Ken Williams, the County of Santa Barbara’s high-profile homeless outreach worker — not to mention outspoken homeless-rights advocate — suddenly and mysteriously retired two weeks ago after 35 years on the job, leaving no one to fill his shoes or take over his caseload. “He announced one day that he was gone,” said his boss Kathy Gallagher, the county’s Department of Social Services director. “We’re still trying to figure out who to handle the job, but it’s our intention to fill his position.”
Williams, who just celebrated his 62nd birthday, explained he’d felt increasingly “smothered” by the county bureaucracy and that he wanted to focus on his writing. A prolific writer, Williams has two published novels and seven others waiting to be published as well as eight screenplays. “I just really love writing,” he said. “I’m hoping to connect with a wider audience.”
Within the county’s social services bureaucracy, Williams was always a lone ranger chafed by protocol and speaking critically, more than occasionally, of his department on behalf of the homeless population. To the extent he rubbed superiors the wrong way, Williams was tolerated because he had politically powerful supporters and because his job saved the county money; it was Williams’s function to get homeless people off county relief rolls and onto federal assistance.
In recent years, Williams grew more outspoken. In a Los Angeles Times article last year, Williams was quoted skewering plans — since abandoned by City Hall — to spend $50,000 to rearrange the benches on State Street so that homeless bench-surfers would not annoy passersby. In regular columns published by Noozhawk, Williams has insisted that Gloria Gerlach, the homeless woman who died in a suspicious fire last year, was killed, and he criticized city police for not doing enough to investigate her death. Williams has insisted he’s made such remarks on his own time and that he need not get approval from departmental superiors.
Outside his department, the activist community surrounding homelessness has grown vastly more complex, competitive, and insistent upon measurable results. Three mega-umbrella organizations dealing with the homeless are now in the process of merging: Bring Our Community Home, Common Ground Santa Barbara, and the South Coast Homeless Advisory Committee. Commenting how he’d recently seen a flow chart of how the new entity would function, Williams said, “You can show me all the flow charts you want, but until you deal with the growing prejudice against the poor, it won’t do a thing.”
Williams, who’s worked in a field notorious for occupational burnout, said that the biggest change he’s witnesses since first working with the homeless is fear. “The fear isn’t just that there are more poor people,” he said. “It’s increasingly that ‘I may join those ranks.’”