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Homelessness and Housing

Neighborhoodsby Fern Shen10:55 amDec 31, 20230

Remembering a fighter and passionate voice for homeless people in Baltimore and beyond

Anthony Wann Williams, who died earlier this year, emerged from the foster care system and a hard start in life to find purpose in helping others. The Brew pays tribute to a remarkable man.

Above: After rough beginnings in Baltimore, Anthony Williams used his own story of struggle to fuel activism on behalf of homeless people. (8/22/23 celebration event program)

For many people, empathy for the person sleeping on the cold ground or wheeling their worldly possessions in a shopping cart eventually gives way to the shrugging conclusion that the homeless problem is huge, inevitable and unfixable.

Not Anthony Wann Williams, who was one of those people living on city streets and in temporary shelters.

Williams emerged from rough beginnings in Baltimore’s foster care system to become a legendary figure among advocates for homeless people in Rudy Giuliani-era New York, co-founding a seminal advocacy group, Picture the Homeless, along with Lewis Haggins Jr.

His death last May in a vacant building in Baltimore at the age of 59 continues to reverberate. It came as a shock to comrades in Baltimore, where Williams returned a few years ago and continued the work he had begun in Manhattan.

Several friends said they were angry that the police didn’t do more to investigate and quickly track down family members. One noted his health problems. But most said they’d prefer to talk about his inspiring life.

“His impact was immeasurable,” said Rachel Kutler of Housing Our Neighbors (HON), a community organization that Williams helped lead.

“Some of this work is messy and confusing, but Anthony was always crystal clear,” said Kutler. “He fought tirelessly to make sure that homeless people have a say in decisions about their lives. And he understood that the solution to homelessness is housing, which meant challenging those in leadership.”

What gave him the courage and drive to do so?

“Whether you’d known him for 25 years or for 25 minutes, you knew immediately he cared about people,” said his longtime friend and fellow Picture the Homeless organizer, Lynn Lewis.

Lewis had much more to say, having known Williams for decades and recorded hours of interviews with him for an oral history project. But for starters, she said this:

“He knew how to connect with people. And he never lost hope.”

Antony Williams protests the Port Covington financing deal outside Baltimore City Hall. Housing Our Neighbors)

ABOVE: Anthony Williams protests the Port Covington financing deal outside Baltimore City Hall in 2016. BELOW: Participants in a tribute last August to Williams included Lauren Siegel and Jeff Singer, second and third from the left. (Housing Our Neighbors, Fern Shen)

Participants in the August 22 tribute to Anthony Williams in Baltimore, including, second and third from left, Lauren Siegel and Jeff Singer. (Fern Shen)

“Prophet of the streets”

Organizers of a tribute to Williams at Baltimore’s St. Vincent de Paul Church last summer worked hard to present a full picture of their multi-faceted friend.

Anthony’s paintings were displayed on one side of the room. A slideshow up front showed photos of him raising his fist at protests, clowning around with fellow organizers and beaming on his wedding day with wife, Jennifer Merrill Williams.

Several people danced to the old school classics a deejay played from Anthony’s extensive record collection:

“We Are Family” by Sister Sledge, “Mr. Big Stuff” by Jean Knight, and “Got To Be Real” by Cheryl Lynn.

There was barbecue and mac-and-cheese, Anthony’s favorites, and orange balloons, his favorite color.  A 16-page zine was distributed that included a poster from a 2019 performance of the play he wrote, “The King of Howard Street,” set in the Baltimore “bandos” (abandoned buildings) where he and others squatted.

A short bio in the zine included some of the official positions he held.

Williams was, for example, an early participant in the New York City Continuum of Care and the Baltimore City Continuum of Care, a program set up by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to guide housing and homelessness spending. He was a member of the Resident Advisory Board of the Housing Authority of Baltimore (HABC) and a commissioner for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

“He was the prophet of the streets, crying out to everyone else”  – Attorney Peter Sabonis.

Conversant with the language of bureaucracy, he understood multi-million-dollar government housing programs in a visceral way.

“Because he was in foster care and group homes, Anthony was an expert on how the system impacted people,” Lewis said. “That’s why he focused on the money, like asking what happened to the ARPA funds?”

But Williams’ superpower was something more – a power well known to those stung by it.

Suddenly, he would cut through the polite and plodding blah-blah at those meetings and tell participants, bluntly and factually, just exactly how they were failing people like him.

