Overhead lights illuminated the dozens of people who gathered on Aug. 22 in the basement of St. Vincent de Paul Church in downtown Baltimore to honor the life of 59-year-old homelessness activist and organizer Anthony Wann Williams, whose unexpected passing on May 8 rocked his tightly-knit community. Attendees spoke of his decades of advocacy for society’s most marginalized, first in New York City and then in Baltimore.
At the service, admirers, mentees, and friends recalled how the electric presence Williams brought to his advocacy inspired them to join the fight for housing justice.
“Anthony always kept his eye on the big picture, that it’s the system that creates homelessness,” his longtime friend and fellow organizer Lynn Lewis, who helped eulogize him, told Baltimore Beat.
The event served not only as a celebration of Williams’ life but also as an occasion for his community to promise to continue his fight.
Williams was remembered for being anything but shy, especially when it came to sharing his personal journey of overcoming homelessness, which allowed him to make deep and lasting connections with those facing similar challenges. Also a visionary, he believed housing was a human right and that by acknowledging that fact, policymakers could end the housing crisis.
A slideshow offered a glimpse into Williams’ life. In one photo, he’s marching in the streets of New York City with Lewis and other members of Picture the Homeless, a homeless-led advocacy organization he co-founded in 1999; in another, taken years later, he is surrounded by fellow housing organizers in Baltimore. Also pictured was his 2008 wedding to Jennifer Merrill Williams, who survives him.
“Anthony had a strong sense of justice and believed in standing up for the oppressed,” she said in an interview. “Although [he] did not have a lot of use for religion, that attitude of caring about the people society considers lowest, that was his way of being like Jesus,” she said.
The audience also heard Williams tell his own story in his own words.
“Baltimore City, for me, is a lot of pain, a lot of hurt,” Williams says in a short video produced by United Workers media team co-coordinator David Reische, who excerpted portions from a three-part oral history he recorded with Lewis in 2018.
“You don’t know how much power you have until we discover it and you use it,” he says in the video. “And you see it working, not only working for you, but it’s also working for other people,” he says. “My transition from homelessness in Baltimore has also helped me to help thousands of other people.”
Born in East Baltimore on Aug. 22, 1963, Williams was raised in foster care and on the streets — places where, he’d often say, hunger, loss, and violence were the norm rather than the exception. Growing up poor and Black meant little hope or opportunity to build a better life. This was by design.
Half a century earlier, the city pioneered legalized racial segregation and other policies to impoverish its Black residents. At the current pace, it will take African Americans 500 years to reach economic parity, according to a recent analysis from the Institute for Policy Studies and National Community Reinvestment Coalition.
Williams found that pace unacceptable. His varied life experiences — including the toll that living on the street and in shelters took on him — instilled in him a sense of urgency. The work, his many admirers acknowledged at the ceremony, is far from over. But with his legacy in mind, they vowed to continue to build a movement that could ensure everyone access to economic parity and housing.
“He understood that this work was going to take building a powerful movement,” said Rachel Kutler, of Housing Our Neighbors (HON), a community organization that Williams helped lead. “He was very committed to building up the power of our organization and the individuals in it.”
From 2015 until his unexpected passing earlier this year, Williams devoted his time to demanding Baltimore City give a seat at the table to those with lived experiences with homelessness and poverty and developing future generations of leaders.
Thousands of primarily Black Baltimoreans face homelessness every year, and over half of city residents could be at risk of losing their housing if they face an unexpected family emergency or job loss.
Unafraid to make his demands for justice heard, William was known to keep a close eye on how city tax dollars were allocated and how homeless services were delivered.
Memorial attendees watched footage taken June 28, 2016, when Williams seized a mic on stage at a swanky fundraiser. He was quickly ejected after speaking out against Armour CEO Kevin Plank’s Port Covington (now known as Baltimore Peninsula) being awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in city tax incentives to build luxury development without committing to making at least 20 percent of the units affordable to low-income residents.
“We feel that $600 million going to private development is not fair to us or to Baltimore City. The answer is fair housing and affordable housing for all,” Williams said in a press release distributed by HON.
In 2018, Williams took aim at the Baltimore City Council for allocating an additional $21 million to the already bloated budget of the Baltimore Police Department. “This feels like a smack in the face… Instead of investing in the human right to housing, the city is diverting excess revenue towards an institution proven to be corrupt–the BPD,” he said in another HON press release.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, Williams helped lead a successful campaign demanding then-Mayor Jack Young close homeless shelters–that had long been criticized as being unsafe– and relocate the homeless to hotels.
Memorial attendees also watched video of him speaking out at a Baltimore City Council hearing demanding the city allocate funding to support Community Land Trusts (CLTs) to provide permanently affordable and community-controlled housing— through the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund (AHTF). The ATHF, where Williams served as a commissioner, was a culmination of a decade of advocacy and requires the city to spend roughly $20 million a year to build affordable housing.
Beyond impacting policy, Williams also helped change lives.
“I was very reluctant to advocate for myself, let alone for other people in the beginning, because there’s so much stigma around homelessness,” said fellow activist and friend Athena, who declined to give her last name. “He’s one of the first people that was really paramount in bringing me into the fold of advocacy and activism.”
Along with numerous other positions, Williams was appointed co-chair of Baltimore’s Continuum of Care, a Housing and Urban Development program that seeks to include those with direct experiences in policy decisions for alleviating homelessness.
“He demanded that we be better as a city, as organizations and as people,” Kevin Lindamood, President and CEO of Health Care for the Homeless, who served with Williams on the board of the Continuum of Care, told Baltimore Beat.
That demand, Lindamood explained, came from a place of love.
“Anthony was one of the most deeply empathetic and passionate people I’ve known,” he said. “Someone who channeled his own trauma, anger, and personal experience into powerful advocacy on behalf of others.”
His life history also extracted an incalculable toll. “There’s no question to me that homelessness took years from his life,” Lindamood said. Black Baltimore residents from poorer neighborhoods can expect to live nearly two decades less than wealthier white counterparts.
Yet Williams drew strength from his experiences overcoming homelessness, and those experiences turned him into a formidable advocate on behalf of others, helping him develop leadership skills among those who had also experienced homelessness.
“I think one of his biggest contributions was leadership and inspiring other people to be leaders,” housing advocate James Crawford Jr., who co-hosted the event, told Baltimore Beat. “He wanted other people to rise up and stand up and get recognition because it helps [the formerly homeless] build self-esteem…some of them have been homeless for a while, and their self-esteem is beaten into the ground.”
Williams also recently helped launch an initiative to establish permanently affordable, community-controlled housing through the Common Ground Community Land Trust in his native, rapidly-gentrifying East Baltimore.
“The vision for the CLT is to provide housing for the lowest 30% area median income, specifically people who are homeless or formerly homeless on their transition to be housed,” said his friend and Common Ground organizer Belinda Rodriguez. She emphasized that William’s vision for the CLT centered on the needs and input of all local residents.
Also an accomplished artist, an exhibition of his work circled the service, bringing color to the commemoration of his life. Several of the included pieces of artwork were unfinished, symbolizing the work that remains to be completed.
Speaking at the event, close friend and fellow housing organizer Mark Council was met with applause when he said the best way to honor William’s legacy is to continue his work.
“This man dedicated his life to this work. If you love him, you can continue his work,” Council said. “Let him rest, but we have to continue to fight,” he said.