Back in 2006, Deborah Barnes was still working as a landscape designer. Then the floods came that winter, and she found herself “called to the street,” at which point she became a one-woman rescue squad for homeless people who might otherwise have been washed away. She helped pass out tarps, rain gear, socks, and food to hundreds of people. When the rains stopped, Barnes figured life would go back to normal. But the phone calls kept coming. “‘There’s a woman under a bush who’s been beaten up,’” she recalled. “It was endless.”
Her life, she discovered, would never go back to normal. Back then, Barnes was struck by the large number of people who die on the streets. What happens to their stories? Barnes has never been one to let thoughts nag at her without doing something about it. A few months ago, she started a new website — HomelessMemorialofSB.com — to keep track of the people who’ve died homeless and poor in Santa Barbara and to share their stories.
The data, she acknowledged, has been hard to come by. For years, county social service worker Ken Williams tried to keep track of homeless deaths on the wall of a dear friend’s Mesa home, but his list of about 400, Barnes said, is often “sketchy.” Williams died three years ago, and the Mesa house went up for sale — but not before Williams’s friends could copy down all the names from the Mesa wall. Those names now reside on a page of Barnes’s website titled “Ken’s List.”
“When someone dies on the streets, there’s a lot of grieving going on,” Barnes said. “But there’s no place to do it.” She hopes her new website can help fill that void while providing a portal into a world most people know little about.
Barnes took the time to answer some questions via email. The following is an edited version of that exchange.
What is the importance of this project? What light do you hope gets shed?
There has never been a place you could go to learn about a homeless death in Santa Barbara, unless someone wrote an obituary. This site provides a place for family, street friends, and others to honor their memories, and it helps the public realize these are real people living real lives in our community.
I suspect most people, myself included, believe that life on the street is hard and people die. That if you drink and live in the elements, the chances are higher of dying sooner. And for people who decline services or can’t be reached, the odds are even worse.
You would be surprised who is on the streets: professors, doctors, teachers ― not just who you picture in your mind. Although mental illness is a major factor in homelessness, they are not all addicts, especially the seniors who are becoming homeless at an alarming rate.
Every time I write an obit, your comment to me is: “Thank you for showing me who this person was.” Everyone has a purpose on earth. They have abilities, talents, gifts. Each decides through circumstances often unknown to us how to deal with their trauma or demons. Each one deserves to have their lives remembered. Life on the street is very, very hard. When you are cited, spit on, stolen from, can’t find a place to lay your head down, are beaten or worse, then yes, without regular food, medical attention, and the ability to be clean, you might die sooner.
What moved you to make the site?
Long ago I met a street person, a Vietnam veteran. He was smart and a survivor. He was an alcoholic but followed the rules mostly. He stayed at the Mission Rose Garden and slept on a stone bench under a tree, then would walk every day to East Beach. Long, long walks. While in a crosswalk on State Street one day, he was hit and killed by an unlicensed, underage teen driver who claimed, “He didn’t walk fast enough.” No charges were filed. That life vanished. It hit me very hard. He was just gone. How would his wife and kids learn of his death? What about other family members? There was no way for them to know. So I wrote a piece, and his family was found. A closure could be had. I’ve been so busy each and every day that I could not create the site. It was a long-term goal. COVID’s stay-home policy provided me that opportunity.
Doing this project, what struck you the most?
How hard it is to find real information about street people. They are wiped off the face of the earth. But they are someone’s child. We were often so close to housing them. Too many thoughts run through my head…. What if we rented congregate living homes? How many more could we have helped and prevented their deaths?
That brings to mind a story. I was setting up a very large high school reunion a few years ago when an old friend called. She said her family thought her brother had become homeless and might be living in Santa Barbara. She had searched obits and citations all over but couldn’t find him. It turned out he was going by his middle name, and he was on the advisory board of my nonprofit! I reconnected them. She had not seen him in over 22 years since their mom died.
This man had worked for Wells Fargo for many years, then at Sears. Jobs phased out and costs kept rising. He was kind, soft-spoken, and well-loved. No addictions. Just loss of a job that prevented him paying rent, so he eventually lived in his vehicle. My high school friend planned to come see him the following month, but he died the week before she was due to arrive.
The memorial site will be a place for loved ones to find family if the typical ways of searching (usually arrests and citations) don’t work. The site is a place to have some closure and for family to know their loved one will not be forgotten.
Recently, I’ve been struck more by the toughness and resilience of street people than I am by their frailty. As vulnerable as they are, they keep going in the face of circumstances and challenges that might make a so-called “normal” person want to take a long walk off a short bridge. Any thoughts?
Yes, if we had a major earthquake, I know who we would reach out to for help. I’ve learned how to make a toilet, open a can of food with no opener, take a shower, where to find hot food ― all by befriending nomads. Street people are forced to survive each and every day without begging. Panhandling is not the norm for most. They have earned my respect in many areas because I realize how very sheltered I am. They have made me a stronger person by learning from them. Women have the constant threat of rape and beatings. You mention walking off a bridge. They eventually turn to what is offered ― alcohol or weed or worse. That is their “bridge.” That is how they calm the threats of their existence.
I’m also struck by how many homeless people have not died of COVID. At the beginning of the pandemic, we expected the homeless and their camps to be a vector, and a lot of energy was spent trying to come to terms with this possibility.
Yes, lots of energy and nothing was done. Everyone panicked but really did nothing despite the fact they received large funds to get them into motels. Being outside is better than inside is my feeling. My concern was street friends who sleep together in cramped camps to prevent theft and beatings…. This is where I figured we would have issues. But the issues never arose. We must all be forever grateful.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Deborah Barnes as a landscape architect; she is a landscape designer. This story has also been emended to note that the Mesa home, which is up for sale, belonged to Williams’s friend not Williams and that the list on the wall was copied down by Williams’s friends not Barnes herself.
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