Joanne Williams walked up as I stood amid the tarps and carts along 17th Street in East Village, recognizing me from our many years crossing paths on the streets.
“I need to talk to someone,” she said in a shaky whisper. “I was assaulted last night. Walking home from work.” Her eyes moved to the right, where dozens of people were gathering their tents and other belongings ahead of the city’s cleanup crew. “He’s here,” she said in a flat voice that concealed a paralyzing fear.
Williams, 47, was born in Canada, given up for adoption along with her siblings, as an infant. She was taken in by a couple in Chicago, who treated her well. They helped her keep in touch with her siblings, and know about her mother, who died at age 35 of lead poisoning. She followed her adoptive parents’ example and joined the military, signing on with the U.S. Navy at age 19. Williams spent the majority of her eight years serving as a yeoman on the USS Abraham Lincoln. Back in civilian life in Seattle, some 20 years ago, she was hit by a drunk driver, suffering major injuries and ending up in a coma.
She moved in with a family friend in San Diego while recuperating, but can’t shake PTSD and the diabetes she has developed. She had twins that did not survive past their birthday. She went to school to become a dietician and did that for about five years before changing careers to become a security guard. While working as security at Coachella she met her now-husband Eric, also a security guard. The couple are staying in a motel right now, paying by the month, but would rather be in a real home.
It was Eric who came to her side that morning as soon as he got off his work shift, to scoop her up in his arms. They listened to everyone’s advice about going to the police and a hospital for a medical evaluation. “The police don’t listen to homeless people, they will just say I was drunk,” Williams whispered. “But I was on my way home from work. It was late. He grabbed me by the throat. He hurt me.”
At that point, a medical emergency team pulled up in front of the Neil Good Day Center, and Eric and I convinced Joanne to talk with the two women in the truck, who told her the same thing: file a police report, go to a hospital for medical treatment and STD testing. She nodded noncommittally, wanting to stay on the street long enough to look her assailant in the eye, with friends around her, to let him know he hadn’t killed her spirit.