After nearly four decades of working with the homeless, Santa Barbara County social worker Ken Williams retired suddenly last week, giving his supervisors little notice and taking the homeless community by surprise.
Williams, a Vietnam War veteran who has worked with the county for 35 years, is a regular contributor of columns to Noozhawk, and his work has highlighted the macabre environment faced by many of Santa Barbara’s homeless.
Reached at his home in the Santa Ynez Valley on Thursday, Williams told Noozhawk that he’s retiring to focus more time on his first passion — writing.
He said that when he called into the Department of Social Services last week to report he was retiring from his position, “I didn’t want to make a big thing about it. It caught them by surprise.”
He said he’s finishing up a novel in the works for four years about shelter life and prejudices against the homeless.
“It’s hard leaving the homeless,” Williams said. “I’m not giving up that fight; it’s just taking a different form.”
His sudden departure from the county’s Adult Protective Services has left that department scrambling, according to Social Services Director Kathy Gallagher.
“Ken actually called in one day and told his supervisor that he had concluded his retirement papers with the Retirement Board and would not be returning to work,” she said, adding that there had been no warning.
She said that Williams’ supervisor is scrambling to determine how many open cases he left and the statuses of each one. Though she didn’t know an exact number, Gallagher said she has been told that Williams had as many as 100 cases, though not all were open.
“I do not have a number at this time — Ken was not dedicated to record-keeping — so they are having to re-create records,” Gallagher said.
She added that her department plans to continue supporting Williams’ former position and will coordinate with other departments, such as ADMHS and Public Health, to figure out how best to focus those efforts.
Williams has long worked for homeless rights within the county system, and even served on a panel charged with examining homeless deaths in the county, which he said has had both positive and negative results.
While he said he’s glad the county is looking at the deaths, he said he was disappointed that the review team shied away from some of the more controversial deaths.
“After a while you go, ‘Who’s responsible and who’s supposed to care?’” he said.
He expressed frustration with officials’ response to the death of Gloria, a homeless woman who died in a fire that broke out on Santa Barbara’s Eastside last year. Police were investigating the fire as suspicious, but Williams said it went “nowhere” and was a replay of the 2009 death of homeless man Ross Stiles.
Witnesses reported that Stiles was beaten by attackers, and authorities ruled his death suspicious but closed the case because of a lack of leads.
“You can’t get any answers from anyone,” Williams said.
He said county management told him “they were really uncomfortable with me talking to the media.”
Williams recently celebrated his 62 birthday, and “I’m sure hitting that milestone made him re-evaluate his life and priorities,” said Dr. Lynn Jahnke, who has worked with Williams doing street outreach to the homeless.
“Sure, working for the county may have been stressful, but he’s always been a writer at heart and never had enough time to work on or promote his work.” she said. “I’m really happy for him that he’s made this courageous step and begun a second career. Ken will always care about the homeless, but he has certainly earned the right to put his own dreams first for a while.”
Williams said it was less about “burning out” in his social work position and more about focusing on the impact of his writing.
“I’m a really big believer that fiction moves society in ways that nonfiction can’t,” he said. “I’m really looking to reach a wider audience.”
In the midst of his writing, Williams said reading Buddhist writings has prompted him to think about impermanence. Street work was also a reminder of that concept.
“Working the streets and seeing all of the deaths, I kept thinking, ‘Life is precious,’” he said. “I kept thinking there are other things I need to be working on because I won’t be there eventually.”