Ken Williams, who for years functioned as both homeless advocate and social worker, died this past weekend after a long struggle with blood cancer. Williams, also a prolific writer of political thrillers with decidedly progressive themes, believed his exposure to Agent Orange while serving in Vietnam as a U.S. Marine contributed to his illness.
Williams worked as a social worker for nearly 35 years in Santa Barbara County, dealing with people on the streets and getting as many as possible signed up for federal assistance. With his signature gray ponytail and gentle swagger, Williams was anything but a faceless county bureaucrat. He developed a style that was one part renegade and two parts activist, regarding the plight of his clients as a civil rights struggle based on income inequality. Because he had wealthy friends with political connections, Williams had the latitude to define his work as more a mission than a job. When people on the street began dying in alarming numbers back in 2009, for example, Williams used his media connections to create a bully pulpit, asking loud questions and demanding action.
Williams retired six years ago at age 62, stepping down with no advance warning, explanation, or preparation for a successor. While his Lone Ranger style chafed some of those digging in the same trenches, his departure from the public sphere left a hole that was never filled.