Selana Williams standing in front of her tent as she prepares to bring what she’s collected to the recycling center. (Cole Haddock)

Tall, blonde and beautiful. And kind—so, so kind. These were the first things people said about Selana Williams. Everyone talks about her smile—a silly, beautiful smile that never left, even when she lost her housing and worked as a recycler on the streets of Berkeley. 

Williams was a mother and grandmother who worked at San Quentin State Prison as a guard until 1993. She was ‘Camp Momma’ to many of the people in her community, laughing and sharing even with unhoused people that had been incarcerated at San Quentin while she worked there. Selana Williams died on October 5, 2023 after being hit by a train in West Berkeley. Her death is still being investigated, but her community in Berkeley has rallied to grieve her, sharing stories, memories, photos, and flowers at memorials at People’s Park and in West Berkeley. 

Selana Williams was born in Marin County, and worked in the medical field and at San Quentin State Prison until 1993. She left the prison after being trampled in a riot that followed the execution of David Mason. She recounted, “I was pregnant with my first child when there was a riot. I was on light duty, carrying a box down the stairs next to the Armory, and a whole bunch of inmates basically ran over me. I broke my wrist in seven places.” After that, her husband moved her back to his hometown of North Carolina, where she lived for more than twenty years and developed the southern twang she was known for. 

She moved back to Marin County to care for her ailing father, but landed on the streets after he passed away. She had been unhoused in Berkeley since November 2018, and became very well known within her communities at People’s Park and 8th and Harrison. She was known around town as Cece, Camp Momma, and Sissy. Even the dogs of her community, who are often hesitant to trust people, loved her. Alice Barbee, a friend and neighbor with a dog known to scare people off, remembered that, “I used to have a recording of her voice on my phone to play for my dog when she got sad. She would always perk up, and see if she was around.”

Selana Williams worked hard, recycling, keeping clean, and holding her community together. Neighbor Yesica Prado remembered, “She took care of herself. You wouldn’t know she was living in a tent.” She always had a smile, a nice outfit, fresh nails, and a good story to tell. 

Her neighbor Angel remembered her as, “sweet and silly. I called her Barbie ‘cause she was tall and beautiful. And she was really, really sweet.” Mike, another long-time neighbor at 8th and Harrison recounted, “She would give you the shirt right off her back.” Alice Barbee laughed remembering, “She did give me the shirt off her back one time! It was a cute one. A little yellow coat.”

At the time of her death, Selana Williams was forced to live with an abusive ex-fiance. In the East Bay, there isn’t enough housing to meet the number of people living on the street. Williams struggled to get her own housing because she was recorded as living with her ex-fiance at the Rodeway Inn. She told us she had been offered alternative housing at the Cedar Community Apartments but refused, because it was next to a man that had sexually assaulted her and many of her friends. She was stuck at the Rodeway Inn, and could only describe the experience by saying, “This mother fucker just won’t stop using fentanyl and he’s shitting and vomiting and they need to get me out of there.” 

Williams had no option but to move back onto the streets in the weeks before her death. Almost 92% of unhoused women experience sexual violence, according to the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence. Domestic violence is extremely high among correctional officers as well, with one survey of correctional officers revealing that more than one third had committed or experienced domestic violence, according to the Journal of Family Violence. Williams admitted, “I’ve been a domestic abuse survivor five times over.” In the weeks before her passing, she was trying to get a place at the Betsy Coleman Court, a domestic abuse shelter in Alameda. William’s partner was there at the time of death, but has denied fault. 

Domestic abuse and homelessness have the potential to turn anyone cold. Williams had to fight for every part of herself to remain joyful, beautiful, and whole, and yet she still smiled. The last time she was photographed, two days before her death, you could see she was tired. But she still stood tall, gave hugs, and described her plan for the future. She smiled, and wished everyone a lovely day. Alice Barbee remembered passionately, “She was not one to compromise herself in any way.” 

Selena was dealing with more than any one person could possibly hold, and still trying relentlessly to create her own, independent life. She was tired, but she was really proud. She was proud of herself, and proud to defend her community. On the Monday before she died, she yelled “Hey!” and smiled at one of the neighbors walking by, assured another that she would protect her belongings while she was out, turned back, and said, “I’ll be damned if I’m ever gonna be a victim again.”

“Selana was a beautiful force, like an ancient oak tree,” remembers Barbee, “swaying in the wind, but never bending. Selana stood rooted, steadfast and true in what she believed in. Our lives are better for having known her.”

Cole Haddock and Maria Toldi are contributing writers and filmmakers to the San Quentin News, and students at UC Berkeley. Through slow and patient journalism, they seek to capture the beauty of community resilience.