WORN OUT SHOES: One Homeless Man’s Quest to Love His Neighbors and Himself

All photos taken by Samantha Snellings.

A crinkled $20 bill — that’s all it cost Robert Williams to buy his little home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Prime real estate if you ask him.

His tent is nestled back in the woods, a place he fondly calls his “secret forest.”

“All I can see is trees and hear the birds,” Williams said with a semi-toothless grin. “I was thinking about it earlier this morning. I thought, ‘Man, this is really neat because I feel like I’m out in the wild, but I’m right here in the middle of the city.’”

The location is a plus — only a few blocks from the bustling Franklin Street, a hub for UNC-Chapel Hill students.

His commute to “work” flies by. Technically, Williams doesn’t have a title. But if you boil down his job description, it involves a whole lot of loving people.

Feeding his friends who don’t have a home, serving at church, praying for students who are anxious about their exams — those are the things that set his soul on fire and that he works at daily.

He is still busy settling into his new place. He doesn’t need much: just some food, a sleeping bag and a dresser.

“I have one of them buckets, the big plastic containers,” he said. “I put my stuff in there. Clothes, whatever. Keep it sealed so the animals don’t smell the food and dig holes through my tent.”

He lives simply. “Jesus said he would supply all my needs, and He makes sure I have everything I need. That’s for sure.” 

Wiliams was thrown into the housing market a few months ago after his home was stolen.

“I had just got done cooking up a bunch of egg and hash brown sandwiches. A whole loaf of bread.” He was getting ready to go pass them out when he discovered it. His tent, blankets and clothes: gone

Williams knew exactly who had stolen his things. And honestly, he felt like punching the guy in the mouth. But after that initial anger subsided, he started praying for the man. 

Williams has been the thief in the story on more than one occasion.

His first run-in with the law? A breaking and entering incident.  

“I go in there when there were people in the house. That was crazy. I was usually high when I did that.” 

Back in the day, he would break into businesses and construction sites and sell the things that he stole to fund his addiction. 

“I was young and didn’t know how to do it,” Williams said. “Now I just panhandle. Fly a sign. Or I just go up to people and ask for it. It is better just to have them give it to you then to try to break into their house and steal it.”

Fifteen years. That’s how long Williams has spent in prison during his 62-year life. Usually a few years at a time. 

“It just felt like I was in the ditch. I was at the bottom of the world, underneath. But I learned how to be in and out so many times,” Williams said.

“’Jesus reached down guttermost and raised me up uttermost.’ I like that saying real well. A guy named Mike. He had a life sentence in prison. He’s the one who told me that.”

A DARK CLOUD 

Elementary school wasn’t bad, he said. A’s and B’s on the report card. “I was good at English, spelling. I could do that pretty good.”

When he was 11, he got rebellious — cutting class and walking over to the gas station to buy cigarettes. 

Sneaking around and smoking pot. “That right there would incapacitate me. Get me relaxed. The euphoria from it. It’s like you’re trying to find something to help you cope with reality.”

And for a while, it did bring him a sense of peace. It distracted him from the things that were nagging at his heart.

In eighth grade, something else started piquing his curiosity — LSD. He remembers the morning that he first took it, right before he got on the school bus. First period passed. Then second. He still wasn’t feeling anything, so he popped another pill.

“I was in third period, and I be looking out the window and I see the trees waving back and forth. And I be like, ‘Oh my god. Look at this!’”

Everything was running into each other — colors like he had never seen.  Things were unraveling in slow motion, but at the next moment, everything was speeding up.  

Before long, he had to stand up and march right out of school because he couldn’t handle it anymore. “It scared the heck out of me,” he said. But it also felt kind of good. 

Williams’ struggle with addiction started there in middle school and hasn’t subsided.

He has lived a lot of places, but it’s hard to run away from something like that.

“Whenever I was in Asheville, I was living up underneath a bridge for four years and I was going at it 100 mph. I mean I was getting high. That’s all I did.”

It has been much better since he has moved to Chapel Hill, but there is always that temptation to go and “fly a sign.”

“I can make a good bit of money out there sometimes,” Williams said. “One in 10 people stop and give money. Sometimes it is better than that.”

One time, a lady gave him a $100 bill. “I did the right thing with that,” Williams said. He went down to Walmart and got himself a phone. 

But other times, he relapses. He’s usually gone in Durham for a few days. 

The most recent one “was only about 36 hours,” Williams said. “When I was younger, I used to go two or three days. But whenever you get older, things start slowing down.”

“Your body wears down after being up for a day or so. You’re exhausted. That’s why I slept last night and yesterday. I’m feeling pretty good right now.” 

A RAGING WAR IN THE HEART 

Williams is ready to go buy some bread and peanut butter and feed his friends. The clock is ticking. 

“Jesus said to feed the hungry, and Robert does that,” said Billy, who is also homeless in Chapel Hill.

People wait on Williams to make his rounds along the main street. For a moment, he laments at the fact that he doesn’t have a bigger loaf of bread to feed more people.

He doesn’t want to let them down. He needs to get it right today and stay away from the drugs. 

“The things I want to do, I don’t do. The things I don’t want to do, I keep finding myself doing,” Williams said, referencing Romans 7:15-20.

It is like there is a war raging in his heart.  

“I found out that by seeking Jesus and putting Him first, it makes things the best. That’s the way I want it. Walking in the Spirit, you should not feel the lust of the flesh. But doing that 24 hours a day, it is not that easy to do. If I did, I would not be doing the things I’m doing.”

He’s going to try to win the battle with his “flesh” today. 

“Jesus didn’t come for the righteous. He came for the ones who needed a doctor,” Williams said. 

“You know how the tax collector and all them people who were dishonest? All the women who were harlots? They knew they were running wrong. When someone has done wrong, they know that themselves. They know who they are. They know they are not good. But Jesus turns that all around.” 

So, Williams is praying that his world will be turned around and he will be set free from the dark cloud of addiction. 

“The thing is, I would like better for myself. I would like to be in a nice clean house.”

Don’t get it wrong. Williams is thankful for his tent. It is pretty spacious and can hold up to four people, he explains.

But, his dream home? It would be a two-story gray house with a white door — a door open to everyone. People from the street. People from church.

A standing invitation for the lost and forgotten. 

Williams is an expert when it comes to preparing sandwiches, but dinner at this house would be a step up: ribeye steaks. And what kind of dessert would he serve his guests? Vanilla ice cream with chocolate fudge: his favorite.  

The best Robert Williams? He would be drug-free and have a family of his own. 

“God loves us more than we could love ourselves,” he said. Because of that, Williams loves others. And little by little, he’s trying to learn how to love himself.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

My name is Samantha Snellings. I like telling stories and what makes people tick. What wakes them up in the morning. What gives them a sense of purpose. I want to be let in on their hopes and dreams. I want to understand their struggles. I refuse to live a mundane life where I simply go through the motions, passing by people without truly seeing them. I want to be a voice for the voiceless.


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