In Memoriam: Ken Williams, 1950-2018

Ken Williams
Paul Wellman (file)

Ken Williams walked the streets of Santa Barbara for more than three decades, reaching out to the poor and the marginalized in our community. He did this long before street medicine was a buzzword and before multiple agencies began looking into the causes of chronic homelessness. Ken provided comfort and compassion to a part of society that many choose not to acknowledge.

I met Ken in 2004 at Casa Esperanza. It was easy to see that he was the guy who understood the system of social services better than anyone. Ken was skilled at helping individuals obtain Social Security and thus secure income in order to obtain housing. Many of the people he helped were veterans, for whom he had a deep concern, as he himself was a veteran. I think it’s safe to say that his time in Vietnam dictated his long and successful career as a social worker in Santa Barbara.

Since his death on June 10, 2018, social media has been buzzing with accolades to Ken and the work he accomplished. What I hear over and over from his colleagues is that “Ken taught me so much.” Ken’s fortitude and firm passion for social justice defined his work. Never did I witness him lose his cool or become angry with his clients.

As we know, the system moves slowly; but Ken stayed the course.

Ken’s deep devotion to being a voice for those who were left unheard included ruffling a few feathers. He was known by local officials and had their respect. His causes were frequently documented in the press. Some called him a “pulpit bully” as he did not back down to anyone, and this certainly made him a force to contend with.

I remember my mother, who was an avid Los Angeles Times reader, calling me to ask, “Do you know this Ken Williams? He’s turning benches around on State Street.” I responded, “Yes, how do you know?” She let me know that the L.A. Times had done a big article on Ken and the benches. After I shared this story with Ken, he soon gave one of his books to my mom, with a personal note inside, which she cherished. This sort of kindness and generosity defined Ken’s personal and public work ethic.

Project Healthy Neighbors was an event that Ken spearheaded with the support of Public Health, Cottage Hospital, and other service agencies. It was a three-day collaboration to provide medical and social services to the working poor and those without homes. The planning committee began organizing six months before the November event. Ken was able to orchestrate funding and gather a large, diversified group of volunteers.

Hundreds of donated backpacks had to be filled with essentials. Shoes had to be gathered and food donated in order to create a successful event. In addition to all that was provided, the best part was that everyone was brought together. The homeless, the providers, local officials, and the press all gathered in the parking lot of Casa Esperanza to share stories, provide services, and create community.

One of the things that brought Ken the most joy was the “100 for 100” program. Ken and a good friend decided to give out 100-dollar bills to 100 individuals living on the street during the winter holiday season. I was lucky enough to accompany him a couple of times and witness this act of spontaneous generosity. It was deeply moving, and the responses were unforgettable. The underlying sentiment was always one of gratitude and humility. With his extremely slanted script, Ken would document each and every recipient’s name and response to the donor. It was a win-win-win as everyone benefited.

Ken Williams checks in with Christine on State Street and shares a laugh.
Courtesy Photo

One of Ken’s most important and memorable qualities was his gentleness when talking with those he served. He left judgment out of the equation and dealt with each person as if they were all that mattered. In other words, he allowed the person to be seen, which is often the biggest heartbreak on the street, to not be seen. There are very few who are willing to listen to the stories that homeless people tell.

Time and time again, a person would not be permitted to stay at the shelter for one reason or another. Ken would encounter these situations and strategically saunter into the director’s office, and within minutes he would emerge with that smile that let us all know that the person, usually a mentally ill woman, was secured a bed. I’m not sure Ken had a magic wand, but he certainly possessed a particular method of meeting his objectives.

Ken Williams’s legacy was summed up for me last week as I drove down Anapamu Street, past the beautiful Sunken Gardens. There stood an old acquaintance, shopping cart filled to the brim with his sacred belongings, some of which made political statements. Our eyes caught, and I slowed down. He lifted his arms in the air and mouthed the words “Ken Williams.” He paused, I paused, and then he bowed his head.

A public memorial for Ken Williams takes place Sunday, July 22, 11 a.m., at the Courthouse Sunken Gardens.


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