Jeff Williams lost everything when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit.
Before the pandemic, Williams, 37, a member of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma, made his living operating a traditional fry bread food booth called Native Roots at farmers markets, county fairs and other events across Washington using a special recipe he learned from his grandmother as a child.
When all events were canceled, Williams found himself in free fall.
First, he lost his income, then his apartment in Everett. He moved in with family in the Seattle area and sold nearly all of his possessions, including the equipment needed to operate Native Roots and, as a musician, his beloved percussion instruments. His church closed, and his community dissipated.
“I had to sell everything to survive,” he said.
With no income and no end to the pandemic in sight, he took what little money he had and set out to drive across the United States, a lifelong dream. Over the next few months, he slowly made his way across the country, volunteering at churches, community centers and food banks — helping others whose lives had also been upended by the pandemic.
“I met some really, really great people out there,” Williams said.
In November, after nearly a year of volunteering and working across the U.S., he decided to make his way back to Seattle. He stopped in Vancouver to see the Columbia River Gorge and decided to stay.
“Everything about Vancouver appealed to me,” he said. “The river, the mountains, the history — everything.”
Safe Parking Zone
Williams arrived with nothing, save his truck, and he parked in the Share parking lot to sleep. At 6 foot, 4 inches tall, Williams has a less than ideal stature for sleeping in a vehicle; he had to open a door so he could extend his legs, leaving his feet hanging outside in the cold.
His feet dangling out of the truck attracted the attention of Share outreach workers, who approached Williams and told him about Vancouver’s Safe Parking Zone, a program that allows individuals who are living in their vehicles to have a safe and organized place to stay.
Williams was surprised. In Seattle, the wait list for a similar program was two to three years, he said.
Once at the Safe Parking Zone, Williams felt relieved. Not having to worry about where to park gave him time to focus on other things, and he started volunteering at local churches and organizations, such as Living Hope Church, River City Church, Angels of God food pantry, Recovery Cafe Clark County and the Cowlitz Indian Tribe.
Through his volunteer work, Williams rekindled his lifelong passion for service and community building. He started taking online courses to receive his peer counselor certification, and after he received it, he began volunteering as a peer counselor.
Williams grew up around addiction and substance abuse, and he is dedicated to helping others who suffer from it.
As a peer counselor, Williams relies on his lived experience with homelessness to offer support and guidance for others.
“I became an advocate for a lot of people,” he said. “It’s very enlightening for both me and the people I work with. I take a load off their shoulders. Sometimes that’s all they need.”
One day, while volunteering at Bethesda Church in central Vancouver, Williams met a couple from Camas who later helped him reestablish his business, Native Roots.
“They’re the ones that are my guides, the co-leaders on this mission on starting my business back up,” he said.
Around the same time, in December, Williams got connected with Community Roots Collaborative, a Vancouver-based nonprofit, through the Recovery Cafe.
Community Roots Collaborative operates Fruit Valley Terrace, a cluster of tiny homes in west Vancouver that were constructed in 2021 to help alleviate homelessness in Clark County. Tenants pay rent and utilities on their tiny homes, but the cost is low — $650 for rent and roughly $50 for utilities per month — thanks to an affordable leasing model.
Williams moved into his own tiny home at Fruit Valley Terrace last winter, ending his 1½ years of experience with homelessness sparked by the pandemic.
“I am now a survivor of homelessness,” he said.
Once established in his new home, Williams began rebuilding Native Roots. Thanks to connections he made through volunteering across Clark County, he received support and encouragement along the way.
“All these organizations have influenced my dream and my mission,” he said. “They’ve given me full support through advertising and purchasing items for my business, and now I’m back on my feet.”
In March, Williams set up Native Roots at the weekend variety market at Northeast 134th Avenue and Fourth Plain Boulevard. He now runs his booth there every weekend from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Williams is also taking an eight-week business course for Native business owners through the Oregon Native American Chamber.
“A lot of things are coming together for me right now,” he said.
Over the next few years, Williams hopes to expand his business. He dreams of creating a fry bread that could be sold in grocery stores, and he hopes to someday establish a nonprofit aimed at assisting Native Americans in Vancouver and throughout Washington.
For now, he is looking forward to the summer and to growing his roots deeper into the community that he said helped lift him out of homelessness. He wants to return the favor.
“Through this whole experience, I’ve learned to be humble. I’ve found happiness in helping others. The way things have been falling back into place, I couldn’t have done it without any of these organizations here in Vancouver,” he said. “I really believe that homelessness can be eradicated, and I believe that it can be done here. My philosophy is: If I can change my own life through faith, then I should be responsible for changing the society we live in.”