunger, pain and aloneness make death a reasonable option? And what of us? Will we retreat to our houses to play with our new plasma and LCD televisions or will we finally demand that the politicos finally do something about this---THIS time? Will we demand that our moral principals that our churches and temples teach us really mean something besides an hourly sermon? Can we as a community, stand for something---stand with our poverty-stricken neighbors, not only in Santa Barbara but also in Louisiana, in their hour of need?
Published Oct. 2, 2005 Santa Barbara News-Press
“Some of us are envious of ‘Krista’.”
If I had given it a moments thought, I would have known what the bowed woman who stood before me was talking about. But this was my first day back at the homeless shelter from a camping trip to Big Sur. It’s hard to think that only days before my greatest worry was having enough wood for the nightly fire. Now I had to decipher the convoluted message hidden within the enigma of pain.
“What do you mean?” As soon as I asked I knew the answer. I tried to brace myself for the harsh reply and relax my stomach that was suddenly twisted into a painful knot.
“Her pain is over with,” the woman quietly replied, her voice breaking.
This was a blow on top of the jackhammer strike of being told that Krista had hung herself when I first walked into the homeless shelter a few minutes earlier.
“You know my rule?” I reminded the woman before me. She was bent over as if too much history, too much weight lodged within her heart.
“I know, I’m not allowed to hurt myself,” she managed to say through chocking tears that washed across her face. “But you don’t know---I’m not used to this,” she said looking about her like she was in a house of fear at some county fair. “I’m not used to this. I used to have a home, money, a life---this,” she stated waving a hand in front of her like she was trying to dispel fog that threatened to engulf her. Her shoulders slid down buckling under the strain.
I tried pushing my own shock and pain aside. Looking around I could feel the heavy tension weighing the air. I could see hurting, calculating minds making bad emotionally laden equations. Suicide is contagious in such a volatile, emotionally liable, and hurting population with little to loose except unending and ongoing despair. Without even trying I could see half-a-dozen people sitting in chairs or sleeping on couches in the shelter with recent history of suicide attempts.
My mind drifted back to Krista. A slim and attractive woman with large eyes who walked with grace yet sadness cast a black veil about her. I remember the last conversation we had, the last bit of advice I gave her. I raked my mind: Had I missed something? Had there been something in her words, in her eyes foretelling the suicide?
A homeless shelter is hell on earth, Dante’s Inferno brought to life. A place where those damaged beyond repair find themselves coexisting with those who in their worst nightmares could never imagine such places existed.
Throughout the day, bits and pieces of information came forth and ironically the woman behind the tragedy came to life. She had been a model for one of the top agencies in the world. A long marriage to a producer, a life abroad, houses, travel where all hers. Then the descent started. Only in retrospect could one see that the road was paved with hell’s building bricks. A divorce, a wrong decision here, a bad turn of events there and suddenly she was sharing her life with a hundred strangers, most struggling with their own pain, their own despair.
What was the final straw? What pain could possibly cause someone to kill himself or herself as brutal and painful as hanging? What signs did I miss; did we all miss?
It turned out that Krista had asked for help the week that I was away. But the system was on overload. Lifeboat ethics was in full swing. If it didn’t bleed then it wasn’t administered to. What is sadness when the mentally ill, and those wounded by life’s experiences, live their daily existence punished for their frailty?
I hold Krista’s picture. Her large eyes, bordered by sweeping blond hair and a narrow face stares back at me. They plead for a reason to believe that all this craziness of a homeless shelter is just a bad dream. That she’ll wake up to her own bed in her own home. That someone to share her joys and even more important her pains will be there to comfort her. That a harried social worker will recognize the pain and offer absolution. That life won’t end this way. But it did and now my job is to corral the Genie now that it’s out of the bottle. To somehow dampen the siren song of non-existence that calls out its cruel master plan to the bleeding souls in a homeless shelter.
“David” comes up to me. “Is there hope?” His eyes water desperate to believe.
“Yes,” I try to tell him with conviction.
“I will move forward? I will leave this place behind?”
“There’s hope,” I state firmer as much for my sake as his. Days later David would end up trying to take his own life.
The only thing I know is this: That without hope, life is impossible for us all, and Krista’s solution takes on a terrifying resonance.
Hope; the one thing that finally left Krista, leaving her all alone, vulnerable, and the rest of us, a little less. The one thing that David was unable to find in the emotional vortex of the streets.