“He had the prophetic role,” Peter Sabonis, a lawyer who has supported community groups promoting housing and income security, remembers. “He was the prophet of the streets, crying out to everyone else.”

Activist Anthony Williams disrupts 1000 Friends of Marytland Port Covington event, as executive director Dru Schmidt-Pekins, listens. (Fern Shen)

Anthony Williams disrupts a “1000 Friends of Maryland Port Covington” event, while executive director Dru Schmidt-Perkins looks on. (Fern Shen, 2016)

Biting Words

He did it in 2016, crashing a swanky event hosted by the developers of the Port Covington project who were in the process of reeling in $660 million in public TIF tax increment financing.

Protesters outside were decrying the huge investment in a high-end waterfront development, while much of the majority Black, historically redlined city suffered from poverty and a lack of affordable housing.

The Brew described how Williams, megaphone in hand, brought their message into the building:

Guests had just finished snacking on bacon-wrapped figs and sipping Sagamore Spirit rye whiskey and had settled in to hear speakers from Sagamore Development, the real estate arm of Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, when Anthony Williams, of the advocacy group Housing Our Neighbors, strode onto the stage.

“Certainly the leader in sports apparel that prides itself on cutting-edge technology could come up with a way for there to be affordable housing. But you refuse!” shouted Williams, who identified himself by saying, “I am currently homeless, and I live on the steps of a church downtown.”

The video at Williams memorial included a clip of this protest action, showing private security hustling him away as he chanted, “Housing is a right for all!”

He commanded the room again in 2018 at the annual Taxpayers Night, berating city leaders for only diverting a pittance to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

Williams directed his stinging comments squarely at then-City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, in remarks captured by The Brew and included in the zine:

“I live a few blocks from my high school that I went to, Samuel Gompers. It’s now abandoned,” he said. “I walk and see abandoned schools. I see abandoned properties in my neighborhood. In my beloved city, where I was born and raised.

“Young, how could you let this happen to Baltimore City, long as you’ve been involved in government? All those abandoned properties. What happened? Who made the decision? Who made our city look like this? Why?”

“All the politicians involved should be held accountable for that,” he continued. “Because homelessness could be resolved tomorrow if you fixed all the buildings and put the money where it should be.”

Williams made clear in his interviews with Lewis that the issue for him was deeply personal.

“I’m carrying on the fight because I want them accountable for my life and for every life in this city that they have neglected.”

What about money diverted from east and west Baltimore, Anthony Williams asked, at a meeting on the Port Covington Master Plan. (Fern Shen)

Addressing the Port Covington Master Plan, Anthony Williams questions committing hundreds of millions of dollars to finance the project rather than support beleaguered East and West Baltimore (Fern Shen, 2016)

“A child of the system”

Williams’ own words, recorded by Lewis, some of which were played at his memorial, provide a bleak picture of his early life.

He was born at City Hospital (today’s Johns Hopkins Bayview), lived with a foster family on Luzerne Avenue near Greenmount Cemetery and was never adopted.

“You could never tell me how I felt, not knowing my parents,” he said. “You can never tell me that, because I live with it every day.”

He recalled vividly the day he was taken to his second foster family at the age of eight.

“My social worker came and got me and put me in the car. It was a very, very sad day,” he said. “I’m looking out the window and my Mom was waving at me and I’m, I was just disappointed. I didn’t know how to feel.”

“I went through a lot of ups and downs in life, back and forth from group homes to institutions, to psych wards, to prison. . . But I survived!”  – Anthony Williams.

Summing up all that came after, he called himself “a child of the system.”

“I went through a lot of ups and downs in life, back and forth from group homes to institutions, to psych wards, to prison, to jail and then homelessness,” he said. “But I survived!”

The key to that survival, it turned out, was the friendship he developed with other homeless, hurting people in New York amid the harsh sweeps being ordered by Rudy Giuliani.

“It was a whole, all-out assault on people living in homeless situations. People living in boxes,” he recalled. “Wherever there were homeless people, they were rousted.”

He had met Haggins in a detox program. The two were living in the same shelter when the warrant squad yanked one of their fellow shelter residents out of bed. “They slammed him up against the wall. They really roughed him up.”

Haggins “came to my room at, like, three in the morning, pissed. ‘We gotta do something about this, Anthony!’”

That’s when they marched down to vent about the Giuliani administration’s policies on a popular early morning radio show on WBAI.

“I talked and people started calling in,” Williams said.

