Ester Hanson was at work on the Friday after Christmas when she and a coworker talked about the latest news: a homeless person had been found dead on the front porch of a vacant house a few blocks away from the North Boulevard overpass.
This was the third death of a homeless person reported in December, and Hanson was worried; her brother, Tony Williams, often frequented the area where the bodies of Christina Fowler and Gregory Corcoran had been found two weeks earlier. Williams had spent his life struggling with mental illness, she told her coworker, and would disappear for a few months at a time to live on the streets.
Hanson was so accustomed to his behavior that she regularly made donations to St. Vincent de Paul, a nonprofit that shelters the homeless, with the hope of at least helping her brother indirectly.
Soon after news of the third murder broke, Hanson received a telephone call. Her fears were confirmed: the latest victim was her brother, Tony. No one knows why he was killed.
After weeks of speculation and fear surrounding the recent shootings that left three homeless people dead in Baton Rouge, police announced Thu…
Despite an arrest, Williams’ family still struggles to navigate a world in which the most vulnerable members of society can end up shot to death for, as Hanson says, “no apparent reason.”
“It seems the reason for homeless people’s vulnerability is that no one cares,” Hanson said. “Most homeless people are deemed lazy people that don't want to work, when they really have a mental problem or are so trusting for help, they get taken advantage of.”
Born in 1969, Williams was one of seven children and grew up in the Baton Rouge area. His sister traces his mental illness back to when he was 7 or 8. Later, as a teenager, she said, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time during a robbery and ended up serving time at a juvenile detention center.
The experience, Hanson believes, made it difficult for him to accept help later in life. She wasn’t sure what kind of trauma he suffered during that first stint of incarceration, but she said it affected him deeply.
“Every time someone tried to get him help, he would take it the wrong way and thought someone was trying to lock him up,” she said.
Still, his family provided for him when it could. Hanson said Williams lived with her for about five years, and she even bought him a house at one point. As an adult, Williams has scant criminal history, with his few nonviolent offenses occurring before 2000.
Over the years, Williams would also stay with his mother, though he might disappear for two or three months at a time before returning. He would always come back, Hanson said, and those times were the ones she likes to remember.
“Mostly he was a free spirit,” Hanson said. “He loved being outside, traveling on his own.”
Largely because of his mental illness, Williams worked odd jobs when he could keep them, encouraged and shepherded by family; as a janitor at Cortana Mall, or on farms because he liked the animals. He was helpful, Hanson said, and even though he didn’t have much, he was always willing to give what he had to others.
“We taught him to work for what he wanted,” Hanson said. “And it helped.”
Williams’ youngest sister, Tarsar Gilmore, said her brother was a quiet person who didn’t bother anybody.
“He would do anything anybody’d ask him to do,” Gilmore said. “He was just a good person. For somebody to just take his life like that, it was just vengeful.”
Even as family members struggle to reconcile their grief and anger, they are concerned about the future of other homeless people in the community.
In a press conference announcing the arrest of 29-year-old Jeremy Anderson in the death of Williams and two other homeless people, Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome reinforced the city’s commitment to aiding the vulnerable.
“It is our duty to protect our homeless,” Broome said. “I want to emphasize our commitment to continue to work with community partners to transition homeless individuals into shelter and permanent housing.”
Michael Acaldo, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul, has said the nonprofit focuses on a “housing first” approach to services that aims to move people off the streets and into affordable housing as quickly as possible. They also provide the people they serve with mental health services and counseling options to ensure their transition to housing is stable and long-term.
Amanda Owens knows how common violence can be among those who are homeless. Still, this month feels different.
But the root causes, Hanson said, are complex and multifaceted. Change begins by recognizing there is a problem, from acknowledging the homeless are knit into the fabric of many families across the city and state, to looking for community solutions that help build safety nets for people dealing with addiction or mental illness.
“Most family members are ashamed to even admit they have a homeless family member,” Hanson pointed out. “They’re scared of being judged.”
Hanson added that she hopes people recognize the humanity of those who are homeless and understand that most of those on the street are not criminals. She has seen families — mothers, fathers and children — sleeping in blankets without a place to stay. Often, people are a paycheck away from ending up on the street, but need more than what can fit in a donation box.
“Someone really needs to get the homeless population more help,” she said. “They need more than food passed out.”