Local Heroes: Formerly homeless man now helps other people in crisis get off the street

For over 100 years the City Mission at East 55th and Carnegie has helped people in crisis with shelter, food, and other services. Raul Williams, who has worked there as a social worker and case worker for nearly two years, once stayed here while battling addiction and homelessness. Now he helps people with problems that dogged him for years.

By Charlotte Morgan

Photos by Karin McKenna


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For over 100 years, the City Mission at East 55th and Carnegie has helped people in crisis with shelter, food, and other services. Raul Williams, who has worked there as a social worker and case worker for nearly two years, once stayed here while battling addiction and homelessness. Now he helps people fight the very same problems.

Williams, who is 51, has been sober for nine years. The Covid-19 crisis has recently impacted his job since volunteers are not allowed on campus and some programs, including assessments of people looking for help, have slowed down. Many staff members still work from home, and partner agencies are not on campus right now.
 
One thing that has not changed, though, is the number of men coming through intake. Williams’ day begins at 4 am. “I come in and we clean and sanitize the facility,” he says. “The men here must wear masks. Some of them go out to the gas station [to buy cigarettes] at 55th and Cedar, so we have to be careful.”

He teaches a class called “A Touch of Reality” in which clients are taught to avoid the types of behavior that can result in illegal activity. “I can smell the B.S. a mile away and I tell them,” he says. “Some men keep coming back because they do not change.”

According to the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, on any given night in Cleveland, 4,000 to 4,300 people are without homes – or more than 22,000 annually. US Census data shows that Cleveland ranks second in the country for poverty, just behind Detroit.

According to the May issue of the science journal Nature, not only does the economic damage from Covid-19 threaten to increase the homeless population, but close living quarters and lack of testing are also leading to growing outbreaks. Homeless people are more likely to have underlying health conditions, making them more at risk from the virus. Shelters have made a number of changes during Covid-19, including converting hotel rooms into housing, increased testing, and offering free masks and public sanitizer stations.

City Mission has changed its floor plan to give clients more space, and is using the time to complete building repairs.

“To date, we have only had one person who has tested positive,” says Williams. “We’ve had a few close calls, but we’ve only had one hospitalization.”

A long journey

Williams was raised on the east side, not far from where he now works. “I grew up in the Longwood Projects” at East 37th and Woodland, he says. “I went to Central Junior High and graduated from East Tech High School in 1986. The neighborhood was called Dodge City because there were a lot of bullets flying around.”

He recalls stumbling upon three dead bodies in the apartment next door. “I knew that smell as a kid.”

“I come from the ghetto, but my brother out in San Diego retired from the Navy,” he says. “We are five years apart. He made good choices and I made bad ones.”

Williams’ decisions to get involved with theft and other unlawful activities cost him. “I served 10 years and then 11 and a half years in prison,” he says. “I came from a family where there were drugs and alcohol. There was a time when I needed shelter.”

In 2001, Williams found himself at the City Mission. He can remember his time there and in particular, a social worker named Reggie Adams who still works there. “I’ve known Reggie for 30 years. We were in some of the same prisons. He was honest and forthcoming with me. He told me to address my hurts, hang-ups, and pain, and not to add drugs and alcohol on top of them or else my life would never get better.”

But Williams had not learned his lesson. “I got out of prison October 31st, 2010 and went to live in South Euclid with a woman I knew from my past,” he says. An Ohio Lottery scratch off game turned into a $10,000 windfall. “I bought her a washer and dryer and gave her $2,900. I kept $6,900 and moved out.”

He took part of his money and got high. An unusual experience marked the turning point in his life. “It was August 15, 2010, the day my favorite aunt Joyce Milan died,” he says. Raul remembers how his aunt, a pastor, wrote him encouraging letters while he was in prison. “Let’s just say I felt my aunt came to me,” he says.

On August 19, 2010, he checked myself into Windsor Laurelwood Center. Then he went from Laurelwood to Matt Talbot for 90 days of rehab. From there, Williams went to Project Share, a sober transitional housing program run by the Salvation Army through the Harbor Light Complex at East 17th and Prospect. “Then, I ended up in Procop, which was at 4001 Trent Avenue on the westside,” he says. “You had to have five months of sobriety before you were admitted.”

Williams’ long journey towards sobriety and self-sufficiency finally bore fruit. “I lived there and eventually worked my way to my own place,” he says.

Peace of mind

In January 2011, Williams enrolled in Cuyahoga Community College and started running as part of his workouts. “I worked on my body, running to get peace of mind,” he says. He posted videos on social media of himself drenching in sweat as he jogged across the Lorain-Carnegie bridge. When it was cold, he ran in his sweat suit. On Sundays, he posted about the healthy meals that he prepared for himself.

His focus paid off as he earned his Associate Degree at Tri-C, then his Bachelor’s in Social Work (BSW) at the University of Akron.

He worked at Stella Maris in Cleveland, gaining experience in providing drug and alcohol recovery assistance. Then, in August of 2018, he found a place at the City Mission.

Now, after arriving early, Williams begins waking the men up at 6:30 am for personal hygiene care and soon, breakfast at 7:30 am. Residents spend at least a half an hour receiving teaching from the bible because the City Mission’s approach is faith based. By 9 am, the men enjoy an hour where they can travel. The day is structured to give clients time to go on appointments, but also to gain the skills they need to succeed.

“I run the 12-step program from Alcoholics Anonymous” since Reggie has been off, says Williams. “I teach the men to stop listening to things they hear in their head and be willing to take directions from others.”

This means getting a sponsor or a support group and home group. “That’s just for the guys that are dealing with the drug and alcohol issues. We have people here who are dealing with mental health issues.” Raul says that when these men don’t get the support they need and stop taking their medications and take street drugs, they often wind up in jail or in institutions.

Case management involves helping people solve their problems by connecting them with the proper agency. All of it begins during intake. “When you come through the doors of the City Mission, you pee in a cup and that determines how you proceed in our program. If it comes back dirty, we connect them with recovery services. They get an assessment which now we do over the phone because of the virus.”

Raul knows that not all the stories have a happy ending. Some men have to deal their sex offender label. Others feel that living around men reminds them of prison. “We make everyone accountable. Those who don’t do well, we may send them to 2100 Lakeside. Sometimes they will send a case to us.”

In one memorable case, a former Cleveland Browns player came through the shelter. “He was a 6’5” Defensive End, who played on the team in the 1980s,” Williams says. He came through the shelter and he had suffered brain trauma. “He was not here long, he stayed for a few days and he moved to Kent. He left a voicemail thanking me for my class and for my honesty.”

However, no matter what Williams does for the community, some do not believe in his transformation nor commitment. “Some of my family members and I do not communicate with me because they believe that I will go back to my old ways.” But Williams says that he will not. He is thankful for his transformation including his marriage to his wife Simona in 2016. He has turned his life around and works to assist others.

Each Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, Williams can be found in the kitchen at St. Augustine’s Catholic Church kitchen serving those in need of a holiday hot meal and fellowship. He has been doing it for nine years. His tenth anniversary was disrupted by the coronavirus outbreak.

When asked why he volunteers, you get the same honest answer: “Because I ate in that kitchen.”

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