A ‘Bright Light’ Dimmed in the Shadow of Homelessness

Mental Illness Kept a Young Woman who was a Bright Light from Escaping Homelessness on the Streets of New York City

On March 3, 2018, The New York Times’ Benjamin Weiser reported over the course of a year on the life and death of Nakesha Williams, a bright light,  who experienced homelessness.

“Nakesha Williams resisted help from social workers, friends and acquaintances, some who only knew her as a homeless woman, and others who of her past.”

“For years a homeless woman sat on a sidewalk grate at 46th Street and Park Avenue in Manhattan, surrounded by blankets, food containers and a red cart. Then she disappeared.”

Nakesha grew up in New Jersey and attended Woodrow Wilson High School in Camden before attending Williams college in Massachusetts. She has an aunt who lives in Willingboro, NJ.

  • Nakesah experienced abuse in her youth, and suffered from mental illness suspected to be schizophrenia.
  • She cycled in and out of homelessness, often living with friends and mentors trying to help her, before living on the streets of New York City on a subway grate during the final year of her life.
  • Schizophrenia and other Mental illnesses do not discriminate.
  • She had a college education, a job and a network of friends ready to help her.

Homeless and mental health outreach workers with Breaking Ground in New York City and other organizations attempted to connect Nakesha to housing and services but her mental illness prevented her from accepting that help.

“There are roughly 3,900 unsheltered homeless people in New York City, ever visible but also largely anonymous. They lie in dingy sleeping bags near buildings or construction sites, bury themselves under blankets, ponchos and cardboard boxes, or sit with propped-up signs asking for money.”

Nakeha saw New York City’s shelter system as dangerous and preferred to survive on the streets. “So, which is saner?” Mr. Garcia said. “It’s such a moment of extreme clarity.”

Louis Alfredo Garcia is a caseworker for Breaking Ground who repeatedly tried to urge her to move into housing. “Breaking Ground’s records show that from April 2014 on, its workers saw Nakesha at 46th Street and Park Avenue 319 times, Mr. Hughes said. Three-quarters of those times, they stopped to speak with her. On 10 occasions, they tried unsuccessfully to persuade her to take a room reserved for the homeless at the Harlem Y.M.C.A.”

“Mr. Garcia said he had hoped Nakesha would agree to treatment so she could return to the “level of functionality” she had once enjoyed, allowing her to reconnect with her family, become employable and even write in a more coherent way.”

Nakesha’s heartbreaking story is, tragically, not uncommon. How many of us have passed on the street, in New York or another city, a man or woman who is homeless? Nakesha’s life was touched by professionals, friends and “neighbors” who tried to help her.

One small thing that we can all do is to how compassion to our homeless neighbors. One big thing that we can do is to advocate for increase funding the affordable housing and a mental health system and services that outreach workers can use to help others like her.

“Ms. (Becky) Dickinson, now a social worker, said that every day she walked by people “who are going through trauma and adversity.”

“You never know — you never know anybody’s story,” she said. Dickinson is a former William College classmate of Nakesha’s.

NY Times Article

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