In early 2005, Santa Barbara’s Restorative Policing Officer Bob Casey was making progress in earning the trust of a chronically homeless man in the upper State Street area. He was a harmless soul named Ken, but with a beard to his chest and hair past his shoulders, he looked positively scary. He slept in an alleyway behind MacKenzie Park, showered only in jail, panhandled in front of 7-11, and accrued citations — 415 in six years.
One rainy night Casey found Ken in one of his usual haunts and said, “You gotta get in out of the rain. You’re going to freeze and die.” Ken replied, “Okay, Bob.” Fortunately for both men, there was a place to take Ken that didn’t have lots of rigid rules he wouldn’t be able to follow. It was called WillBridge of Santa Barbara. The small, residential home for homeless mentally ill people had just opened on East Montecito Street and was designed specifically to support the city’s Restorative Policing program.
Casey introduced Ken to Lynnelle Williams, the program’s cofounder and director. With 17 years of experience, quiet strength, and maternal warmth, she was just what the doctor ordered. That night, Ken slept in a bed with his clothes and shoes on and left the next day.
Casey brought Ken back to WillBridge, and though his stays were brief one-nighters, his defenses were gradually lowering. After the 10th stay, Williams had become someone Ken could confide in and he agreed to move in. “He had a very gentle spirit,” Williams said. “After about six months, he came in after being out all day and said, ‘I’m home!’ We were shocked.”
During the next 24 months, good things happened. He quit drinking, completed drug court for his tickets, and became reacquainted with his family. Eventually, he agreed to move to a residential facility in another town, a place that offered a higher level of treatment, where he is today.
In the six years since Williams and business partner Gale Franco-Trowbridge opened WillBridge (Trowbridge has since moved on), dozens of Kens have come through its doors. Not all of the stories have been as unambiguously successful as Ken’s, but many come close. WillBridge has served 133 people since it opened, Williams reported, not including medical respite stays. Ninety-six of these people are currently housed. Why, you might ask, would Williams, or any well-adjusted person, willingly take on the endless challenges and heartache of a population that includes the absolute hardest of hard cases? For Williams, the answer is simple. She was called — literally.
In the October 2003 public meeting during which Police Chief Cam Sanchez announced his intention to start a Restorative Policing program, Williams, executive director of the Salvation Army’s Hospitality House at that time, was listening closely. “While the chief spoke, these words came to me and were as audible as if we were talking to each other: ‘I want you to support this initiative.’ I asked, ‘Lord, is that you? Are you talking to me?’ The reply was the same. ‘I want you to support this initiative.”
“When she left, she left literally on a wing and a prayer,” said social worker Ken Williams (no relation).
And so the process of opening WillBridge began, ultimately leading her to quit her post at the Salvation Army and devote herself to fundraising and logistics. “When she left, she left literally on a wing and a prayer,” said social worker Ken Williams (no relation).
Ken Williams is one of countless providers of services to the homeless here who rely on Lynnelle Williams’s willingness to do whatever she can to help. At the Salvation Army, agencies like Alcohol, Drug, and Mental Health Services (ADMHS) and Veterans Affairs (VA) have to pay a fee to keep some beds reserved for their clients. But Lynnelle always kept two beds aside for the veteran social worker to use for his clients, at no charge. “I could always go to her if I needed to get someone in,” said Ken Williams.
Lynnelle Williams, 56, is a single mother of two daughters. Born in Bermuda, she grew up in New York City. When she was 16, her family moved to California, but every 12 years or so they moved between New York, Bermuda, and California. In her first homelessness-related job, she was in charge of 160 to 180 women at a Manhattan Salvation Army shelter. Three years later, it was designated to be just for mentally ill and dually diagnosed homeless people, and Williams got eight-and-a-half years of on-the-job training.
Crystal Murphy credits Williams, her former boss at the Salvation Army, with saving her life. “I got into some trouble, was released from jail, and was a resident [at the Salvation Army],” she said. “I had no direction and was very angry. She saw something in me and said, ‘Hey, how would you feel about working here?’”
“You can’t sugarcoat anything with her,” said Murphy, who is now program director at the shelter. “She’s straightforward. She’ll bend over backward to help you, but you gotta be straightforward with her because she’ll see it all.”
Williams believes there’s a plan for her life that doesn’t necessarily coincide with what she wants, and this pulls her through fires others might flee, like the time, two years after WillBridge opened, that its books were packed with red ink, and Williams had yet to take a paycheck. Someone advised her to close its doors and get a job. But she answers to a different supervisor and saw it as a test of faith. She prayed and put out a fleece — a type of prayer where one asks God specifically for what one needs and expects it to be provided, giving thanks in advance. In this case, it was $625, which arrived as a check in an envelope from an unknown Iowa address three days later, she said.
In 2009, WillBridge was one of only two Santa Barbara nonprofits to be chosen for a Social Venture Partners (SVP) investment grant — $25,000 and the brain- and manpower of half a dozen SVP participants to help with board development, fundraising, and more. A second $30,000 reinvestment was announced just recently.
If WillBridge has been a series of tests of Williams’s faith, the thunderous opposition to plans for eight units of permanent supportive housing on upper State Street was certainly another. As Peabody Charter School parents expressed their opposition before the City Council on February 2, Williams seemed to be holding up just fine. The Steering Committee of parents, housing authority officials, and San Roque neighbors charged with working on solutions to parents’ concerns concluded on April 11 that they will accept WillBridge as a neighbor. Two members of the San Roque community with background in the fields of mental health, social, or homeless services will be invited to sit on the interview committee that selects residents.
Santa Barbara Police Officer Keld Hove, who replaced Casey as Restorative Policing officer when Casey retired, said Peabody parents shouldn’t worry. “Of all people, I would want to see Lynnelle in my neighborhood, rather than a for-profit sober-living place. She’s got a good big heart, and she’s there for the right reason.”
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Isabelle T. Walker is the founder and editor of the Santa Barbara Homeless Blog at homelessinsb.org.