A Doctor’s Kindness Gives Homeless Inventor A Second Chance

A Doctor’s Kindness Gives Homeless Inventor A Second Chance
by NPR Staff
January 27, 2013 5:20 PM

In California in the early 1980s, a cracked tooth sent Mike Williams to the dentist’s office.
When Williams asked to see the tooth, the dentist said he had a mirror but that there was no camera or anything to show people the insides of their mouths. So, Williams invented one: the first intraoral camera.
His invention was a big success, and it led to other medical technology ventures that made him millions of dollars. Williams’ career as an inventor and entrepreneur took off, but it wouldn’t last.
“The real estate market destroyed a lot of my financial capabilities, and my home went into foreclosure [in 2009],” Williams tells NPR’s Robert Smith. “I had a group that defrauded me in Florida, took about $2.5 million from me in a scam, and it just kept going and kept going and I couldn’t stop it.”
His world was crumbling. Then his wife asked for a divorce.
“ To me, a patient is a patient, no matter what kind of status [they] have. They need the help, [and] we can give him the help.
– Dr. Jong Chen
“I packed my car, told my kids to come and get what they wanted and I basically hit the streets,” he says.
The successful inventor had become homeless.
For a while, Williams lived out of his car and kept a journal on a laptop. Once he fell behind on the car payments, he took shelter in a dumpster. The situation hit him hard.
“I found out that I was really nothing, and that was very hard for me to grasp; the fact that no one wanted me around,” he says. “I was something nobody wanted to see or be involved in, and that crushed me.”
One night last August, Williams was sleeping in a Sacramento park when two men began kicking and beating him. They beat him until he passed out, taking his belongings and leaving him with severe injuries.
Williams walked to the emergency room. He didn’t have health insurance, and he says he waited for hours before seeing a doctor.
“Little did I know that that beating would be the beating that changed my life,” he says.
A Second Chance
Williams’ injuries eventually led him to Dr. Jong Chen.
He went to Chen complaining of pain in his lower abdomen; it turns out he suffered prostate damage that required surgery. Before the operation, the two men struck up a conversation, and Chen asked him how he became homeless and what he did before that.

A rendering of the pod prototype designed by Williams in his joint venture with Chen.
Courtesy of Mike Williams
“And I started telling him the story,” Williams says. “And I said, ‘As a matter of fact, I’m the inventor of that little wire catheter you’re using.’ ”
Chen thought it was a waste that an inventor like Williams was on the street, so he devised a way to help him. He later called Williams at a local Salvation Army shelter and asked to take him out to breakfast.
“He said ‘I want you to bring your patents. I want you to bring whatever you’re working on,’ ” Williams says.
They went to breakfast, and Williams talked of about his idea to invent a secure, safe place for the homeless and people that are displaced in society.
“I want to give them a safe place to live,” he says he told Chen.
Williams came up with the idea while resting in one of the only safe places he could find: a dumpster. He’d even drawn up the plans for a self-contained survival pod — a 6-foot by 6-foot structure with a single bed and a chemical toilet.
Chen signed on, and they formed a company to start working on a prototype pod. They also envision other applications — FEMA could use them for emergency housing, and airports could rent them to travelers with long layovers.
All of that got started with an unusually generous contribution.
“To me, a patient is a patient, no matter what kind of status [they] have,” Chen says. “They need the help, [and] we can give him the help.”
Chen got Williams out of the shelter and back on his feet. He helped him get an apartment, new clothes and treated him to meals when the two would meet.
Williams says he is humbled by the second chance he’s been given by the generosity of one man, and says it’s people like Chen who are truly helping people.
“[Dr. Chen] is truly an amazing man,” Williams says. “I’m just telling you, [he] is the example for America.”

I was very moved by this story. I have been sharing food with the homeless for over 30 years and often meet people like Mike Williams. People who had money and were doing well but ran into problems and ended up on the street. Also it is very common for people to he beaten while living outside.  Over the years a number of people who argued that the homeless just needed to “get a job” have returned to our meals to share that they too had fallen on hard times and understood my position when they had given me a rough time for defending the homeless.

Yet I have also heard wonderful stories of compassion. A mother happened to pass our meal in Tucson and told me how our volunteers in Sacramento had saved the lives of her family when she happened upon our meal at Cesar Chavez Park. A laid-off teacher who could not take another day dealing with the humiliation from social service workers started off to one of the bridges to throw her daughters off into the river before jumping herself but our volunteers treated her with dignity. She donated $20 to our Tucson group after sharing her story.

I have also been approached with plans for a “self-contained survival pod — a 6-foot by 6-foot structure with a single bed and a chemical toilet” many times over the years. A design firm in San Francisco gave me plans in the early 1990’s but there were several huge issues about the idea. The “Mad Housers” also had a great design for small houses for the 
homeless but the city of Atlanta destroyed their buildings and arrested 
the owners in the months before the Olympics in 1996.

First with as many a five empty abandoned houses for every homeless American both after the Savings and Loan crisis and today with the foreclosure crisis it would be more practical to house homeless people in these homes helping both the homeless and the homes so they would not be in disrepair. The second is that as we saw in the struggle to let people live in the tent city in Sacramento we would need to change the impression people have the the homeless and change laws regarding public space and the rights of the homeless. 

People should not have to live in a self-contained survival pod — a 6-foot by 6-foot structure with a single bed and a chemical toilet. All Americans have the right, really all people have the right to housing and again with so many empty foreclosed homes it is time to let everyone return home. No one should have to live on he streets of America nor stand in line to eat at a soup kitchen when we can spend billions for war and prisons.

I do not want to slow the progress of Mike’s project but I would suggest he would have better luck trying to sell it to airports and relief organizations like the United Nations. As for providing safety for America’s homeless we need to change society. When I first started to feed the poor in 1980 there were almost no homeless Americans and our goal was to slow the policies of the Reagan administration but by 1988 the number of people made homeless was so dire cities started to implement anti- homeless laws, the laws that placed Mike in danger and sent him to you for treatment.

Thanks so much for your consideration.

Keith McHenry co-founder of the Food Not Bombs movement.