The agony and the ecstasy of Wendell Williams
The first time Wendell Williams technically became homeless, he had stopped paying his rent. He fell behind by several months because he started choosing to use that money for drugs. “But I was maintaining,” Williams said. “I was still driving a BMW and still wearing a suit every day.”
He gave up having a place in his name to move in with someone he had just met. When he started struggling financially, Williams, a radio executive, first thought he wasn’t earning enough and started working part-time at a grocery store.
However, money was not the problem. Substance abuse, built upon trauma and misunderstanding, put Williams on a long and winding road to sleeping on the streets of Washington, D.C. His life began to unravel as he took advantage of his new acquaintance’s hospitality. She never asked for help with the rent, which allowed Williams to use his own money to run in the streets.
“I can’t blame where I ended up on no safety net, no education, or no family,” Williams said, citing the support of his parents and the Catholic elementary and high schools that he was sent to. “The only thing I can blame it on is that undiagnosed mental illness played a part in it.”
That long journey, darkest in the mid-1980s, landed Williams in Alexandria, Virginia, where he is now a staple in the community and can be found at the Del Ray Farmers’ Market every weekend. Still in recovery, he is living proof that mental health can be managed and chronic homelessness — which affects more than 1,400 Washingtonians according to a count that took place in January — can be beaten.
Williams has always been ambitious and competitive. He grew up in Washington with five brothers and one sister and attended the District of Columbia Teacher’s College, now University of the District of Columbia, where he developed an interest in student radio. Springboarding off of a selective internship at Howard University’s station, WHUR, Williams completed training with the National Association of Broadcasters and shadowed Willis Crenshaw, a retired NFL running back for the St. Lewis Cardinals, who worked for WMAL Television in the sales and marketing department. It all paid off when he was hired right after school by the award-winning WTUE FM in Dayton, Ohio.
Financial success led Williams to dabble in substance use at parties and in other social situations, which led him to develop a foundation of habits that he described as “purely hedonistic.”
He wasn’t alone. While they did not expressly condone it, Williams said top executives in the industry “knew that it was all about drugs, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll.” No one said anything as long as you met your deadlines, according to Williams. One of his bosses would invite employees to golf with him every Thursday, at his expense, on company time, and usually smoking marijuana throughout the day.
Both of Williams’s grandparents suffered from and ultimately died of alcoholism, which is why he and his siblings always said they would not drink, they would do drugs. ”We were talking sh** like ‘drugs are organic, they come from the Earth.’ or ‘God made it.’” Williams said. “Because we were misinformed. We were the first generation to wholly experiment with these kind of things.”
Culture and skin color shaped his outlook and pushed him to work hard. As a young man, Williams threw himself into athletics to prove his masculinity. In sixth or seventh grade, the archdiocese family services at his school suggested that he might need to talk to somebody. But his mother was vehemently opposed to the idea because, in those times, when something was said about your child having a mental illness it reflected on you as a parent, according to Williams. “Today we know it’s more chemical than moral. I was never a bad child, but I was a different drummer kind of child,” he said. He kept learning and challenging himself.
As the only Black staff member at the radio station in Dayton, Williams worried that his colleagues didn’t hold him to the same standards they expected of themselves — until some of them began to show frustration when he consistently won intra-office competitions. He also believed that, to his peers, his performance would be representative of the Black community and must be impeccable.
This effort seemed to be rewarded when entrepreneur and station owner Cathy Hughes reached out to Williams in Dayton and asked him to “come on back and help us do something” in D.C. at WOL 1450. Hughes had just purchased the station and remembered Williams from his WHUR internship at Howard. Once back in the District, Williams jumped at the chance to be on staff at WHUR when a position opened up.
He had arrived professionally at what bestselling author Ta Nahesi Coates called “The Mecca” of Black America in his book “Between the World and Me.” Williams soon regretted it.
“Everything there was run backwards, poorly,” he said. “When you’re a student at Howard University, it is so glamorous and so big. As a worker, you come back with different eyes.”
He felt that the station was more concerned with marketing itself as an “urban” outlet than with running a business. And he said as much to his superiors, who, according to Williams, did not appreciate hearing someone in his 20’s tell them how to do their jobs. Others accused him of “acting white.”
