Credit: Nick Welsh

CACOPHONY OF CROWS:  While taking my dog for an early morning walk during last week’s rains, the sky overhead erupted in an explosion of crows. Swirling above us was a frenzied upwelling of angry, agitated birds. The crows would descend en masse upon one of two nearby trees. They would swarm from the branches of one to the branches of the other and back again. It was unclear what they hoped to achieve. Another dog walker pointed to the telephone pole that jutted up between the two trees; the body of a solitary crow hung limply down. Somehow, the bird got zapped by a transformer at the top. A steady beam of black smoke poured from its carcass.

The smoke never stopped. 

I’d been in a grim mood at the time and found the display perversely uplifting. At least crows looked out for each other, I thought. When one bit the dust, they all grieved. And they testified — loudly and defiantly — about the injustice of it all. I didn’t see any crows shrugging, as if to say, “What are you going to do?”

I wish I could say the same for myself.

I’ve since read that crow funerals, as they are called, are a thing. It’s how crows — notoriously smart — come to grips with the dangers that lurk. One should not sentimentalize, the articles warned. On occasion, crows are reported to engage in sex with the deceased. Failing that, they might sometimes eat the dearly departed. This information demonstrates only that crows and humans share a deep evolutionary ancestry.

I thought of the crows when reviewing a spreadsheet provided by the Santa Barbara Police Department detailing the 281 times its officers “found” a dead body in the past two years. The vast majority of these cases involved people who died at home; cops show up to ensure there was no foul play. But 38 were people who died on the streets, in parking lots, garages, off to the side of the freeway, in parks, encampments, motels, cars, playgrounds, houses of worship, on the wharf, in a shopping mall, or even — in just one case — in an actual homeless shelter. These 38 died of many things, but surprisingly, suicide was not one of them. Drugs and alcohol played a role, but not as much as you might suppose. Most die during winter months when — if we’re lucky — it tends to be colder and wetter. 

I bring this up because we have now entered the wet and cold season. This is the time about 15 years ago that the Freedom Warming Centers were first opened up in response to what was then a shocking number of homeless deaths. Freedom was the nickname of a wheelchair-bound homeless Vietnam War vet whose birth name, Paul Bradshaw, has largely been forgotten. By all reckoning, he was tragic and sweet. 

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When preparing for a Fourth of July barbecue back home somewhere in the south, his wife and kids went off to the store to buy ice. They never made it home. They got wiped out by a big rig driver with the sun in his eyes and his attention elsewhere. Bradshaw, reportedly, was never the same. Somehow, he got to Santa Barbara and never left. On the night of his death — wet and cold — he literally gave a fellow homeless person the coat off his back. He’d just been denied admission to the Casa Esperanza homeless shelter for trying to smuggle in a bottle of vodka. People there tried to get him admitted elsewhere, but he steadfastly declined. He was, after all, Freedom. Just bring me a pillow, he reportedly asked. They did. He died that night with a pillow and his freedom. 

There were crows around back then.

To mark Freedom’s passing, a clutch of activists, medical professionals, and church people helped organize what became known as the Freedom Warming Centers. A mix of professionals and volunteers staffed the centers at various churches throughout the county. Today, 12 churches participate in a revolving-door fashion. They are absolutely essential because of Santa Barbara’s acute shortage of short-term shelter beds. 

The shelter on Cacique Street — now PATH — is contractually bound to provide 50 beds when it’s wet and cold. This past week, however, PATH could provide only 11 such beds. PATH is experiencing a simultaneous space crunch and a staff shortage. It’s trying to provide amenities to make the low-ceilinged shelter seem more inviting and less claustrophobic, a laudable and necessary goal. But those amenities — not all the way installed yet — take up space that could go to human bodies in need of warmth. 

Clearly, we need more crows.

The church-based warming centers have a very significant limitation. For starters, they open only when the temperature drops down to 35 degrees or when meteorologists predict there’s a 50 percent chance of rain for two consecutive nights. A guy I know who used to live on the streets noted that’s the same temperature Santa Barbara mortuaries use to keep their bodies from stinking. I haven’t checked to verify this, but given how many times he’s been brought back from the dead, he probably knows. He says the warming centers should open their doors when the mercury drops to 40, not 35. County administrators say there’s not enough participating churches to handle all the people who would be sheltered if the temperature trigger were changed to 40. They say places other than churches could step up, too. They say it’s an issue of space, not money. Homeless advocates are happy to hear that; that hasn’t always been the case, they say.

All this is real. But homeless encampment fires are real, too. Putting them out is a real problem. Not putting them out is even realer yet. 

Some people find crows loud and irritating. Maybe that’s why we need more of them.

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