One Man’s Journey to Homelessness

will-and-high-school-friends

How does a guy who seems to have everything end up living in a tent and dying alone?

On the far right in the photo above, alongside several high school friends, stands Will, posed like Michelangelo’s David. Showing hyper-focused inclinations since childhood, Will was born March 12, 1950, and grew up in Burien, Washington. He (and the friends in the shot) graduated from Highline High School in 1968. Will then went on to earn a B.F.A. in 1978 from the University of Washington.

Will was creative. When he was in high school he did a poster for a dance featuring Magic Fern, a rock band from Seattle in the ‘60s. He loved music. He and his friend, George, attended the first Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair. Like many who grew up in that era, he was a serious fan of the Grateful Dead, but he also liked Talking Heads, Devo, Jazz and David Guetta. He had an adventurous spirit. He traveled to far away places including Europe, India, Goa, Tibet, Turkey and Afghanistan.

Following a prolific period as a sculptor, Will got a day job as an employee of the UW as a painter in the facilities department. The job was boring, but his life was not. He loved wine and learned to make it, producing gallons of it, then moved on to making whisky. He converted part of his rental house into an aviary and began breeding hundreds of budgies of every imaginable color. He got hooked on mineral collecting because his friends Roy and John were rockhounds—and within a year, he had acquired $2,000 worth of specimens. But his true passion, which may have contributed to his downfall, started in 1990 when he began to breed red and white Siberian Huskies.

will-and-budgie

Mike, a long-time friend since the second grade, says, “From the first day I met him, he would jump into something with both feet. The first thing was his penny collection. He was focused and would immerse himself in things.” Or as his friend Roy puts it, “When Will gets into something, he gets into it.”

He continued to work at the UW until he was injured. After that, he survived on disability and doing odd jobs, and continued creating fractal art, and largely lived what seemed to be a reasonably normal life that included new friends as well as old.

Until about 2007, Will lived in a rented home in the Bryant neighborhood of Seattle. He was a great story teller, had a friendly way about him, and hung around with an erudite group of people including other wine aficionados and brainy people who worked on Cray computers and on projects like Boeing’s Star Wars program.

Then one day, everything began to change.

The owner of Will’s rental passed away, and the heirs decided to sell the house he was renting. Will was evicted.

At first he stowed his possessions in his friend, Henry’s, basement. Henry didn’t mind keeping Will’s things, but didn’t want anyone extra living in his home. Will was able to come and go as he pleased, and all was fine until he crossed the line and surreptitiously began to sleep there. His act of defiance had a negative effect on their friendship.

Part of his income stream was a years-long project, painting Mike’s house. He would hole up in Mike’s garage and take showers in the basement. It wasn’t the greatest for Will or Mike’s wife and kids.

In trying to piece together the sequence of events, Roy looked through a pile of photos and came across a camping picture. It was taken in March, 2010. By then, Will had already been living with his dogs in his van for a couple of years.

Will knew the spots where he could wash up and where he could source food. Roy says, “He would camp in public spots in neighborhoods. For a couple of years he parked in a church parking lot. They knew he was homeless, and eventually people in the area knew him and didn’t hassle him.”

To help him make some money and put a roof over his head, other friends hired him to paint their summer home and let him live there as long as he needed. The house was empty and surrounded by land where the dogs could romp freely. There were soft beds, electricity, a kitchen and bathroom, and living room with a television. It seemed like an ideal way to get him out of his car and into a home.

But at some point, it was discovered that even though Will had access to a free, warm and comfortable home, he continued sleeping in his van with his dogs while he worked on the house. He used the kitchen to cook, and used the bathroom for bathing, but he ran an extension cord from the house to the van where he would watch movies and sleep with his dogs.

A transition had taken place: Will no longer felt comfortable living inside of a normal house.

The unraveling of Will’s life occurred gradually. Each stage of the progression, by itself, struck everyone as “weird,” but then, Will was an odd duck, so it didn’t seem entirely crazy. If anyone would choose an unorthodox path, it was he.

Unlike many homeless people, Will had some resources. One family member supplied him with a cell phone for a while. He had his disability income. He owned some valuable assets. He had friends who were living normal lives. And he was eligible for temporary housing, but only if he would give up his dogs.

Erin, a family friend says Will was approved for housing six times, but wouldn’t go because he didn’t want to give up his dogs. Rather than part with his Huskies, he chose to live in his car.

