East Bay man beats long odds, starts Urban Park CleanUp project
By Lou Fancher
Vincent Ray Williams III’s life story reads like a skewed, contemporary take on the children’s tale, “This Is The House That Jack Built.”
Born HIV-positive in Oakland, abandoned by his family and tossed into the foster care system to be tormented and sexually abused from ages 6 to 17, he was taught at age 9 to use crack cocaine. This is the neglected teen who formed a drug addiction, ran away from countless foster homes, turned to delinquency and ended up in a juvenile detention center. This is a person whose sister found him, modeled compassion and led him from homelessness to healing.
After overcoming tremendous adversity in childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, Vincent Williams, 32, of Alameda, seen here recently in the reception area of the Glenn Burke Wellness Clinic at the Oakland LGBTQ Community Center, has found steady employment as the center’s operations coordinator and formed and leads the Urban Park CleanUp project that picks up trash dumped in Oakland’s low-income neighborhoods.
Now 32, this is a man who battled — and won — his way free of addiction and never forgot the compassion that was his salvation. Ultimately, this is a man who found steady employment as operations coordinator at the Oakland LGBTQ Community Center and, independent of his workplace, formed and leads the Urban Park CleanUp project that picks up trash dumped in Oakland’s low-income neighborhoods.
Now for the “house” (with an open door for volunteers and donations) built by Williams: Piedmont resident John Bosche, riding his bike on Telegraph Avenue, observed Williams and his cleanup crew of homeless people paid an hourly fee and a small band of volunteers and stopped to inquire.
He told his wife, Lynne Bosche, about the man clearing “a mountain of trash” on the Oakland avenue. Moved by Williams’ energy and work to “make visible changes — almost magically transforming our streets and posting ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos on Facebook,” Bosche wrote to her local newspaper. The “house” that Williams built inspired her respect and led Lynne Bosche, 64 and a retired nurse, to join Williams’ call for action and awareness about the hazards to public safety caused when trash is dumped on city streets and spaces.
“We’ve seen the surge in suffering and homelessness and accompanying issues, and our concern is huge,” she said. “But what can we do beyond donating more to food banks, voting, volunteering in schools? I was a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) worker for a young man whose story is similar to Vincent’s, but I didn’t recognize (his) similar and all-too-common story until I asked Vincent to tell me about himself. Vincent appears to be a real success story and knows that lifting people up and improving conditions can make all the difference. I’m sure there will be skeptics, but I think he’s on to something.”
In a phone interview, Bosche says that Williams’ “something” is knowing that seeing is believing.
“We are forgetting how beautiful Oakland is and our ability to care for each other and our surroundings,” she said. “We can take action that people can see and that makes them feel good. You could say it’s just cleaning up a mess that will come back the next day, but that’s what life comes down to. You do it over and over whether or not it has to happen again the next day.”
Williams, in an interview from his home in Alameda, says the greatest influences on his life, career and volunteer choices are his sister, Espi, his biological mother with whom he has reconciled and, surprisingly, the neglect and lack of compassion he experienced during childhood.
“I was sexually abused in more than one foster home. The first spark of inspiration to change was sitting in Juvenile Hall, age 16. A staff member came to my cell door and said I had a visitor. I’d never had a visitor in the 80 times I’d been there before. There was this girl with a little baby in her arms. She saw me and started crying and said, ‘I’m your sister, Espi.’ That was where the tide turned for me. I felt genuinely loved and cared about for the first time.”
Because of his sister’s love, Williams met and was able to forgive his mother for placing him in foster care. When the two women continued to love and support him — even when he’d disappear in search of drugs for months on end until 2012, when he finally kicked the habit — Williams learned to trust and believe in the power of compassion.
“I may not understand somebody’s situation, but no matter how hard their emotional and physical situation, if I approach with compassion, who’s to say it won’t make their day a little better? Instead of living in our heads and ignoring things, if we embrace it with compassion, the overall experience is better for everyone,” Williams says.
Williams credits people at the community center for providing a judgement-free workspace for him to grow into his identity as a pansexual, light-skinned man of color. He now responds to racial discrimination or fear-induced reactions to his HIV status with information, not lectures — suggesting a video about HIV transmission instead of scolding a dinner host who separated his dishes and wondered if she should bleach them, for example. At the center he gained the confidence and found his independent, after-hours purpose by improving public safety with the Urban Park CleanUp program.
“The benefits are countless,” he says. “I was that child who wasn’t allowed to play in parks because I stepped on glass. I’ve been homeless. It’s not just how trash affects the unhoused, it affects everyone. When I pick up 316 needles in a 20-square-foot area of grass, which I recently did, the health risk it poses for residents is something (we must) talk about. Another area was like someone had a restaurant, packed all the food in a truck and then dumped it, where it cooked in the sun for two weeks. There were maggots. And the smell! Is that safe for people to be breathing?”
Driving home recently from a second nighttime job Williams took to help self-fund the cleanup project, he drove over a discarded bed frame, bending two rims and blowing out three tires.
“This is what I mean when I say (trash) is a public safety hazard,” he says.
Recently, the group’s garage was burglarized and supplies stolen — trash bags, rakes, shovels, scrub mops, PPE (personal protective equipment) masks, gloves and hand sanitizer, and tents, tarps, blankets and clothing collected to hand out to the unhoused. Bosche hopes shining a light on good things people like Williams are doing in Oakland will stop people’s tendency to overthink or hesitate to get involved in working on seemingly intractable problems.
“All Oakland needs is a chance,” she suggests. “We’re a resilient community trying to resist falling into haves and have-nots. We need to maintain our sense of connection through diversity, rather than splitting off. I can’t say what I’m going to do differently, but I hope getting more traction for Vincent is a small action that can multiply.”
This, then, is the house that Williams built. A house where all are welcome to roll up their sleeves and join the cleanup for the betterment and public safety of all.