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Formerly homeless, Army veteran now an ambassador on Orlando’s streets

Struggling with bipolar disorder, David Williams once spent 14 years living in the woods, where his lone friend was a raccoon he named Creeper. Today he's an ambassador helping other homeless people on the streets of Orlando, Fla.

SARAH ESPEDIDO, ORLANDO SENTINEL/TNS

By KATE SANTICH | Orlando Sentinel | Published: February 11, 2019

ORLANDO, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — At the edge of Orlando’s Lake Eola Park, David Williams stands tall like the soldier he once was. He wears gray slacks, a thick, black holster with his radio and first-aid kit, and a gray shirt with a wide swath of fluorescent yellow across the front — a sort of beacon to the befuddled, lost and weary.

One of Orlando’s new crop of “ambassadors,” Williams, 58, walks the downtown district giving directions, serving as a safety escort, reporting suspicious behavior and notifying officials in The City Beautiful of anything that, well, isn’t.

He also offers guidance to the city’s homeless — a subject he knows too well.

“Out of all 17 of the resource officers, I’m the only one who has been in their shoes,” he said, spotting a worn-looking man slumped by a wall. “I was homeless for 14 years. I’ve used every resource out there.”

On a recent weekday, he hurried to the Rosalind Club, a 1916 landmark on Lake Eola’s shore, where he knew the elderly ladies who play bridge will be looking for him to help them navigate busy Rosalind Avenue.

“Hi! Hello! Are you crossing the street today?” he asked a trio of women. They smiled, and one extended her arm for guidance.

“He’s just delightful,” Pat Williams, a retired nurse from Georgia, said later. “He’ll stop the traffic for us. He just takes his job so seriously. … I’ll be 84 next month, and I told him he made me want to be young all over again.”

The image of Williams now — authoritative, confident, smartly dressed in his uniform — is a stark contrast to his former life.

Though Williams had graduated with honors from Oak Ridge High School and served honorably in the Army, rising to the rank of sergeant, he had floundered after military life. He worked in warehouses, drove trucks and labored in construction, but he never stayed in one job long. In a single year, he had as many as 22 employers.

Increasingly mentally and physically ill, with worsening bipolar disorder and lupus, he gradually withdrew. And for nine of the 14 years he spent homeless, he stayed almost exclusively within a 3-acre radius of woods off John Young Parkway, avoiding all human contact.

His only friend was a raccoon he named “Creeper.”

At night, Creeper would emerge from the shadows and sniff around Williams’ camp — a series of tarps Williams used to cover himself in the day so he could sleep. The darkness also brought relief from the scenes his mind created to frighten him. The mania drove him relentlessly; the depression bullied him into hiding.

The lupus left him with rashes and then scars. Though the blotches appear minor now, at the time, he thought himself disfigured.

“Nobody wants to be around me,” he told himself.

In darkness, he would venture out for food, relying on a few kind restaurant workers in the neighborhood who saved him leftovers. Then he patrolled his perimeter. And he shared his secrets with Creeper.

But one night, Creeper stopped coming.

“I knew he was gone. I knew he was probably dead,” Williams said.

And he knew that, if he stayed in the woods, he would probably end up dead, too.

The thought forced him to re-enter society.

In 2015, after coffee and a sermon at Compassion Corner, the former downtown drop-in center for the homeless, he overheard a pastor talking about a meeting where they were going to house homeless veterans. When the pastor left to attend, Williams followed.

In a hall at First Presbyterian Church of Orlando, Andrae Bailey, then CEO of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness, was speaking to 300 people, organizing an effort to identify all homeless veterans and to get them into housing. The meeting was to rally support and to announce training; it was not to sign up homeless people on the spot.

Williams sat in the back, confused, until Bailey finished speaking. Then he walked up the aisle.

“Excuse me, sir. My name is David Williams and I’m a homeless veteran. I’ve been homeless for 14 years,” he said.

Bailey already had spent six years working on homelessness. He gave countless speeches, commissioned studies and harangued politicians and corporate CEOs to address the problem. But in the months that followed, he would come to understand the challenges of homelessness in a way he had never before. He gave Williams his phone number and a promise of housing.

“You are my problem now,” he said. “In a good way.”

At first, Bailey helped put up Williams in a local motel as he awaited a housing voucher through the Department of Veterans Affairs. Williams then got an apartment and Bailey gave him a job for a few months as a veteran outreach worker.

Williams’ parents were dead and he was estranged from his three brothers. His sister did what she could, but she lived out of town. Without a support network, and after so long away from society, he struggled with handling money, making friends and keeping appointments. Within a year, he stopped taking his medications and was evicted from his apartment.

“Yes, they took good care of me, including Mr. Bailey and all of them,” Williams says. “But at the end of the day, when they went home and the sun went down, I don’t know nobody to call. I had no connection. The only time that, you know, I feel a part of anything was when I left the house and came downtown.”

Bailey realized his understanding of homelessness had been academic.

“I think the VA nationally and locally deserves a lot of credit for housing veterans,” he says. “But what became clear to me after a season of time is that David didn’t just need a program; he needed people around him who were going to support him the way they would support their family — and not just for a month or two.”

In fact, it has taken more than three years to help Williams create a stable life. Last June, back in VA housing and on disability, he got married — to a 58-year-old restaurant worker he had met during his time in the woods.

And three months later, when he heard the city was looking for ambassadors, he found his calling.

“You couldn’t have a better ambassador,” said Dick Batchelor, a well-connected Orlando consultant and former legislator who became part of Williams’ support network. “He certainly knows what he’s talking about.”

At $12.50 per hour and only three days per week, the work is not mainly about money, Williams said. After all, the VA covers his rent and medical needs.

“I would not have taken this job if it hadn’t been about helping people. I wouldn’t even be here,” he said.

As he spoke, he saw a man with a backpack by a fountain. It is where Williams himself used to sit, listening to the rhythm of the falling water.

Williams approached, smiling, and sat down next to the man. “Is it OK if I talk to you for a minute?” he said.

The man calls himself “Chino.” He is homeless and awaiting a Social Security card so he can get the identification he needs for a job. Williams told him how he can speed the process and where he can go in the interim. The two talked for about 15 minutes, then Williams gave him a business card with his number.

“Thank you,” Chino said. “There ain’t too many people offering help. I appreciate it.”

At the end of his shift, Williams will take the bus to East Orange County, then ride his bike the 3 miles to the apartment he shares with his wife.

One recent night, as he rode, a raccoon darted from the woods, then paused by the side of the road. Williams couldn’t help but think of Creeper.

He stopped for a moment, and the raccoon ran back into the darkness.

Williams called after him. “Stay safe, little buddy,” he said.

©2019 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)
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