Will and Mocha.png

Will was diabetic and not taking good care of himself. Even in the best of circumstances, it can be hard to stay on top of the disease. He blacked out while driving, and crashed his van. His friend, Paul, helped him buy another, and he crashed it, too. To finance the third, Roy helped him sell his mineral specimens. He crashed three vans before he began living in a tent.

Living in a tent is hard. Roy visited Will at one of the camp sites and saw insulin pens were all over — but no testing stuff. He was just taking shots and not monitoring his diabetes

Says Paul, “At the end of 2013, he was living in a tent with his two dogs in a public park in Federal Way, and had been there for a couple of months. Henry and I had a long talk with him about getting him care, and said we could help him find a place and get him set up IF he would get rid of the dogs. We even found someone who was willing to take the dogs and would have provided better care for them, but he refused.”

He was able to live for a while in Nickelsville a homeless encampment on South Dearborn at the edge of Chinatown. It didn’t last long. He bucked authority, got into an argument with the guard, and was evicted. He moved back into a tent. Once a week, Roy would pick him up and take him out for food and let him wash his clothes.

By New Year’s Day 2014, Will was in Harborview Medical Center, looking like a “crazy homeless guy with his hair all over his face.” It was a particularly cold winter. He had suffered frostbite on his fingers and toes, and didn’t lose any of them, but he was not in good shape. While at Harborview, he punched his doctor because she got too close, and didn’t recognize his long-time friends, Paul or Henry. He didn’t realize his dogs were gone. (The dogs were placed in a “No Kill” shelter in Federal Way.) Will felt he was being held prisoner. Clearly, he was not thinking clearly.

Will looked close to death, but by the time February came along, much to everyone’s surprise, he continued to survive. He was moved to St Francis Hospital in Federal Way and was placed in the Progressive Care Unit. He seemed to be coming along.

Toward the end of July of 2015, Will moved to an adult family home in Federal Way, near Roy. The proximity made it possible for Roy to visit each week and take him out for a meal.

Paul reports Will didn’t adjust well at first. In the family home, there were four children under the age of 10 also living there The TV was tuned to Sesame Street. It was a circus. So Paul got Will a laptop thinking he could watch movies and things of his own choosing. But Will would balance it precariously and would lose his balance when he used it. The landlord asked to have the laptop removed. The owners had Will’s best interests at heart, but he couldn’t follow the rules.

A month later, on August 28, 2016, Will died.

When asked about the cause of death, Roy was told “he was worn out.”

His friend, David, says, “Will was a character, sometimes following a rhythm only he could hear. He graduated from the UW with a fine arts degree and went off to India with a lovely blonde girlfriend. Came back dressed all in white—the coolest guy around. A kind and unconventional man, he didn’t always make the best choices, but he was always a loyal friend.”

Like so many homeless people who never expect it to happen to them, anyone reading this post could, at any time, find themselves teetering over the edge into the rabbit hole. Is it mental illness, the failure of a system, random bad luck, or a combination of all of the above?

Will is missed by his friends. They ask themselves if they could have done anything more to change the course of his life. But Roy sums it up perfectly: “He wanted to take care of himself, and wanted to live life in his own way.”

Will, August 29, 1981.png

Photo taken August 29, 1981

Will, March 12, 1950 — August 28, 2016


More about Terri:

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27 thoughts on “One Man’s Journey to Homelessness

  1. I’m sorry about your friend’s passing. As I read it , I felt I was reading a familiar story. Will sounds like a great guy. I’m not sure if it was mental illness or his diabetes that may have affected him. Many people don’t realize that some of the effects related to diabetes can mimic mental health issues. Even medical professionals miss these issues. While it saddens me that your friend passed away as he did, it seems he lived on his own terms and that’s how he wanted it. Perhaps he was too humble to ask for more help. But it’s understandable. May Will rest in peace and may his memory be a blessing for all who knew him.

    • Sara, thank you for reading the post and for your comment. It’s hard to say what was the cause of his downward trajectory. Untreated diabetes certainly played a role. I know many people who offered help, but he was an independent person and didn’t like anyone telling him what to do. He became combative and more obstinate as he deteriorated. Everyone seems to have a “Will Story.” It will be interesting to gather in his memory and learn more about him. And I too, truly hope he’s at peace.

  2. Your first sentence asks a key question – how did this good guy have such a bad ending? His self-destructive choices didn’t help, but I doubt we’ll ever know why he made them. He was a loyal friend and he will be remembered fondly. This may be Will’s only memorial, thank you for writing it.

