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Sue Capers, tireless advocate for homeless Virginians, dies at 90

For more than three decades, Sue Capers has been a tenacious advocate for homeless Virginians, volunteering full time on behalf of the Commonwealth’s poorest residents.

Working in Richmond and then Alexandria, she led one of the first statewide organizations dedicated to ending homelessness; successfully lobbied for state funding to resolve the issue; and championed measures to help break the cycle of poverty, including a working income tax credit and increases to Virginia’s minimum wage.

“Sue’s advocacy resulted in the first state funding for homelessness in Virginia,” said Phyllis Chamberlain, former executive director of the Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness, which Ms. Capers founded as different in 1986. “Of course, she worked with other people, but honestly, it felt like she was doing everything on her own. … Her level of passion, combined with her perseverance, was truly unique.

Ms Capers, who died on October 11 at the age of 90, was perhaps an unlikely advocate for low-income Virginians, from Ohio’s middle class background and a calm, laid-back demeanor. “If I had to defend myself, I wouldn’t do a good job,” she once told a friend.

But while working on behalf of homeless children and adults, she boosted her confidence and found a new direction in life, after years in which she had begun to fidget in her roles as wife of an Air Force officer and mother of four children. children. “I felt there had to be more to my life,” she recalled, “than being a housewife and playing bridge.”

Ms Capers was about to turn 50 when she immersed herself in volunteer work in the early 1980s, when homelessness became a growing problem in Richmond and other cities across the country. She helped organize shelters and social service agencies, including Emergency Shelter Inc., now called HomeAgain, and SRO Housing of Richmond, now known as Virginia Supportive Housing, which was inspired by rooming housing. individual that Ms. Capers and other volunteers studied in New York.

To further her advocacy work, she started what was initially called the Virginia Coalition for the Homeless, working without pay as director and only full-time staff member. There was virtually no information on the number of homeless Virginians and how shelters were meeting their needs, so Ms Capers compiled it herself, locating shelters through the phone book and word of mouth, and writing an annual report that she shared with lawmakers. and state agencies.

The survey results were rarely encouraging, and they were hopelessly incomplete. “We’re not even trying to count people who are under a bridge, in a park or in a parked car,” Ms Capers said. told the Washington Post. But the project served as a crucial resource for advocates and officials, and it reinforced his sense that low-income families urgently needed help.

Her findings persuaded her that while some homeless people in Virginia struggled with mental health and addiction issues, homelessness was primarily an economic problem: in 1987, for example, more than 80 percent of the 7,100 people who stayed in homeless shelters in Northern Virginia were employed and most worked full time.

“The only factor that determines whether or not someone will have a home is whether that person can afford it,” she later wrote in an op-ed for Newport News Daily Press. “The number of homeless people in the Old Dominion, as well as elsewhere, is increasing due to the widening gap between wages and the cost of housing.”

Ms Capers took her case to the Virginia General Assembly, successfully lobbying lawmakers for funding for shelters, homelessness prevention programs and child care coordinators, according to Alice Tousignant , former director of Virginia Supportive Housing. In a telephone interview, Tousignant recalled that she began working with Ms Capers in the late 1970s in Richmond and was hired by the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development to administer programs funded through Ms. Capers advocacy.

“I remember at one point she said lawmakers would call her and beg her to tell people to stop calling because they would be bombarded with calls day and night,” Tousignant said. “What really happened to the state was lawmakers finally caved because they couldn’t take the heat anymore. She did it with homelessness funds, credit to labor income tax and minimum wage She just came back year after year, organized the troops around the state and didn’t give up until lawmakers gave in.

“She was truly a force to be reckoned with.”

Susanna Marie Capers was born in Dayton, Ohio on November 10, 1931. Her father died when she was an infant, and she and her older brother were raised by her mother and members of her extended family, including her granddaughter. -maternal mother and an aunt.

Ms Capers worked odd jobs after graduating from high school, including a brief and stressful stint as a police dispatcher. An early marriage to Carl Traylor ended in divorce, and in 1954 she married William T. “Bill” Capers III, an Air Force pilot and public affairs officer whose postings led family to live in Europe and Latin America.

They moved to Richmond in 1976, after his retirement from the army as a lieutenant colonel. As Bill Capers landed a job as Director of Education at the Supreme Court of Virginia, Ms Capers began volunteering at organizations such as Grace House, where she worked with children, parents and men. and underserved older women. In the mid-1990s, she started a street newspaper, The Hard Times, which served in part as a job training program for the homeless.

After Ms. Capers and her husband moved to Alexandria in 1996, she continued to travel to Richmond to advocate for policy change while volunteering for Northern Virginia groups including Friends of Guest House, Carpenter’s Shelter and Social Action Linking Together (SALT). His advocacy group merged with another statewide organization in the mid-2010s, forming what is now the Virginia Housing Alliance.

By then, Ms Capers had largely distanced herself from the group due to her declining health. She moved in 2015 to be near her oldest daughters in Austin, where she died in a memorial care facility. The cause was Alzheimer’s disease, said his daughter Melissa Capers.

Her husband died in 1998. In addition to his daughter, of Porto, Portugal, survivors include two other daughters from his second marriage, Rebekah and Cathey Capers, of Austin; a son from his first marriage, Nick Traylor of Dayton; a sister; six grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Ms. Capers has been honored by groups including the Fannie Mae Foundation and the Virginia Poverty Law Center, which presented Ms. Capers with their John Kent Shumate Jr. Lawyer of the Year Award in 2008. In a statement to the At the time, the center called her “a tireless advocate for issues related to homelessness and low-income Virginia residents,” adding that “she was instrumental in getting the state government to fund the homelessness in the late 1980s and all funding and programs since.

The hugs were gratifying, if unnecessary.

“She didn’t care if other people got the credit or the star – she didn’t care,” Tousignant said. “What interested him was: ‘We have to do something.’ And she did.