On the other side of homelessness, Williams still described this as the most disappointing situation of his life.
The separation from WHUR was messy. Lawyers were consulted and, ultimately, Williams left with six months of severance pay.
At this point he had a casual attitude toward drug use, a pain that was more deep-rooted than he realized, and a bank balance that didn’t require him to go to work every day. For the first time, Williams began using drugs addictively. “In retrospect, that time that I wasn’t working really fuelled up the rocket before its launch,” Williams said. “I was getting high full-time.”
The difference between an addict and a person who recreationally uses or abuses drugs, according to Williams, is that the addict tends to have some kind of internal trauma that the drug suppresses. Recreational users don’t. So when the stakes get too high, the recreational user can walk away. But the addict uses to stop the pain. And pain never stops — so they go further and further into addiction.
Williams eventually secured a job through his former boss from Dayton, who called asking for help with a new station in Hampton, Virginia. Williams wanted to go back to business as usual and do the work. But he brought the baggage of addiction with him.
“Y’know, you’re of the mindset that when other things manifest or come up, that you’ll be able to put this stuff down. Because that’s the way you’ve been taught — that it’s all about willpower and a strong mind,” Williams said. “But when it comes to this thing we face, mental illness and addiction, one and one don’t equal two. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. Your intelligence becomes your worst enemy. You think you’re going to think your way through it, that you’re going to figure it out. But it’s chemical. it’s electrical. Not to mention, you’re thinking with a diseased brain.”
He quickly realized that he had created a consumption pattern. Whereas he could always point to impeccable performance at work to show that things were okay, now Williams started to underperform. His life was being influenced even when he wasn’t technically under the influence. He never used on the job, but he was using before and after the job, resulting in fatigue and less impulse control. Then he became a no-call, no-show for the first time. It wouldn’t be the last and he decided to come clean to his boss.
“I went in to see him one morning and I could tell that he was displeased,” Williams described. “I said, ‘I think I have a drug problem.’ And he said, ‘Thank God, I’ve been waiting for you to say that.’”
What Williams didn’t expect was that his boss would reach into a desk drawer and pull out an Alcoholics Anonymous book for him. It turned out that his boss had been a member for almost 20 years. “Like any good member of AA, we don’t proselytize. Unless a person asks, we don’t feel a need to break our anonymity. But at that point he did,” Williams said. “I continued to struggle and that’s when I went to treatment for the first time.”
It was a costly move. Gossip spread throughout the industry, which Williams saw as a nail in the coffin of his radio career. And treatment is not a one-off solution.
Williams hadn’t committed to abstinence. Nor had he joined a community support group such as AA. The way he saw it, he went to the hospital for treatment and he was going to come out well.
“Total abstinence was a minority opinion back then,” Williams said. “The way the disease works is it likes to split hairs. It likes to tell you that your problem is with bourbon and whiskey, that your problem’s with brown liquor — not vodka or gin. Or that your problem is with cocaine but it’s okay for you to smoke marijuana.”
Today, he won’t even touch sugar, cigarettes, or fast food. But in the ’80s, it was all Williams could do to keep up appearances: jumping from job to job, concealing his habits, and moving back home if things got serious.
When his family would no longer abide drug use while living at his father’s house, Williams became literally homeless for the first time. He spent the night in Blair Shelter on I St. NE, which is now a transitional program. On the second night, he arrived at the shelter too late to get a bed and counted himself fortunate to find a hotel parking garage on New Jersey Avenue with the door stuck open.
GETTING UP AGAIN
Now that homelessness had really set in, Williams embarked on what he called his “reunion tour.” He traveled from city to city in reverse order of all the places he used to work, aiming to find support from the friends he knew he could count on and hoping to resurrect the positive direction his life had been going in the last time he lived in those places. Most of the people he had started his career with were now senior executives. The couldn’t give him a job necessarily, nor did he ask for one. But most didn’t blink when he asked for a few hundred dollars and some put him up in hotels for weeks at a time.
