In posh city, unnoticed deaths

It may be picturesque, but this upscale village of red-tile roofs and stunning seascapes is sending a huge number of lost souls to the county morgue. Bodies show up on the beach, in parks, along railroad tracks and in the heart of the business district, steps from four-star restaurants and boutique hotels.

Sometimes it's murder. Usually it's a case of used-up bodies giving out under the swaying palms.

"We just had another one," Santa Barbara County social worker Ken Williams told me Thursday morning. "He was probably in his 50s and played steel guitar on State Street by the museum. They found his body yesterday."

That was No. 18 for the year, said Williams, the same number of homeless deaths the city saw in all of 2008.

Santa Monica, with roughly the same population as Santa Barbara, averaged about 14 homeless deaths a year between 2000 and 2007. Los Angeles averaged 170 a year over that same period, which sounds like a lot. But it's a far lower rate per capita than the one Santa Barbara has had the last two years.

Williams, a Vietnam vet with a gray ponytail and gentle manner, takes each and every homeless death in Santa Barbara to heart, entering the names of the deceased in a journal. Williams has been doing outreach for 30 years, so he usually knew the victims and tried to get help for them before it was too late.

For months, Williams has sent me updates on the body count, trying to raise the level of alarm over what has been a relatively quiet phenomenon with no known cause. Maybe it's just a blip. Maybe it's that more people are on the streets because of the economy or because they were driven out of surrounding communities.

John Buttny, who runs Bringing Our Community Home, said the city of Santa Barbara has made some progress in getting homeless people into service programs rather than jail. But he and Williams both say there's a shortage of resources, and they've seen more women and children on the streets of late. All but one of the several hotels that used to offer lodging to the indigent have been shut down or gone upscale, and there's not nearly enough in place for those with chronic mental illness.

But those frustrations don't seem to defeat Williams.

"He's one of those people who keep doing," said Chuck Blitz, a friend of Williams who donates to local social causes and has turned his living room wall into a memorial, inscribing the names of Santa Barbara's homeless victims on white bricks. "There are other people who are as pure, but they don't have Ken's empathy."

Or his quiet rage.

"It's more likely that the man who was burned last week was set on fire," he wrote to me in May, the prose all the more powerful for its understatement. "Also, the coroner moved up the autopsy of the wheelchair-bound man who died -- which was likely a murder. Doing my rounds on Friday I ran across four other homeless people who had been beaten -- looking like a youth street gang."

Most of the deaths have been of natural causes, if you can call the ravages of unemployment, addiction, exhaustion and mental decline natural. But whatever the cause, Williams organizes vigils to memorialize the dead, and he sends me links to his columns at Noozhawk.com, a community newspaper.

"What did Gregory Ghan feel when he was set upon by his killers?" Williams wrote in June, imploring the community to demand justice in the cases of homeless victims, just as it would if those murders occurred in the million-dollars-and-up houses on the bluffs. "As a community, we dare not fail them."

But it's an uphill battle, Williams told me recently during a tour of his haunts. When it comes to politics and public policy, Santa Barbara's focus is on development rather than social causes. To many in the business community, the homeless are a nuisance, a deterrent to customers, he said. You'd think that might translate into more support for agencies that do the hard work of drawing people in off the streets and helping them rebuild their lives, but Williams says that hasn't happened yet.

"Give us the beds," Williams said, and the problem wouldn't be so bad.

One stop on our tour was Casa Esperanza, a shelter that has 200 beds but can only use half of them because of arcane government regulations. There, we met Joe Martinez, 59, a former Los Angeles machinist who used to work in manufacturing before it dried up in California. That's when he moved to Santa Barbara, where he sleeps in parks and on the beach. He said his body has failed him, with an aching back and useless legs, and he's hoping to stay alive until Social Security kicks in and pays for a roof somewhere.

Williams introduced me to "Mr. Smith," which isn't his real name, but he needs protection. Mr. Smith was on the beach with Ross Stiles, 43, the night Stiles had a bottle smashed over his head.

"We were across from Fess Parker," Smith said, meaning the beachfront hotel. Smith didn't know his friend had been hit, so he slept through the night and awoke to find Stiles complaining of a headache. When Stiles began drooling and slurring his words, someone called 911, but it was too late.

Stiles was dead.

There are bad guys out there, Joe Martinez said. Predators and thieves, no doubt about it. There are also many like Smith, who fought in Iraq and started using alcohol to blur memories and soften post-traumatic stress.

Williams, who went from enlisted Marine to antiwar protester a generation ago, knew why Mr. Smith refused to come indoors: It meant giving up the bottle. But Williams wouldn't let it go.

"I finally just told him, 'You've got to come in. That's it.' "

Mr. Smith, who finally gave in, has been sober for a month.

Williams showed me two memorials to the dead, one a sculpture at Casa Esperanza, the other a plaque at the Salvation Army. Damon, hit head. Ronald, body found on beach. Rose, beaten with tree branch.

"There's a spiritual quality to people" who are tired and destitute, Williams said. Living in public, they drop all pretense. They appreciate an act of kindness.

Maybe it was Vietnam that made him the soldier he is today, Williams said as we sat in his car outside the Salvation Army. Maybe it was all that senseless dying and suffering.

"Maybe," he said, "I'm making amends."

--

steve.lopez@latimes.com

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
53°