David Williams bought a 2012 Chevy last November. It’s a comfortable ride, but his preferred method of transportation is a bicycle.
He rides with a purpose along downtown Orlando, looking for lost and lonely souls down on their luck. He knows them well. He was one of them once upon a time.
There are second chances in life that come at you unexpectedly. Williams might still be walking the streets of Orlando, homeless, without much purpose, had there not been some fortuitous connections along the way.
But those second chances also require active participation and a willingness to overcome. Williams is now a walking billboard for the power of perseverance in his role as a “Downtown Ambassador” for the City of Orlando.
“I never looked for a hand-up,” he said. “But once I got a hand-up, I reached back to bring another one up. That’s what I drive myself to live by.”
Williams, who turned 60 in January, spent 14 years as a homeless man in Orlando, most of them in the woods within a 3-acre radius of woods off John Young Parkway. A former Army veteran, Williams lost his way after leaving the military. He bounced from job to job, dealing with worsening mental and physical problems, including bipolar disorder and lupus.
But Williams made a fortuitous stop one day in 2015 inside a hall at First Presbyterian Church of Orlando, where Andrae Bailey, then CEO of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness, was speaking to hundreds of people.
Williams introduced himself after the meeting. Bailey, who became a Pied Piper of sorts, trying to rally the community in the fight to address chronic homelessness, made Williams one of his priorities.
“You are my problem now,” he told him. “In a good way.”
Serendipity. It was exactly the hand-up Williams needed.
Bailey was able to get stable housing for Williams and even gave him a job doing homeless outreach for the Commission. In 2018, Williams became a community resource officer, a perfect fit for his skill set and personal experience.
He makes frequent stops to interact with the homeless, giving them advice on a range of services from free meals to finding a suitable shelter to stay overnight.
“Day in and day out, I run across people; and I see some part of me in them,” Williams said. “And so, it drives me to want to talk to the organizations with resources, to see what we can do as a community. I know one thing is that we’ll never end homelessness, but we can take one at a time and make a difference.”
Life still brings challenges. Three loved ones, including his only sister, have died from COVID-19. He is there to help and educate on the COVID front, handing out personal protection equipment and hand sanitizers. He also understands that one man is not going to solve chronic homelessness in Orlando.
But David Williams is there for anyone looking for a hand-up. He knows too well how much of a difference that can make in one’s life.
“This is who I am,” he said. “This is what I do. I’m about helping somebody.”