AfterParty Hero: The Homeless Man Who Helps the Homeless
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AfterParty Hero: The Homeless Man Who Helps the Homeless

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If you’re one of the 3,000 homeless folks in Baltimore, it’s not easy to just trust anyone. Imagine social workers, law enforcement officials and medical clinicians telling you what to do, preaching at you to get back up on your feet and throwing all sorts of seemingly patronizing tips in your face. It may just piss you off. No way these people understand, no way they get it, they’re not homeless, so what the hell do they know?

Just as one alcoholic talking to another can often bring about recovery faster than talking to a doctor or Alanonic mother, so can one homeless person talking to another effect powerful change. Tony Simmons is that man.

Serious Demoralization

Simmons, 53, hit a crashing low prior to getting back up on his feet two years ago. He served time for years, rotating in and out of jail due to a bad heroin addiction and drug running charges, which left him broke and homeless. Estranged from family and friends and stuck between a 10,000-pound boulder and a hard place, he became willing to change.

“You must start with yourself,” Simmons recently told NPR. “Get up. Get going. No excuses. That’s what I tell myself every morning after prayer. ‘Cause every time I help one person, I get a little part of me back.”

Doing a 180

Now Simmons is pretty much the unofficial point-person to help Baltimore’s homeless. He sits at the front help desk inside the Health Care for the Homeless clinic downtown, which offers medical care and shelter from the severe cold. He greets all the people that come in, handing out resource materials—fliers that advertise free dinners at churches and local food pantries. He also provides something most resources for the homeless do not: hugs.

And these folks need hugs.

Many of these people at the clinic can’t even walk—they move around using walkers or wheelchairs, some without limbs—and plenty of them are mentally ill or addicted to drugs or alcohol. The clinic is usually packed and runs out of room, forcing two dozen homeless people to sleep on the porch or beneath a freeway across the street each night. And Balitmore gets pretty damn nippy in the winter.

“The one thing I try not to do is tell them what to do,” Simmons says. “I just give them the avenues: “These are the resources that’s out there. Choose something that’s right for you, and I will help you navigate through that system.’ ”

A Man Who Keeps On Giving

Sharing the same experience and gotten out from under his addiction and criminality, Simmons offers real hope and a message of depth and weight. After surviving in shelters for three years, he knows how to cut through the bureaucratic red tape so that the people who need help can get help fast, as opposed to waiting for weeks and weeks for assistance.

But Simmons doesn’t just work at that clinic. He’s regularly pushing for change at the Baltimore City Hall and at the Maryland State Capital, in addition to working with homeless youth and co-teaching a class on homelessness at John Hopkins University (not a bad university to have on your resume). And he also holds a part-time job to assist people with facing eviction.

“Every day I hear these stories,” he says. “People come to me, like, ‘You know, I’m not out here anymore. Thank you.’ I’m like, I didn’t do much. I just said, ‘Get up.’ That’s all. Just get up.”

Tony Simmons, who still doesn’t have much money and currently stays with a friend instead of having his own place, is a veritable badass. This is a guy who proves that you don’t have to have deep pockets or attend fancy charitable dinners to change the world.

Photo courtesy of Divinomar Severino (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons (resized and cropped)

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About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.