    • David, thank you for reading and commenting. Will had a mind of his own. And he was obsessive compulsive. So he wasn’t receptive to other people’s guidance, and since he was so zeroed in on his dogs (and I don’t blame him — dogs can be better friends than many humans) that he wasn’t able to rationally look at his situation. This led to poor choices. For Will, it wasn’t about raising himself up to another level — it was about survival. I think he was proud of himself for being resourceful and finding work-arounds. But once his mind began to deteriorate, he no longer was able to do a good job of surviving. I’m sorry I didn’t see him toward the end, but maybe it’s good. My strongest memory of him will be sitting around the dining room table at Thanksgiving, piling heaps of veggies onto his plate.

  3. A well told story.
    But, sadly, way too long. Before you begin reading you already know the end.

    Terri is the most empathetic person I know. And I am sure struggled with each sentence.

    But it’s a story we all know too well.

    And will see repeated as soon as next week

    • Thank you for reading and commenting, Mike. I know you do so rarely, so really appreciate the effort. Everyone who tried to positively change Will’s life ultimately failed. So this is both a tribute and cautionary tale. As I’ve always said to our kids, “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”

  4. During the past 35 years, after leaving Seattle and moving to Philadelphia, I wasn’t able to keep in close contact with Will. We exchanged Christmas cards and I would get occasional updates from our mutual friends. Until reading this story, I had no idea just how bad things had gotten for Will and it is truly heartbreaking to hear of his sad decline. I have great memories of the fun things Will and I did together during happier times and those are the things I will remember him by. Thanks for telling Will’s story.

    • George, thanks for reading and leaving a comment. His life has been an incredible odyssey. If Will were here, he would blush and chuckle to remember some of these stories, and to know he’s in our thoughts.

  5. I lived with Will twice (glutton for punishment?) with the first time being from 1981 – 1982 and the second time was in 1984. I have two stories I would like to include:
    ****
    In the rainy fall and winter of 1982, Will and I would play games on the weekends. At that point in time, we were really into Pente and would play for hours. I had introduced Will to my music and (thankfully) he did not listen to as much fusion jazz but had moved up (ha ha) to Devo, Talking Heads, Romeo Void, Bowie, etc. I remember one morning we were playing Pente and Stuart got up and said: “Do you have to listen to this crap all the time?” Will loved it and just starting laughing and laughing, turning up the stereo, as we continued to play. Those were some of my best Will memories.

    But let me tell you another Will story that touches my heart. Will was living in his van and the van’s engine had been acting up. My Mom (Feb 2011) had just died and her memorial was being held at a restaurant in Puyallup. Will shows up at her service, with a broken down van, just to pay his respects. One of my mom’s favorite songs is a very old song called “Big Rock Candy Mountain” which she used to sing to us kids all the time. We played that song at her service and there is a line in it that says: “Where they hung the jerk, that invented work, in the Big Rock Candy Mountain.” You could hear Will laughing in the background and saying: “That song is great.” My family all got a kick out of that and I know my mom was smiling too.
    *********
    Will was fun, interesting, aggravating, infuriating, and exhilarating all at the same time. He was a real kick to be around and I miss him.

    ~paul

    • Paul, Thanks for adding your memories to this thread. I didn’t know you guys were roommates TWICE. Will had a great laugh — kind of a chuckle — and I can just imagine his response to Stuart 🙂 He had a good heart, so it’s not surprising to learn he drove to Puyallup in honor of your mom. You have some of the most amazing and little-known stories about Will. I’m so glad you were there for him at the end.

  6. A quick thought, more later – Will loved his dogs. With at least one of them, when it died, Will buried him deep in the soil of a traffic circle somewhere in a Seattle neighborhood. I feel sure Will would be glad to know we remembered his dogs, especially the ones he had to surrender at the end (was Butch the name of the old one who was later put down?). They were more important to him than his own comfort. They were also his faithful companions through thick and thin, despite the awful living conditions they often had to put up with. As we drive through town, we may be passing a gravesite anytime we go through a planted intersection. Blessings on their memories, as well as his.

    • Sydney, thank you for reading and replying. I heart there was a “woman who shared Will’s love for dogs,” and have to think you’re the one. I’m not sure which dog died, but I can imagine Will, in the middle of the night, digging into a traffic circle to make sure his friend and loyal companion would have a proper burial. Thank you for all you did to help him.