“I even had a guy try and send me down to run a new station in [The Virgin Islands],” Williams said. “But I was so afraid of going down there on my own, of giving up the life that I was living and of failing. Fifteen years earlier, I would have taken that job and smoked it.”
Most of his friends didn’t know how he had been living. While they were happy to help, Williams eventually started to wear out his welcome. No one seemed to understand why he couldn’t get his act together. They remembered a focused individual who could work his way through any obstacle.
At this point, his mental health was in shambles. Williams was arrested in Cincinnati and forcefully put on medication for the first time, which led to a series of hospitalizations where a mental health agency had to manage his life.
“The way they deal with you if you’re homeless and you have mental health issues is they medicate you and overmedicate you,” Williams said. “Every symptom you manifest means some more medication, upping your dosage or giving you something in addition to your medication.”
Williams had been treated for manic depression and seen no progress. He attempted suicide multiple times before ever being diagnosed and counts himself lucky for being committed in Cincinnati and being assigned a doctor there who he compares to Patch Adams: young and open to new ideas.
“‘I think you’ve been misdiagnosed,’ the doctor told me,” Williams recalled. “’You’re going to be here for a while, so why don’t we just take you off everything., let you sit here and let you bounce off the walls. You’re not going anywhere anytime soon and the walls ain’t gonna come down.’”
The doctor put Williams through a battery of tests and determined that he had a mood disorder. He was prescribed mood stabilizers, which helped.
After his release from hospitalization, Williams ended up in a Cincinnati shelter, where he found an unlikely introduction back into broadcast. Donald Whitehead, who worked for the local coalition for the homeless, stopped by the shelter and offered a McDonald’s meal to anyone who would go on a TV show and help fill the audience.
“I bought the free meal,” Williams said. He and 14 other shelter residents piled into a passenger van and rode down to the local cable access studio.
Whitehead was the host of Streetvibes Television and wanted the audience to look full when they panned the room while taping. During the show, they asked for audience participation and Williams chimed in. Whitehead liked what he had to say and asked Williams to return as a guest the next week — eventually becoming his mentor.
“Williams was in crisis mode at the time,” Whitehead said. “He was down, bitter, and devoid of hope, having ended up back in a shelter after being evicted.”
Streetvibes was the Cincinnati street newspaper, a concept unfamiliar to Williams. The paper was produced by the coalition for the homeless and sold by people experiencing homelessness as a source of income. They also had a book, a radio show, and the cable show that Williams began to host regularly whenever Whitehead was out of town. The nonprofit’s staff kept pressing Williams to sell the newspaper, saying he’d be good at it and could make some money. Williams finally relented when Whitehead told him they needed someone to man a flagship table in Fountain Square at the center of downtown Cincinnati.
He made $200 in a matter of hours and never looked back, soon selling the paper regularly in front of the YMCA. People on their way to work out would say, “‘You’re out here again? What the hell is in that paper, man, that you stand out here with this kind of dedication, in the cold?’ or whatever,” Williams described. “That’s when you’ve got to tell people about the movement. If you’re selling a $2 donation, that’s what you’re going to get. But if you’re selling the movement, even if they don’t buy a paper right then and there, the next time you see that person is when they’re going to invest in you.”
As his income stabilized, so did his self-worth. Whitehead pushed Williams to become a public speaker, sharing his struggles with homelessness, mental health, and addiction at conferences and business such as General Electric and the United Way. Dr. Bill Daily of Xavier University paid Williams to lecture in his cultural diversity class, which left some students wide-eyed.
Whitehead convinced him to start depositing his earnings in a credit union daily and soon enough Williams was able to rent a room at the same YMCA where he worked. But he was still battling addiction and couldn’t hold on to the place forever. He eventually ended up back close to home in D.C. When Whitehead moved to the nation’s capital to work with the National Coalition for the Homeless, they reconnected. Whitehead told Williams about the D.C. street paper being founded and recommended Williams try selling papers once more.
“I called Street Sense one day and said ‘I am done working a job that only leaves me to want to get high at the end of the day because of how bad I feel about myself after that job,’” Williams said. “I had just got out of jail and they trained me and gave me a stack of papers.”