Published previously by the Santa Barbara News-Press
Coming back from vacation and rereading my journals I ran across this article that I had written two years back of a sad death of an old man:
“Art? What’s wrong?” I asked hoping against hope to keep my voice from cracking.
“I don’t feel so well. I hurt,” the old man replied through crippled lips. I leaned closer to better understand. He had lost his false teeth somewhere along the line and his speech was slurred as a result. With mounting alarm I noticed that his cheeks were hollow, like life was being sucked out of him.
Art was in his bunk at the homeless shelter. I had gone upstairs with a nurse to check up on him. He needed to be in a hospital, a nursing home or a hospice, not here, nor sleeping on the streets where we found him.
The night before he had returned to us from the hospital. Working that evening---watching him wheel himself into the shelter in his wheelchair---my heart broke. He looked worse than before his hospitalization. His skin color was all off---a deadly ashen gray, a hue that I had come to know well over the last two years as the homeless died at an ever accelerating rate. It is the color of death---of skin deprived of oxygenated blood---of hope slowly crushed by poor nutrition, cold and indifference. We had sent Art to the hospital five days earlier in a walker and by ambulance. He came back to us in a wheelchair delivered by taxi.
Upon his entrance to the shelter, I sat down with him and went through his few belongings. He had seven bottles of meds but no overall instructions of when or how to take them, least none that I could find.
In mounting frustration, a sigh escaped my own lips. I thought back to just last week. I found him on his hands and knees in the upstairs dorm. When I asked what he was doing, he replied, “Going to the bathroom.” He was dragging his faltering body along on all fours, hands and knees, while trying to hold his belt less pants up---his dignity dying along the way.
Rushing over, I helped him stand. Without his missing false teeth, his tongue protruded out between swollen lips. I remember thinking it was the same way Michael Jordan used to play basketball. But this was no multi-millionaire athlete. This was an old man dying in pain, alone and in despair in a homeless shelter.
“Dumping” of the poor by jails, hospitals and others, to homeless shelters and the streets is, all of a sudden, news worthy. But it has been a fact of life for most of my professional career. The so-called safety net was reduced years ago to a funnel that poured the neglected and poor into almshouses: homeless shelters. In these places, partially by design but mostly because good people answer the call of hurting times, a desperate attempt is made to connect to and help the new lepers of our age, to those who are shunned by some and despised by others.
This connection of soul to soul is often by the homeless themselves: Men and women who find the time---the need to reach out to offer help and hope to those without. Often it is the low wage earning staff who goes beyond their job description to look out for those too sick to take care of themselves. And sometimes it is the outreach workers who have the privilege to care for their clients.
But sometimes, all to often it is not a feeling of privilege but pain that paints my world black. Two weeks ago, that morning I helped Art back into his bed, with his moans slicing through the air lacerating my heart; he pulled the blanket up tightly to his chin with only his head sticking out. His sight darted about in panic. His tongue was still sticking out. He reminded me of a child who thinks they can keep the night monsters at bay with a thin blanket. But Art’s monsters came with the morning sunlight exposing harsh realities.
Art looked away. I could feel his embarrassment---the crushing knowledge that he was dying, dying in front of all of us---death coming before an audience of strangers.
“Art, everything is going to be all right. The ambulance will soon be here. They’ll be taking you to the hospital.”
“They don’t want me.”
Of course what he meant was: Nobody wants me. Nobody wants a poor, old, dying man.
Art went back to the hospital that morning. He was sent back to us---and again readmitted back to the hospital. After engaging the heart and professionalism of a certain doctor, (thanks Dr. Bordofsky) and Sarah House, a sick old man was welcomed into a hospice where he died surrounded by love within days from his last stay at a homeless shelter.
This death cut deep. The images from his last two weeks on earth will stay with me for a long time. Who knows maybe it is myself, years down the road that I see, crawling in pain just to get to a bathroom, one shared by two hundred others. It’s not a pretty way to go. Art will be missed, the manner of his death branding many of us to the core: mocking all of us---contemptuous of our spiritual beliefs, and, trashing our self-respect---where did it all go so wrong?
