Berkeley resident and beloved member of the People’s Park community Selana “Sissy” Williams died Oct. 4, 2023. She was 56.
Friends and loved ones gathered Friday night at People’s Park for a vigil to share memories of Williams. Some told stories of their first time meeting her, while others recalled the last time they spoke, but every person was sure to emphasize just how much Williams loved, and was loved, by her community.
“She was like a mom to people,” said Yesica Prado, a friend and neighbor of Williams. “She played a lot of different roles, right? She was a friend, a mom, you know, so many relied on her. So I would just say that she was someone special and I felt like the fact that she was there, we were lucky to have her.”
Williams went by several names. Her friends and neighbors called her “Sissy” because of her caring, older-sister-like tendencies. According to Cole Haddock, a student journalist close to Williams, others even referred to her as the “Camp Momma.”
Williams had been unhoused since 2018, eventually becoming a resident of People’s Park before relocating to the Eighth and Harrison street encampment, Haddock noted.
Photos of Williams smiling and embracing her dog were hung on the walls during Friday’s vigil, as mourners lit candles and placed food and beverages on a table as an offering.
“I used to call her ‘Barbie’ because she was so pretty, inside and out,” said Angel Pickney, another one of Williams’ friends and Eighth and Harrison resident. “Everyone remembers that smile.”
Her friends remember Williams saving up her money to splurge on Victoria’s Secret perfume and fresh manicures, rarely allowing her circumstances to get in the way of her desire to feel beautiful.
Williams worked hard to keep her tent at Eighth and Harrison organized. She would corral her neighbors into cleaning up the area and made sure everyone was taken care of and accounted for.
She was often spotted about town on her bike gathering recycling cans to make a bit of money, which she often spent on food and supplies that she shared with her neighbors.
“She was very intentionally maternal and feminine and beautiful and kind in a way that most people would think is impossible in her situation,” Haddock said. “That’s the kind of person she was.”
Originally from Marin County, Williams spent several years of her adult life working as a guard at San Quentin State Prison before an on-the-job injury forced her to quit. According to Haddock, she then relocated to North Carolina with her husband and sons, where she spent the next 25 years and developed her notable Southern accent.
She eventually moved back to the Bay Area to care for her sick father and after he died in 2018, she found herself unhoused, struggling with the hardships that often come with living on the street. Williams sought out and applied for housing several times, though said she was unable to move in due to safety concerns regarding another resident, according to Prado.
Williams died after being struck by a southbound Amtrak train near Harrison street in Berkeley. Her death has been ruled “accidental” by the Alameda County Coroner’s Bureau, and Amtrak Police are the investigating agency on the case, according to the Berkeley Police Department.
“I wish that she would have been somewhere safe,” Prado said. “But you know, I’m just lucky that I got to spend some time with her.”