Williams continued to struggle with mental illness and addiction, which sooner or later meant struggling with housing instability too. He still only took medication when it was required for staying in a transitional housing program.
A series of small, random acts of kindness (which Wendell now writes a column about in Street Sense), coupled with the enduring support of the Del Ray community, changed that.
Williams “hustled” regularly at the Del Ray Farmers’ Market, helping people to set up and take down vending stations or to transport purchases to their cars. But he always sold the paper elsewhere.
“And a funny thing happens in Del Ray,” Williams said. “It’s such a hippy, anti-nuclear environment, that when one family sees someone else buy a paper, they buy a paper or at least investigate it for themselves because it looks like the thing to do. And then they wrote an article about me in the Del Ray Patch. And word spread. It just kind of snowballed. People were excited. I started hearing ‘Oh, I didn’t know they sold this here!’”
For a while, Williams rented an apartment one block from the market. And every week he’d go to 7-11 to get a money order and pay his rent with his income from selling Street Sense. “I stayed in that apartment almost two years and then I started using and was on the verge of losing that apartment. I lost my place. And so many people at that market helped me get another place,” Williams said.
One woman from the market brought Williams a small fund that a bunch of people had contributed to. When he asked her to at least tell him their names so he could thank them, she said they would be offended if he did. According to her, they all saw Wendell, knew what kind of person he was, and just wanted to help him.
This level of connection and care is what matters to Williams. Whether he failed or stumbled, his friends stuck by him. “They might say, ‘Wendell, you look kind of disheveled today. Are you alright?’ Y’know what I mean?’” Williams said. “Everything was always followed by, ‘Are you OK?’”
And today he is.
In 2011, on the Metro back to Virginia after a late night bender, a small woman boarded the train at L’Enfant Plaza and sat right next to Williams, despite the otherwise empty car around them. She was heading to Reagan National Airport but seemed determined to speak with Williams until she got there. He was annoyed, especially when she started telling him how to improve his life and make better choices. But before Williams could start arguing with her, she transitioned to telling him about a series of videos she was producing about addiction and recovery — and about how he should use his experience to his advantage. She gave him her card before departing and told him to think about it. He was in no state to apply for a job. But he called her the next week and was surprised to be greeted by a receptionist. The woman’s name was Jeri Davis, and he’d just reached her international consulting and recruitment firm in the behavioral health field. That planted the seed that Williams could leverage his personal trials for a meaningful career helping people.
He got sober a year later, partially thanks to the Arlington Community Community Services Board requiring that he take medication. He’d utilized their services on and off since the’ 90s. And in 2013, while waiting for an appointment with his therapist, Williams saw a flyer for an “addiction coach academy.” He asked his therapist about it and was encouraged to apply as soon as he reached the minimum of 2 years sobriety required to qualify. His therapist also connected him with a case manager who found funds for the training when Williams was ready. Since completing it, Williams went on to become a Certified Peer Recovery Specialist, which is recognized by 32 state health boards in the U.S. and he’s saving to pursue an international certification while he works on the clinical Jude House in Southern Maryland. Williams starts there on Sept. 5 and finds significance in the name of where he ended up: St. Jude, in the Catholic faith, is the patron saint of lost causes.
Williams has been sober and housed since 2012 and he worked with his therapist and psychologist to make a plan, under their supervision, to move off of medication. When reviewing a list of goals with his therapist during his final session, Williams realized he had accomplished everything he set out to do five years prior. Now, when people ask him what he needs, he says that his brothers and sisters at the shelter need plenty. People at the Del Ray market and people in his recovery group regularly donate clothes and other items, which Williams, who says he’s working on his epitaph, ferries to shelters and other service programs.
“People need to know what kind of difference they can make in a person’s life, like that short conversation [with Jeri Davis] — that’s very important,” Williams said. “Every other week, drop 2 dollars and get a paper. And if you won’t read it, give it to someone that will. If you’ve got children, let your child read it. Teach them about homelessness so that when they see a homeless person, they don’t recoil out of fear. It’s important to teach children that homelessness is a state of your housing condition, not a state of who you are. That’s what I want my story to portray.”
Zachariah Tollison contributed to this report.