Two years ago: so much has changed---so little has...
posted previously on noozhawk.com
Call of Duty. Assassins Creed. We have turned war into a game. The blood flows easily and in brilliant red---but that blood isn’t real. But there is real blood that is shed. War is not a game. Real people, both the citizens of Afghanistan and our own sons and daughters fight them. War may be other dimensional for those who sit safely in Washington and who never tire of never-ending, low-intensity conflict. But it is very real and personal to the Marines and soldiers and their families who are the boots on the ground as it is to the locals whom the political correct like to refer to as “collateral damage.” A rather quaint and antiseptic saying for charred flesh and shrapnel shredded bodies---that is if enough of what was once a human being can be found.
The brutality that is war is all too real for the soldiers and Marines who must carry out ill-advised and ill-conceived military adventures abroad. They are not computer generated, three-dimensional virtual reality warriors. They are our sons and daughters, our husbands and wives, our aunts and uncles. They are the kids next door who can’t afford the ever-escalating cost of higher education so they enlist to pay for it. They are the boys and girls in school who fail to learn the lessons of Vietnam---perhaps because they aren’t taught. The same way that the lies, untruths and make believe WMDs are conveniently forgotten.
Some volunteer because of the supposed glory of combat. Others enlist to defend against an elusive enemy that shifts almost daily depending if we are nation-building, fighting an insurgency or conducting a proxy war against an enemy based in Pakistan. Or do we fight the Taliban because they are a threat to the corrupt Kabul government and the warlords---some of whom run drugs the same way drugs were run during the Vietnam War? Assuredly we don’t fight the ongoing war in Afghanistan against El Qaeda, which is now based in Pakistan and elsewhere. Or do we simply fight because that is what we do, who we have become?
Let me propose a new national enemy since we seem to demand a new one constantly. The new national enemy is apathy. The apathy we have for ongoing wars. The apathy that we show for the real costs of constant wars that are before us yet we always seem to forget when the few call us into new wars of choice. The apathy we hid behind when the price is too much for some to bear. The apathy we engage in when suicide is epidemic amongst our kin serving in the Armed Forces.
According to the D.O.D. suicides in the Armed Forces surged to a record high of 349 in 2012---more than the 295 service men and women killed in Afghanistan that year. In comparison 301 took their own lives in 2011. After having leveled off in 2010 and 2011 the sudden acceleration in suicides caught the Pentagon by surprise. Surprise? Really? What part of P.T.S.D. is not understood? The first word is post: meaning after-the-fact. Many Vietnam vets still struggle with P.T.S.D. so many years after that disaster. And now Iraq and Afghanistan vets are following in our footsteps. Is there any wonder? The only difference between them and Vietnam vets is that they are not despised as we were and their wars are lost a little at a time rather than all at once with the whole world watching.
While the Army had the highest number of suicides at 182, the Marines saw the greatest percentage jump: 50%! To confront the evil that man is capable of, to witness the carnage and suffer the soul damage that violence inflicts always costs. When the speeches become hollow and the music mute the combat veteran faces alone the horrors of war that are hidden for everyone else but him/her. When quiet solitude comes in the early morning hours for those without combat experiences that is the time when a symphony of sounds: the moaning of the wounded, the quiet of the dead obsesses our existence. The startle reflex to loud noises and sounds that reminds one of bombs becomes deeply ingrained over time. Disfigured flesh, the eyes that see Death stalking them, the cries of grown men calling for their mothers will forever be with the combat vet.
So when the patriot calls for endless war, calls us yet again to invest our country’s children stop and think. The costs are ongoing---maybe not for you. Maybe you can hide behind the apathy and pretend. But the cost will be paid for in flesh and blood and in the damaged minds and wounded souls of those put in harm’s way by apathy.
A just released study by the Department of Defense of suicide rates amongst veterans found that they had undercounted this rate by 22%. Previously they had reported eighteen suicides daily amongst veterans. For the years 1999 through 2010 the actual rate was twenty-two deaths a day---or one veteran who kills himself every sixty-five minutes. Sixty-nine percent of these deaths were amongst veterans fifty years of age or older. Those who die by their own hands are not included on the Vietnam Memorial Wall.
posted: noozhawk.com, 2-13-13
THE SLAUGHTER OF THE INNOCENT
Yet again, we find ourselves dealing with the slaughter of the innocent. Four times in the last few years we turned on our televisions, only to see weeping survivors: husbands, wives, citizens---casualties of mayhem all. But now it is fathers and mothers, and the brothers and sisters of six year olds. Six year olds! We can no longer even protect our kindergartens. How many times must we endure hideous murder of the innocent before we reawaken our sanity? How many of our children must be sacrificed upon the alter of a Rambo nightmare that some wish to play at? This fetish need to playact has become an absurdity. I do not need wannabe warriors to protect me. This delusional dream of protecting my rights from an evil government must end. If your over whelming desire is to play at being a warrior then man up and join the Marines.
