You may remember Bill Hobson as someone who liked to argue. This week as I reflect on his passing, I’m not sure that’s entirely right. He certainly liked to talk, and he argued plenty, but long ago he traded a search for universal truth in academia for a career where he could produce meaningful justice for real people. He remarked that too much discourse had no greater relevance to real problems than “13th century schoolmen debating how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.” When he did argue, it was because he had determined a particular outcome needed to be reached, and he was determined to get there. Whether he relished the act of arguing or not, he undoubtedly held to his convictions. “It helps to be right,” he said more than a few times.
As a homeless advocate, Bill was aided greatly by his facility with words. He loved words and aimed to use them deliberately. In one of the first DESC staff meetings I ever attended, he reviewed the etymology of the word “client” (from the Latin and related to being dependent). He didn’t want to promote our clients being dependent on us, so he thought we ought to know where that word came from.
But his real talent was in how he strung words together in service of his ideas. A few favorites out of a long list show how he boiled things down to their essence. For example, with regard to ideas for doing things without the resources to pay for them, he said, “You can wish in one hand and pour water in the other and see which fills up faster.” His reaction to the overprocessing of issues was to ask: “Now are we gonna remove our shoes and socks, touch toes, and sing kumbaya?” And he had a variety of ways to offer a quick assessment of an idea he found lacking, my two personal favorites being “that’s nonsense on stilts” and “we need that as much as a pig needs a silk purse.”
As memorable as those phrases are, the ideas that really stuck with those of us who worked closely with Bill are the ones that showed why he was in the work in the first place. When faced with a difficult decision, Bill would ask, “Which choice mitigates to the advantage of our clients? Pick that one.” And as proud as he was of the outcomes our programs produced and the lives improved, that was never enough. He continued to challenge us to improve our work, leaving us at the time of his retirement in 2015 to better help our clients integrate into the life of the community and find a way to garner the resources needed to discover what our clients are capable of achieving.
Bill was unendingly clear in his view that homelessness is a public social problem and as such should be addressed with tax dollars like other public needs. His stock first response when people asked him what they could do about homelessness? “Vote for politicians who promise to raise your taxes.” His conviction on this extended to what he said to well-heeled private donors: “You should be paying more in taxes.”
Give him points for consistency and transparency. Those were his trademark instincts. A chameleon he was not. He said that if you stick to your values and “expose your warts,” you will succeed more often than not.
He dedicated himself to eliminating homelessness by building up the housing and services people needed to thrive, and even though he thought emergency shelter was a poor reflection on society’s regard for people experiencing homelessness, he was practical enough to recognize that it did a lot of good when society was too slow at making enough homes for everyone. “Job security for social workers” was how he summed up his frustration at our collective failure to end homelessness.
He gave me and others so much practical wisdom. It’s a huge loss not to be able to call on him for more.
Daniel Malone succeeded Bill Hobson as executive director of DESC in 2015, following 26 years of tutelage by an amazing teacher.