Seeking shelter

Hardworking man finds temporary home at local homeless shelter


Willie Johnson pictured at Randy Sams’ Outreach Shelter. Photo by Naveen Malik

Weathered hands and solemn eyes tell the stories of loss, suffering, and painful goodbyes. If you take a look around Randy Sams, or any other homeless shelter, it would be difficult not to notice the faces of people who have endured so many trying times and hardships that they’ve given up hope. But in a sea of those faces, you might find one like 63-year-old Willie Johnson’s.

Johnson grew up in Monticello, Arkansas and left to serve in the Vietnam war when he was 18. After returning from the war unharmed, he worked as a pastry chef for 20 years. Following his culinary career, he worked “where the money was,” resurfacing floors and doing general concrete work until a degenerative joint disease forced him to stop work. After struggling financially for months, Johnson found himself at Randy Sams’ Outreach Shelter seeking a place to stay until he could get back on his feet.

After a life of hard work, Johnson finds it difficult to accept the stereotype that is placed on the heads of homeless people.

“I’ve never had any sort of addiction,” Johnson said. “It’s sad to think that people assume that if you’re homeless, you’re going to spend the money they give you on drugs or that you’re lazy and you don’t want to provide for yourself.”

He believes that homelessness is not a shameful condition and that it is OK to ask for help as long as you don’t give up. Since he’s been at the shelter, Johnson has spoken with other people in his position and changed his opinions on many subjects.

“I used to be one of those people,” Johnson said. “I thought that if you were homeless, you had to have really not cared. But now I see that you don’t know peoples stories. There’s so much going on underneath their smiles and expensive clothes. Whether it be homelessness or any other problem, it takes a lot to ask for help.”

Johnson feels that the kindness of the people he’s encountered on his journey was one of his biggest blessings.

“The world is a cold place-” Johnson said, “cold, but fair. Over the past few months I really started to understand that. You just have to live within your means. I didn’t have much, and I didn’t expect much from people, but the people here have been kind to me and I’m getting back on my feet now.”

Next week, Johnson will be moving into an apartment with the assistance of the VA. While the past years have admittedly been turbulent, Johnson reflects on the lessons he’s learned.

“It took about as long as 63 years for me to get this, but life is beautiful,” Johnson said. “I’ve seen it from all kinds of places. Sometimes I’ve been beaten down so much I had to crawl, but it made standing up to walk again so much more gratifying. I’m grateful for every bit of this ride.”