Burt Street

About Burt Street

Abandoned buildings and sidewalk shrines dedicated to those taken by gun violence dot this area. But the 300 block — home to the Syracuse YWCA apartments, Meals on Wheels headquarters, and Syracuse RISE — serves as a bright spot amid the bleakness.

Main Character

The Housing Hero

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.


Almus Olver Towers

Named after Almus Olver — a Syracuse University professor, social worker, former secretary of the Associated Churches and Charities of Syracuse, and affordable-housing advocate — this complex was built in 1963 to house the elderly and features three wings and 189 apartments.

Building Profile

Where Sanctuary Resides

By Clare Ramirez

Syracuse non-profit RISE helps those who have left or fled homelands find jobs, learn English, and start a new life in a new country.

Against the backdrop of two high-rise towers and a village of one-story apartments, the building at 302 Burt St. stands out. Its roof features triangular tips that branch out from the building’s center in six directions, just like a star, which seems fitting, considering its role in guiding those new to the city. Built in the early 1960s as what the city called a “young activity building” — a place constructed to accommodate extracurricular activities  — the building appeared on the block at the same time as two neighboring housing projects. Today, it serves as something akin to a central terminal for around 300 people who arrive in Syracuse annually — mostly refugees of Somali background, who need assistance transitioning to their new home.

Five years ago, the Somali Bantu Community Association moved to the site with the purpose of easing the transition for resettling members of its community. Signs hanging on the walls still read “Somali Bantu Community Association,” but the organization changed its name to Refugee & Immigrant Self-Empowerment (RISE) in 2015 to reflect its inclusive nature, range of services, and diverse clientele. Khadija Muse, one of RISE’s bridging case managers, counts herself as part of this community of refugees. Muse, who lived in Amarillo, Texas before moving to Syracuse in 2016, was born in Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. She empathizes with the difficulties that RISE’s clients have experienced. “I know the struggle of my people, and that’s why I decided to help out and give a helping hand,” says Muse.

Muse and the seven other staff members do their best to make sure someone is always available to talk with clients who walk into the building seeking help with finding jobs or assistance with living situations. They help clients fill out paperwork, translate documents for them, and talk them through the hiring process. In doing so, it’s common to hear multiple languages spoken around the building, including English, Somali, Swahili, and sometimes French.

Inside the building, visitors can walk on one path through the entire place, with small individual offices and wide classrooms arranged in a circular format. Eight computers await clients who want to fill out job applications or children who want help with schoolwork. Walls constructed at the back end of the building create three makeshift classrooms.

During the mornings, these classrooms hold citizenship and ESL classes. In the afternoon, children participate in afterschool programs. “A lot of the kids are born here, but they’re balancing trying to stay connected to their country’s culture while at the same time wanting to dance to ‘Juju on that Beat,’” says Rebecca Miller, director of programs for RISE. “We’re here to help them do that.” This balance of education and fun shows itself in the program’s structure, which offers a wide range of activities like homework help, mock debates, spelling bees, and journal-writing.

Behind the organization’s successes is executive director Haji Adan, who seeks to ensure RISE meets the needs of the community. During his tenure leading the organization, it has secured $450,000 in federal funding, which is allocated across fiscal years 2015 to 2017 and has brought in about $150,000 annually. Along with staff members such as Muse and Miller, Adan wants to continue to empower new Americans by giving them the tools and resources they need to become self-sufficient. “We are the bridge,” he says. “We are connecting people to resources in the community as well as helping them here, in our center, to make sure each and every one of them knows what they are supposed to know in terms of being in the city of Syracuse and also in America.”



By Claire Ramirez

Timeline loading graphic
200 Families Displaced for Housing Project

The city announces in a ceremony that the demolition of 100 properties for the 500-unit federal city public housing project begins in October. The project is bounded by Burt Street, Oakwood Avenue, South State Street, and the rear properties of East Castle Street. The project displaces 200 families, but officials say relocation was handled with ease.

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Illustration by Ankur Dang

The Birth of a Youth Activity Building

The early structure of a youth activity building goes up as part of the “Golden Age” project, an initiative by the Syracuse Housing Authority to construct 26 buildings in this area. The octagonal building features masonry on the bottom and glass on the top.

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An Advocate for Affordable Housing is Honored

The high-rise located on Burt Street is named the Almus Olver Towers in honor of a Syracusan who was a leader in welfare work.

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Women and Children Receive a New Housing Option

The Syracuse YWCA moves their Women’s Residence Program into the Almus Olver Towers, renting out one- to three-bedroom apartments to formerly homeless women and their children.

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Immigrant Empowerment Earns a New Home

RISE (Refugee & Immigrant Self-Empowerment), formerly known as the Somali Bantu Community Association, moves into the former location of the youth activity building.

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Driving Force

By Sarah Heikkinen

A small band of white vans help disenfranchised women in Syracuse reclaim their lives by offering transport to doctor appointments, the grocery store, and counseling sessions.

