Vendor William Woodset
Anna Riley

William Whitsett has been homeless since he was six years old. He has been in and out of prison, married and divorced, an alcoholic, even shot in the head — which still causes frequent seizures that lead to blacking out. But he is determined to keep his life on track and be a good person.

Born in Mobile, Alabama in 1957, Whitsett spent most of his childhood on the streets or living at relatives’ houses with his alcoholic father. He left his father’s house at 16 to live with an aunt. By age 17, he dropped out of high school, also suffering from addiction.

“When I was young, I got into track. I was a good runner; I was real fast. I could’ve been in the Olympics,” he said. “I went home and told my father about that and my father didn’t give me any encouragement. He told me I wasn’t fast enough. That plagued me. Later, I got addicted to marijuana and alcohol.”

Despite these childhood situations, Whitsett wanted to further his education. He went to Breckinridge Job Corps in Morganfield, Kentucky in 1974 and became a certified welder. After graduating, he started working in an Alabama shipyard on oil rigs and a pipeline going to Alaska. “I proved that [my father] was wrong about me once I got working in Alabama shipyard,” Whitsett said.

Although it took him many years before he sought help for his addiction — which left him unable to maintain a steady job or housing — Whitsett ultimately started treatment because he was on parole and he was worried about going back to jail. “I’m still dealing with that now,” he said. “You can never overcome addiction; it’s a daily fight. I can’t look behind me, I’ve got to keep looking ahead.”

Eight years ago, Whitsett unexpectedly found the role model he never saw in his father. “I was in treatment at the Gospel Ministry on 5th street, and I saw this Black guy running for president, Barack Obama,” he said. “I saw him come out on the stage with his wife and two daughters and I said to myself, ‘one day I want to be like that.’”

Whitsett even credits President Obama with helping him overcome his situation. “Once I saw him, it helped me. I said ‘look, if a Black guy like him can come from Chicago and have a good attitude and become president, so can I be a good guy,’” he said. “It changed my life. I realized I could come out of homelessness and do the same thing.”

Whitsett admires the way that President Obama tried things during his presidency even though he faced countless setbacks and backlash. “Nothing beats a failure but a try. That’s the way I am,” he said. “Don’t put yourself down because you failed, because you can keep trying. You can get back up.”

In August, Whitsett did something he has never done before. He had a little bit of money, and he decided to send it to his nieces and nephews in Alabama for school. “I just did it because I felt like I really should do something good,” he said. “And I did that, and they all called me on the phone this Sunday and they thanked me for it. That’s the first time they’ve ever called me. I wasn’t looking for a call, and then they told me that they loved me and that they wanted to see me. And it was kind of shocking, you know?”

Whitsett says his current goals are getting himself a house with his own set of weights, writing an autobiography, visiting his family in Alabama and maybe even going back to school. Most of all, he wants to continue looking forward and making the world a better place.

“I don’t want to keep making myself feel miserable by doing miserable things and then thinking about the miserable things I’ve done. I’m tired of being miserable,” Whitsett said. “I really just want to do something good for somebody; I want to do a good deed. That makes me feel good, that’s the passion that I have.”