I have stood in opposition my entire life against my government. First against the insanity of Vietnam, then against the Central American Wars, and then the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I fight equally against the denial of basic human rights by a government that hides torture behind a newspeak language of “enhanced interrogation.” At no time did I contemplate picking up a gun to deny my fellow citizens their basic right to life to effect political change. Yet fellow Americans demand the right to bear arms---which is really the fetish desire to possess weapons of war---weapons of slaughter. These weapons of war can and do maim and kill scores in mere seconds.
“When I was a child I played childish games. When I grew up I set aside those games and assumed adult responsibilities.” As a child, I played at war. I shot my friends a thousand times only to see them miraculously reborn to resume the game. In Vietnam, I learned the dead stay dead. Those who died, died for lies---for “truths” that shifted with the political seasons. The children of Vietnam were brutalized by that war. And now those nightmares that have haunted me from that war have added yet another reality: it is our own children that have become brutalized by the same weapons of war that I carried in a real war.
An M-16 on fully automatic can empty a twenty round clip within seconds. What purpose can such a killing device serve other than to kill---to kill quickly and kill many? And does one really need a magazine of death for target practice? And can you really call hunting a sport with such weapons? Is a deer really that threatening? And if such a weapon is truly needed by wannabe Rambos to fight a mythical dictatorship, then why not allow the ownership of machineguns? Why not rocket launchers? Why not helicopters gunships? Why not the Devil’s breathe: napalm?
When did a nebulous “right” to own a weapon of war deny me my basic right to go to the movie theater with my wife without the risk of death? When did gun rights become paramount over my right to talk to my congressperson on a street corner? When did my right to visit a shopping mall, a lecture hall, simply to walk down the streets in safety become secondary to the right of some to engage in delusional payback to society? When did gun rights overshadow the right of a six year old to go to school?
Year ago, I left a war bitter over the lies and brutality of it. The most disheartening being the price children paid that I sadly saw first hand on a hospital ship. The burnt flesh, the scarred faces of innocent children was the real and immoral cost of war. Now the mourning of grieving mothers and terror stricken fathers---sights and sounds that tear chunks from our hearts have become a reality. War on the home front is made against the fragile and small with weapons of war that are legal to possess. The weapon used to kill mere children is what I carried in a real war against a real and heavily armed adversary. This same weapon---is now used to rip the life away from children.
Our first responsibility as responsible adults is to our children: To feed them, to educate them, to love them. But all of this is impossible unless we secure them the most basic of all rights---their right to live. We have failed and we have failed miserably in this, the most basic of duty of a civilized society. We should all be shamed by this slaughter of the innocent.
post: noozhawk.com, 12-19-12
A Poem for Gloria
Screams, angry red flames, burst alive,
splitting the midnight black void.
Purple tipped inferno,
pushes across withering flesh.
The color of indifference,
the paint by number homeless refugee.
Steel gray fog swallows an investigation,
stillborn, absence the yellow tape.
Despair---white-hot coals while living,
death, consumed a wounded heart.
Alone, abandoned, isolated, fear,
a perfect storm, Gloria the eye.
Hers, the faceless enemy,
hers, the face of the enemy.
The Other personified,
the Other, birthed by fear.
She, indifferent to painful words, coldness of others---really?
she: saddened, abandoned, AWOL love.
Benign neglect, metamorphosis---,
burn of focused hatred.
classless disposition of fear.
Gone is the suffering,
Gloria is dead.
One year ago Gloria’s burnt body was discovered. She was a homeless woman living outside in a junkyard. One year later questions remain: Why did she not try to run nor crawl for help? Were their other wounds on her body other than those caused by the fire? Were her lungs scorched indicating that she was alive when the fire engulfed her? Were accelerants used? How did the fire start? Why was the scene not cordoned off? Work crews were scrubbing the yard clean within hours of her death. If a woman had died in a house fire in Montecito or Hope Ranch would not the scene be off limits to the public while a police investigation was being conducted?
Ross Stiles was killed a few years back. The police investigation into his death was closed in five weeks, before the Coroner had ruled his death was due to blunt force trauma to the head. His two killers still walk our streets. There was no justice in his case. Will there be justice for Gloria?
published: noozhawk.com. 12-5-12
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