A group of four white vehicles (two vans and two sedans) sits in the parking lot at the Almus Olver Towers at 300 Burt St. in the Southside of Syracuse. They wait to shuttle groups of women and children to afterschool programs, support groups, and to the grocery store. Each car features a bright orange logo that reads, “eliminating racism/empowering women/YWCA.” The Syracuse chapter of the YWCA, a national welfare organization that seeks to improve the lives of local women and children, owns these vehicles and has used them to transport young girls for 11 years. They serve as an important tool for the civil servants who work for the organization.

Fanny Villarreal, the executive director of the Syracuse YWCA, says that these vans are critical for programs like Girls Inc., which aims to empower girls from a young age through math and science education, drug and violence prevention, media literacy, and sex ed. Many of the organization’s employees drive the vans to bring girls to the programs. For example, afterschool workers use the vans to pick up students for activities in the afternoons.

Another YWCA program that benefits from the free transportation the vans provide is the Women’s Residence Program, which has been an integral part of the organization’s mission since they first opened their doors in 1858. The program services 22 women, most of whom have battled challenges (homelessness, drug addiction, or mental illness). “Transportation is a huge, huge issue for a lot of these women. A lot of these girls have lost everything,” Nora Putman, a case manager at the Burt Street location, says. “A car is one of those things that’s a luxury for them. It’s even a luxury to get a ride.”  The women rely on these vans to get them to appointments, counseling sessions at places like Vera House, and job interviews.

One of the women living in the Burt Street apartments uses a wheelchair, which presents a bigger challenge: public transportation for the disabled can be expensive and complicated to arrange. Individuals who need special transit accommodation must secure a reduced fare ID card and possess the funds to be able to take the buses. Despite the obstacles, those who work to assist the women understand the difficulties and the imperative to help them persevere. “We have to do it,” Putman adds.


Three Questions

The Community Optimist

By Clare Ramirez

Rebecca Miller, RISE’s director of programs, sees firsthand how the Burt Street community organizes to help new Americans.

When she first started working at the nonprofit Refugee and Immigrant Self-Empowerment last year, Rebecca Miller, 24, knew she’d have to adjust to being the only caucasian worker. At first, she considered it a barrier. But she worked to demonstrate to the organization’s clients that she cared and that she had taken the time to learn about their culture. Now, Miller possesses a greater understanding of the organization, the area, and her clients. She knows the store across the street, a favorite of the clients she serves. She knows the schools in the neighboring blocks. And, in turn, Miller’s clients recognize her as someone in the community willing to help and support new Americans.

How would you describe this block?

I would say that there’s a really strong community feel here. We have clients who just walk here from their houses in the public housing, and we have kids from our after-school program who just run here with their siblings from one or two blocks away. There just seems to be a neighborhood feel, and I think that’s how we get a lot of clients, too; just simple foot traffic coming in. Plus, the little corner store across the street — we all walk in there from time to time just to get some fried chicken or Snapple or something like that. We come back with huge bags of it, and they’ll recognize me when I walk into the store. It’s a very accepting feel.

What’s your favorite memory here?

A couple weeks ago, one of our clients who just came to the United States recently had come in and had a paycheck that he brought in to go over with his caseworker. Then when he left, apparently he dropped it in the parking lot. This was his two-week paycheck, about $500. We have a woman come in the office. She lives in the public housing, and she comes in with her little daughter who is probably five or six years old. They walk in and say, “Hey, we found this paycheck in the parking lot. We opened it, we saw that it was a check, we didn’t do anything to it, but we just wanted to bring it here because we thought it was one of your clients.” And our case manager thanked her so much. She could have easily just taken it, and this man would have never gotten it back. But she brought it in. Our case manager gave her phone number to the client so he could thank her. And as they were walking out, the daughter said, “Mom, what is this place?” And she says, “it’s a school.” Of course, we’re not really a school, but it was so nice how someone who lives in the public housing right here — who’s American and probably was born here and grew up here — was so caring about a new American who came here, who lost his paycheck. There seemed to be a sense of community about that moment.

What future do you see for this block?

One thing I see is, there are a lot of organizations right around here who care a lot about this block, this area. I see all of those organizations doing great community work. I see the people in the community really getting involved. So I think that as organizations reach out and offer support, I see these people on this block thriving. I see progress being made, but I also think there’s a lot to do for the future, especially this area so close to the SU campus. The more that the resources of the hospitals and the university can be tapped to serve the people of this area, and the more that the people in this area can offer their skills and talents, too — I see that interaction being mutually beneficial. If that can grow, that would be a helpful thing for everybody. I see a hopeful future. If we can work together to solve problems, and if we can empower the people who live in housing and live on all sides, and if we can get the parts of the community involved that are self-contained, then the whole community can grow and benefit from that.


Class Acts

By Clare Ramirez and Sarah Heikkinen

RISE’s after-school program assists refugee children by providing homework help and organizing fun activities.

Block in Stats




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% Below Poverty Line
All data comes from the U.S. Census Bureau, broken down according to the census tract in which the block is located.