  7. Thank you for writing this. When I saw Will a few years ago, when talking to him, he seemed perfectly normal. It’s sad and strange to hear the reality of his life.

    • Char, thank you for reading and for the comment. In talking to so many of his friends, it made me realize we hadn’t seen Will since his life really started to spiral downward. I’m glad we knew him and agree, it’s sad how his life ended.

  8. Thanks for sharing this tribute — so much I didn’t know about Will! He was fortunate to have a faithful set of friends that stayed in touch with him over the years through everything, and those huskies of his were lucky to have someone who loved them so much he was willing to pass up better living situations.

    • Dear M — Thanks for your comment here. Having spent a number of Thanksgivings with Will, you know he was a pretty happy guy. I, too, am glad he had some friends, especially at the end, who did so much for him. His huskies were lucky he loved them so much, and he was lucky to have them as loyal companions.

  9. Hi Terri: Good to read this touching, although sad story in the end. It’s a grand lesson for us all to try and avoid. I can’t say even the clearest minds can choose better for themselves. Hopefully, peace will be with you all who knew and appreciated his friendship.
    Thanks for being a friend!
    _Adriana

    • Adriana, thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts. Will’s life is an illustration of how things can turn from one direction to another in a gradual way, and relatively quickly build momentum to the point of no return. I appreciate your kind thoughts here. Thank you for your friendship!

  10. Terri.

    I was deeply touched by your story. We could have all been friends if we lived in the same area.

    I am sorry that you lost your friend. You did a wonderful job of sharing his highs and lows, and his heart.

    With Love,

    Sally

    • Sally, it was so very sweet of you to read this post and comment. I like to think Will’s spirit is alive and well, and he’s cheered by the fact that he is being remembered. Thank you for caring, and for taking the time to respond. ❤

  11. One more story. When Pulp Fiction came out, I took Will to see it at the Neptune. He had a crush of Uma Thurman that first started when we went to see The Adventures of Baron Munchausen at what used to be theaters on Capitol Hill (where the QFC is now). He thought that Uma was the best part of that movie, so when Pulp Fiction came out, I asked him if he wanted to go. I am assuming here that everyone has seen the movie but remember the part when they shove that needle into her heart to get her heart beating again? Well, everyone in the theater gasps except for Will, who bursts out laughing and chuckles through the next few minutes. Less than a week later, I took him again and he loved it.

    Thanks Terri for doing this blog. It has made me think about all the fun things we did together.

    Almost forgot. I took some web design class in 2003 and I made a page for Will. I just checked it and the link to go to his Fractals page still works. http://www.seanet.com/~pigandcow/will.html

    ~paul

    • Thanks, Paul! I can just imagine Will’s laugh—so full of mirth and merriment. It’s really great that you were able to put this site together. I tried to find some of his fractals but they are boxed away somewhere. You have some great photos, too. So happy to see Will’s story continue to evolve! I hope he’s smiling.

  12. I’m so sorry for the loss of your friend, Terri, and know that it came as somewhat of a shock for you.
    Your post really paints a picture of the downward spiral he experienced after losing his home. To think of not having the basics…a hot shower or a refrigerator with food in it, those things that we take for granted. It’s easy to understand his reluctance to give up his dogs and it must have been difficult for him to accept the generosity of friends. We all have our pride. It’s a heartbreaking story. Thank you for writing it.

    • Dear Jennifer—thank you for always being there for me. I think I let Will down in some ways. We would show interest, but weren’t vigilant. It was like, there were other people who are closer to him, and it felt like he was being taken care of. We tried to get him to live in the Randle house, but he didn’t want to live in the country. He wanted to be in the city, even it it meant really inconvenient or hostile living conditions. Pride could have been part of it, but I also think it was important for Will to feel that he had control rather than relinquishing it to other people or entities. I’m glad people have read this post— it’s functioning like an obituary and I like to think he’s alive in someone’s thoughts. ❤

  13. I am so sorry about your friend Terri. It touched me to tears dropping for I too lost a job and have been homeless. It’s not easy as an adult having to live with other adults.

    You have truly given a tribute to a great friend. Bless you.

    • WP, thank you very much for taking the time to read this post. It truly is an homage to a lost friend — and I use the word “lost” to reflect his passing, and also because he was lost long before he died. I like to think of him watching people take note of his life here and feeling a small degree of happiness to know he hasn’t been forgotten. Blessings to you in your journey through life, and thank you again.

  14. Pingback: Seattle’s Homeless Build Communities | Stories, Social media & tech

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