The rest is movement history. After they attracted attention, Haggins pointed out “We’ve gotta call ourselves something now.” Williams suggested “Picture the Homeless.”

“Picture those people you see every day. Understand who those people are. We’re talking about the inside of the person – not a photo.”

Anthony Williams, far right, with fellow members of Housing Our Neighbors in Baltimore. (8/22/23 celebration event program)

Anthony Williams, far right, with fellow members of Housing Our Neighbors in Baltimore. (Celebration event program)


One of the group’s first actions was a vigil in 2000 on the steps of Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, protesting the forced displacement of homeless people to Camp LaGuardia in upstate New York. (The hulking 1,000-bed institution finally closed in 2007.)

They took the NYPD to court and won, got legislation passed to establish homeless people as a class protected from unconstitutional police profiling and scored numerous other victories.

Led by Williams, Haggins and others recruited from the streets, the group shaped how the public and the media think about them.

“Before Picture the Homeless, people didn’t think of homelessness as a social justice issue,” Lewis said. “Asians, Blacks, Hispanic people, poor people all these groups were viewed as suffering from an oppressive system, but not homeless people.”

One of their successful campaigns was triggered by the lonely passing of Haggins in 2003, which bore some eerie similarities to Williams’ death.

Haggins died on a New York city subway car, without ID, and was buried in the city’s Potter’s Field (public cemetery) on Hart Island. Police eventually discovered his identity, but his  friends were prohibited from going there to honor him because of the city’s restrictive policies.

After joining forces with local faith leaders, the group got the rules changed, so that friends as well as relatives can now visit the island to mourn their lost loved ones.

Lewis Haggins and Anthony Williams in a news story about a vigil they staged in 2000 to protest New York's treatment of homeless people. (The Picture the Homeless Oral History Project)

Lewis Haggins and Anthony Williams in a news story about a vigil they staged in 2000 to protest New York’s treatment of homeless people. (The Picture the Homeless Oral History Project)

Inspirational Fighter

In Baltimore, Williams was a strong voice on behalf of making the dysfunctional Affordable Housing Trust Fund work, and during the height of the Covid pandemic called on the city to move homeless people out of dangerous congregate shelters to hotels or permanent housing.

Interested in finding innovative forms of sustainable housing, he helped launch the Common Ground Community Land Trust in East Baltimore.

More fundamentally, he pushed to ensure that people who had “the lived experience” of homelessness were given a leadership role in the decisions that affect them.

“That was his mantra before they even started using that term,” Sabonis said. “They even got their own committee on the Continuum of Care, thanks to him.”

Yet he also “swam in the alphabet soup of housing programs” and deeply understood “the non-profit industrial complex.”

“He would give me numbers and send me documents he’d read – I had a running list of Anthony Williams notes,” Sabonis added. “It was quite amazing when you consider the place he came from. I’m really going to miss him.”

Jeff Garrett, Mark Council ,Anthony Williams and Kyle Long, of Housing Our Neighbors (HON) prepare to deliver a letter to Mayor Brandon Scott. (Fern Shen)

ABOVE: Jeff Garrett, Mark Council, Anthony Williams and Kyle Long of HON prepare to deliver a letter to Mayor Brandon Scott. BELOW: Jennifer McMillan admires paintings by Anthony Williams at the event celebrating his life. (Fern Shen)

Jennifer McMillan admires paintings by Anthony Williams at the event celebrating his life. (Fern Shen)

Jennifer McMillan, one of the people who attended the tribute at St. Vincent de Paul Church, said she couldn’t believe it when she heard Williams had died.

“He was a very strong fighter, a strong person,” said McMillan, who lived for a time at the Pinderhughes shelter in West Baltimore and served on the Lived Experience Committee with him.

“He reminds me of myself – I like to fight for people who don’t have a voice, who don’t think they have a voice,” she said, explaining how rewarding she finds the Committee’s work.

“When I went, I was so happy for what they stood for. It was exactly what I wanted, what they were doing. I love the homeless. I always wanted to do this, help homeless people. You see them everywhere.”

Williams, she said, inspired her with his belief that the problem, though big, is not so unfixable.

“They keep saying there’s not enough vouchers, not enough money for homeless. I don’t believe that is true. Anthony didn’t believe it’s true,” she said.

“He said he wanted no more shelters, no more hotels. They need homes. I’m going to do everything I can to help.”

To reach the writer: fern.shen@baltimorebrew.com

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