By Sarah Heikkinen
Beth Williams, a formerly homeless Syracuse senior citizen, fights government cuts to the Syracuse YWCA, a place she credits with helping her reclaim her independence and self-sufficiency.
If you want to break through Beth Williams’ shy exterior, mention President Donald Trump’s name. With one POTUS reference, the short, quiet, and reserved former resident of the Syracuse YWCA’s permanent housing program transforms into a vocal, animated orator. She talks about the proposed budget cuts to programs such as Meals on Wheels, and as her focus sharpens, her passion increases. “You cannot decrease funding for Meals on Wheels,” she says, pounding her fist on the couch in the YWCA lounge. “That is such an important, vital need for us senior citizens.”
At 63, Williams has navigated many challenges: two major back surgeries—the latest of which left her dependent on a cane — depression, parental abuse, and the loss of a home. Homelessness led her to the YWCA in 2015, carrying nothing but a suitcase filled with a few belongings. “It’s a situation that can happen to anybody,” she says, and her bespectacled eyes, already magnified by the lenses, widen. “It doesn’t matter if you’re working.”
At the time, she was a part-time child-care provider at the YMCA in Manlius. She lived in in a two-bedroom townhouse with a family friend, but when her friend moved into her own place, she couldn’t afford the lease on her sparse salary. Soon, she was forced to leave the townhouse with no other options for a place to stay. After a brief stint in a homeless shelter, she found her way to the YWCA and was admitted into the permanent resident program at 300 Burt Street.
Now, almost two years later, she’s moving out of the YWCA’s program and relocating to Redfield Village Apartments, a senior-living complex 11 miles away from the YWCA’s residences. One of the main goals of the program is to help its residents move to a place of their own, but it has comforted marginalized women in the Syracuse area with its willingness to let residents stay as long as they need to.
However, in August of 2016, the Syracuse Continuum of Care and the Housing and Homeless Coalition of Central New York, a subsidiary of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced they would no longer fund the YWCA’s permanent residence program. They decided instead to focus on rehabilitating residents and sending them on their way quickly — a philosophy known as “rapid rehousing.”
This decision was based on HUD studies over the course of three years across the country (but not in New York) that suggested “rapid rehousing” would be the most cost-effective way to ensure that formerly homeless families would stay off the streets while also cutting transitional and permanent housing out altogether. HUD also reported that while families assigned to housing with intensive support services were less likely to end up in an emergency shelter situation again, they “achieved no better non-housing outcomes” after the transitional period had ended.
Without the YWCA program, and the strong circle of support the women in it provide, Williams says she wouldn’t be where she is now, getting ready to move in to Redfield Village. Being surrounded by women, residents and case managers alike, “empowers you,” she says.
When Williams and her fellow permanent-housing residents found out about HUD’s decision in August of last year, she says her first thought was, “Oh God…here we go again.” The women who become involved in the program come in with the expectation that they’ll be sheltered until they have enough financial and personal security to leave. While Williams was lucky enough to find housing quickly, she says that it could take anywhere from six months to two years for other women to be placed in new housing arrangements.
As of right now, there haven’t been any significant strides made by the YWCA to raise enough funds to continue paying for the permanent residencies. But Fanny Villarreal, the executive director of the YWCA, says that they’re looking everywhere for funding “to keep the promises we made to the women.” After July 31, the 20 women who are living on the 11th and 12th floors of the Almus Olver Towers, where the YWCA offices are located, will have to find somewhere else to live, or find the funds to pay an increase in rent; Williams falls into the group of women that will be leaving the Towers.
Despite the challenges facing the YWCA and the women who live there, Williams remains the same joyful, amicable woman she’s always been. Even with her back injuries, which subject her to a cane to get around, she still pursues her fierce interests in local and national activism by calling local politicians to air her concerns. “I’ve found a voice, and it’s a strong voice,” she says, smiling. “Not only can I advocate for myself now, I’m actually advocating for others.”
William’s penchant for standing up for people in need of her help started when she was a young girl growing up in Canastota, a town east of Syracuse. “I remember being constantly bullied in school,” she says. “I think a lot of that was because some of the kids who had learning disabilities and were in special ed and everything, I would always do whatever I could to help them out.” One strong memory she recalls is the time she defended one of her classmates, a girl with polio, from other students who would make fun of her disfigured arm. Williams says she stood up and said, “How would you like it if we made fun of you?” And in college, she studied social work, earning her bachelor’s degree in social work from SUNY Brockport in 2000.
Williams’ former case manager at the YWCA, Liz Wierbinski, considers her former client a great advocator. Wierbinski has known Williams since August 2016, and while Liz is no longer solely a case manager (she was promoted to programs and development director), she’s kept a small caseload at the YWCA offices on Burt Street, including WIlliams’. “She’s a very strong woman,” Liz says. “She advocates for herself, she advocates for everyone around her.”
Williams’ two closest friends in the program, Brenda Olson and Dollica “Dolly” Everett, agree that she has changed both of their lives for the better. Sitting at the front desk of the YWCA in a colorful dress, Everett, 52, greets everyone who walks in with a cheerful “Hello, Miss So-and-So.” Her face brightens as she recalls the first time she met Williams. She was sitting in one of the computer classes that the YWCA offers as a part of the life skills program, and Williams came in and started dancing to the music they were playing. “We just clicked right away,” Everett says with a smile that suggests she holds the memory of their first meeting dearly. “I said, ‘That’s somebody that I want to be close to.’”
Williams also possesses a talent for making those around her feel safe and loved, which made her a staple at the Burt Street YWCA. Olson, 56, a short, thin woman with bright, kind eyes, recalls memories of braving the cold Syracuse winters to stand outside the building and smoke cigarettes with Williams. “It could be below zero, wind blowing, snow falling, and we’d go outside and have our smoke breaks,” she says. “Those are the memories I have of her.” Like Williams, Olson is moving out of the YWCA’s residences, but she’s not going far. She found an apartment a few floors below the YWCA’s offices. The Syracuse Housing Authority, which built the complex in the early 1960s, own those apartments.
Olson says that she sees the ending of the permanent housing program as she, Williams, and Dolly knew it, in a more positive light. Since the goal of the permanent housing program was to get their residents stable enough to live on their own, Olson isn’t as upset by its ending. “We’re finally going to be getting what we want,” she says with an air of pensive finality. Then, she continues, “I am…I’m going to miss her.”
Unlike Williams, Olson, and several other women in the program, Everett will stay in the YWCA apartments while she waits to figure out new housing arrangements through Section 8—a rental assistance program. She says she and Williams plan to stay in touch and visit each other as often as possible. “I’m going to miss her,” she says, tearing up. “But her spirit will be here with me. I’m a better person for knowing her.”
As for Williams’ plans after leaving Burt Street, she says she’s going to keep on fighting the legislators who plan to cut resources for the homeless, low-income families, and senior citizens. “I think I could take on D.C.,” she says with a sweet, devious smile.