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Independence comes at a price, a gas station worker with disability learns

Until a week ago, Dean Williams had a regular routine. At the start of each week, he would ride his bicycle from Santa Rosa, where he sleeps in his inoperable truck, to Petaluma for his part-time job at a local gas station. During the workweek, he couch surfs at friends’ places, where he showers so he can show up to work looking neat and professional. At the end of the workweek, he would ride the 90 minutes back to Santa Rosa.

Then something happened.

“Last week, my bike broke,” Williams, 28, said. So, he took the 2-hour bus ride back to his truck. "I’ll get my bike fixed next payday," he added, shrugging in resignation.

Williams is a part-time cashier at a gas station. He also gets disability benefits, including health care, which he needs because of his medical condition. Tall, thin, but athletically built, Williams is gently-spoken and easy to like, making friends wherever he goes. As a child he was diagnosed with an intellectual disability.

"I mix up words," he said.

On a chiily morning in March, he showed me the deserted industrial neighborhood in Santa Rosa where his truck is parked. There are other campers and trucks parked around the block. Many have windows covered with cardboard or other improvised shade. His brother and girlfriend, who’s expecting a baby this fall, are living in the camper parked behind Williams's truck.

“My ‘aunt and uncle’ have a camper behind it,” Williams said, describing the residents of the third vehicle as family, although they are not related to him.

Williams’ parents’ separation and his mother’s addiction made for an unstable childhood. He was 12 when child protection services took him and his brother, who was 8 at the time, into custody. The brothers were in different residential treatment facilities so they didn’t see each other much, even though they were only 20 miles apart.

"When we met again as adults, we had to get to know each other all over again," Williams recalled.

Now, parked together, they support one another all the time.

"My mother lives under the bridge in Santa Rosa," he said. "My father lives in Tulare, four-hours away."

He last saw his father two years ago, the first time in many years.

“Dean was bounced between foster families and later, group homes,” Eileen Allen, his former job counselor at California Human Development told me during a phone versation. “His counselors, social workers, and group home 'parents' enjoyed working with him as he always expressed his appreciation.”

Williams told me he was active in the disability community, attending dances and other social events.

"It was fun! For $5, we got lots of snacks!" he remembered fondly.

Also, Williams was athletically gifted, enjoyed playing basketball and has loved participating in sports through Special Olympics Northern California. It’s perhaps no surprise that, given his clear ability to ride long distances, he’s even participated in the Levi Gran Fondo 60-mile bike race.

Though there was plenty he liked about living in the group home, Williams also yearned for independence.

"Group homes had rules, like when to come home,“ he said.

This was impractical if he had late shifts at work, or if he wanted to hang out with friends. So he temporarily moved in with a family who took him under their wing.

"The family loved me, but Santa Rosa was too expensive, so they moved to Lake County last April,” he said.

This left Williams, at the start of the pandemic, with no place to go. He is now on a waiting list for government-subsidized low-income housing, but he’s not sure when that might happen. It could be tomorrow or years from now. Williams admitted he has occasionally gone hungry while waiting for a paycheck.

According to the 2020 Sonoma County Homelessness Census and Survey, 40% of the people who identified as being homeless have disabilities. Furthermore, people like Williams, who’s been in foster care, are at a higher risk of becoming chronically homeless.

Fortunately, as a housing alternative, Williams’ brother found him an old truck. It protects him from the weather and may be safer than sleeping in a tent.

"And besides," he said, "I could drive to work."

The truck is his first vehicle, but it’s come with costs, literally. He said he didn’t realize the enormity of expenses he’d be taking on, such as for fuel, insurance, and repairs. And he quickly discovered that it’s hard to get a good night's sleep because he has to curl up to fit into the backseat.

“I miss everyone, and my family,” Williams said. Family, to him, includes the people who’ve supported him throughout his life — his group home, the friends he’s made at work and others who’ve helped him.

“I want to become a counselor for kids,” he told me, wistfully, “to help others like me.”

But for now, he’s got to get his bicycle fixed.

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