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Once Homeless, Williams Finds Home Helping the Vulnerable
By Julia Harte

Michael Williams Michael Williams L'96 has, in his own words, "an indomitable will to live."
It's not difficult to believe after hearing the tribulations this California native experienced before entering Penn Law School at the age of thirty-four. Williams has survived a Job-like series of chronic illnesses and misadventures, and an impulsive habit, he admits with a booming laugh, of "making choices not based on much information." He was kicked out of his parents' Compton home when he was seventeen because he had become "unmanageable," and ended up homeless in Philadelphia one year later, after dropping out of Temple University in 1978.

Today, Williams is a senior attorney in the Health and Adult Services Unit for the City of Philadelphia Law Department, where he primarily works on health care policy. Whether committing mentally ill individuals to the city's care system or arguing for the removal of children from unsafe homes, he regularly encounters individuals who are as vulnerable as he once was. Now he's on the other side of the courtroom — but his empathy for the homeless and destitute is undiminished.

"If a policy that I'm working on has some kind of link to the homeless, I am hyper-sensitive to make sure that they are treated with dignity, that they have real choices and real opportunities to get themselves off the streets," he says. "I was not treated with dignity by the state when I was homeless."

Williams describes his five months on the street with disarming cheerfulness. He was only a "mildly effective panhandler, and a less-effective thief," he says, but he was "very effective at eating out of trash cans" in the area around an old Greyhound station on Market Street. In one traumatic encounter, a mentally ill person slashed his arm. The scariest part of the experience, Williams says, was that he couldn't report the incident to the police because "under the administration at the time, the police were definitely not friendly to black men. And not only was I a young black man, I had no address, no job, no identification. It was really hairy."

Rescue came in the form of Reverend Daehler Hayes and the Old First Reformed Church of Christ, located at Fourth and Race Streets. Hayes allowed Williams to sleep in the church and eventually got Williams a job as a transportation orderly at Pennsylvania Hospital.

After working for a year and a half at the hospital, Williams found himself deeply homesick and traveled back to Los Angeles. For most of the 1980s, Williams lived in southern California, where he worked various hospital jobs and met Tony, the man he would eventually marry.

In 1989, Williams moved to Philadelphia again, this time with Tony. Williams decided to go back to school, and graduated from Temple in 1993 with honors in French. "Like any liberal arts person, I said, ‘Let me look into this law school thing,'" Williams says with a laugh. "I hadn't really researched law school. I had no idea what was coming."

Intellectual and personal struggles attended his first semester at Penn. Three of his closest friends died, and Williams was exposed to HIV-positive blood in a car accident. His classes were more challenging than any he'd faced before. That didn't stop him from walking up to Associate Dean of Student Affairs Gary Clinton in his first semester and declaring, in a story Clinton has told every entering class since, "I own this place!"

Williams chuckles at the memory. "I'm sure that I was probably feeling that I wasn't gonna let this Ivy League institution intimidate me just because I came from a lower working-class background," he says. "I was not your typical Penn Law student, but I felt from the first day that I belonged there, and that I had earned my way there, that I was going to succeed. And I guess that must have just all welled up in that one moment."

At Penn, Williams agitated for "quasi-legislative initiatives" that changed the grade system and made it easier for first-years to get credit for public service. He forged lasting relationships with several professors — two attended his wedding last year — and was pushed to explore legal and philosophical issues that he'd never fully considered, such as different religious perspectives on the law.

He's since written anti-discrimination legislation and been appointed to several city committees on ethics and local business. Gov. Rendell has twice nominated him to be the governor's Commonwealth Trustee to Temple University's Board of Directors. Williams has even grabbed the attention of President Obama; he rode in the president's motorcade when Obama visited Philadelphia.

And the Philadelphia he feared three decades ago has been transformed, he says.

"The Nutter administration has done an outstanding job of trying to bridge the gap between homelessness and not being homeless, and trying to give people opportunities to get permanent housing. And whatever small part that I can play, I'm proud of that work". PLJ