Among SB's homeless, Colleen Devine was loved and respected. Her friends say she was universally kind, but also lived dangerously.
By Isabelle T. Walker
Of the umpteen hardships that accompany being homeless, confronting death regularly is one of the particularly insidious ones. Take care of yourself as best you can, sleep in shelters, visit the free clinics, give up smoking–none of it will safeguard you. Sooner or later, someone you know, perhaps love, is going to die suddenly and prematurely.
On Wednesday, six homeless people and three Casa Esperanza staff members sat around a table to talk about the death of a 42-year-old homeless woman named Colleen Devine. Grief counselors were called in from Hospice of Santa Barbara to help residents of the shelter, and its staff, cope.
She suffered massive injuries over a week ago after being hit by a car while riding her bike. She was riding at night on South Milpas Street, and it’s thought she turned suddenly into traffic. She never regained consciousness. Family made the decision to remove her from life support more than a week later.
Colleen’s death was a blow. She was well liked among the disparate groups of un-housed in Santa Barbara. She was indefatigably social, she was loud, she was open (maybe a little too open), she was positive, she was at times reckless, not only on her bike, but in her way of life as a whole. These are some of the things people said about her in the grief session.
“You know, when people just make you feel better in the moment, about where you are,” said Nicole Menegon, who works at Casa. “[Colleen] was that person.”
“She had an exceptional presence, [she was] incredibly full of life, and always lifted my spirit,” said Jan Fadden, director of medical services at Casa.
“She was always kind to everyone, she wasn’t afraid of anything,” a tall woman seated at the end of the table, said.
Clyde Mahdi is in his mid 40s and lives at the Rescue Mission, though he expects to be in housing soon. He knew Colleen well. He sat with his elbows on the table, and while talking about Colleen, he more than once dropped his head into his hands.
“When I first heard about [the accident], I was like, ‘I don’t want to hear it.’ I wasn’t ready to hear it. Then I thought, ‘Oh, Colleen will get through this.’ But then I started to hear how bad it was.”
Mahdi lost another homeless friend seven months ago, which made this death harder to take.
Isaiah is a young man, tall and thin who has the thankless job of working security at Casa. That means he turns away people who’ve been banned for breaking shelter rules or who are drunk.
“When I first started working here, I thought everyone hated me. But then I met Colleen and everything changed. We needed her around here,” he said.
The ironic thing is that Colleen never stayed at Casa. She just visited, availed herself of the lunches, saw the nurse. She stayed outside, she camped, she stayed in RVs with friends.
The other ironic things is that Colleen had a degree in Environmental Biology from Humbolt. And she had children. At one point, not too long ago, she seemingly had it all. But not really.
“She had the degree. She had the husband, She had the white picket fence and she said ‘No, this is not what I want.’” said Fadden.
“There was something she was seeking that she didn’t quite get to,” offered someone. “But nobody here knows, I suppose,” said Isaiah.
‘The day she was hit, she went to the DMV to get her California Identification,” said Nicole, “And she signed up to be an organ donor.” After she was taken off life support, her kidneys were harvested.
The hospice workers suggested that people hold some sort of a ritual, or memorial, for Colleen, to help them say good-bye. “It’s not about forgetting them, it’s about learning to live without them,” one of them said about the grieving process.
The driver of the car was not cited after the accident. A impromptu memorial for Colleen was created on the lower Milpas sidewalk where she was thrown from the bike. It’s near Crown Liquor Store.
“I’m never going to ride my bike again without a light. That’s going to be my thing for Colleen,” said Nicole.