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Homeless Man Encourages Others On The Streets To 'Get Up'

Tony Simmons leads a group of Johns Hopkins University students on a "justice walk" in downtown Baltimore, during which they learn about public policy, providing services, and the connections between income inequality and health. (Gabriella Demczuk for NPR)

This story begins an occasional series about individuals who don't have much money or power but do have a big impact on their communities.

Sometimes, the people you'd least expect are those who do the most. People like Tony Simmons, a homeless man in Baltimore who helps others get off the street. Simmons says he does it as much for himself as for anyone else.

Simmons is 53 years old and a former Marine. He's also a former heroin addict and drug runner and was in and out of jail. Eventually, he hit rock bottom — homeless, penniless, alienated from family and friends.

Two years ago, he says, he was afraid he might die if he didn't pull himself up. Even then, he knew what he had to do.

"You must start with yourself. 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," Simmons says.

Today, Simmons has gotten much of himself back. He's the unofficial go-to person for many of Baltimore's 3,000 homeless residents, people like the bundled up men and women who come to the Health Care for the Homeless clinic downtown to get medical treatment and other services or to escape the cold. Simmons is stationed at the front door, volunteering at a help desk that he helped set up. He hands out fliers for a free dinner at a local church, provides referrals to food pantries and other services in the city, and gives plenty of advice — and hugs.

"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.' "

Professionals at the clinic say Simmons can reach people they sometimes can't, that he knows where to get help and how to cut through the red tape. He's now staying with a friend, but he spent three years living in a shelter. So he has lots of credibility with those who are homeless.

And the need for help seems endless. Several people waiting in the clinic lobby use walkers, or wheelchairs. Some are missing limbs. Many need addiction or mental health services. One woman by the door hops nervously as she brushes her teeth.

Outside, it's cold and raining. About two dozen people sleep on the clinic's front porch each night, or across the street by a highway overpass. That's where Theodore Maddox Jr. first saw Simmons over a year ago, helping people outside.

"He never knew that I was watching him, but every day I saw him, and I used to inquire about him: 'Who's that dude there? Who's that dude there?' And I just said, 'Man, that's the person I would like to emulate,' " Maddox says.

Maddox was in bad shape at the time. He was on drugs and homeless after spending 30 years in prison for murder and other crimes. But when he overheard Simmons say he'd rather be homeless than live inside while others were on the street, it got Maddox thinking.

"Here's a dude that's unselfish," Maddox says. "So it taught me how to be unselfish, you know — don't just think about me. I have to think about other people, too."

So Maddox decided to clean up his act. And now, at age 56, he has his first apartment. He has also joined Simmons in a homeless speaker's bureau to share his story at local colleges.

Simmons seems to be involved in just about everything. He advocates in city hall and at the state capitol, works on a homeless newspaper, mentors homeless youth and co-teaches a class on homelessness at Johns Hopkins University. He recently started a part-time job, helping those who face eviction.

But Simmons says what people need most from him is encouragement.

Back at the clinic, Simmons hugs a big bear of a man named James, who has just told Simmons he's now living with relatives and no longer on the street.

When James leaves, Simmons starts to tear up.

"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."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Tony Simmons helps homeless people to get off the streets, which is remarkable because he has been homeless himself. He is the first subject of an occasional series about individuals who do not have much money or power, but do make a big difference. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Tony Simmons is 53, a former Marine, also a former heroin addict and drug runner, in and out of jail. Eventually, he hit rock bottom - homeless, penniless, alienated from family and friends. When we first met two years ago, Simmons said he was afraid he might die, that he had to do something.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TONY SIMMONS: You must start with yourself. 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.

Here you go. I want you to come to our dinner Saturday, all right?

FESSLER: Today, Simmons has gotten much of himself back as the unofficial go-to person for many of Baltimore's of 3,000 homeless residents.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: All right, thank you.

SIMMONS: All right, you're very welcome.

FESSLER: People like the bundled-up men and women who come to the Health Care for the Homeless clinic for medical treatment and other services or just to escape from the cold.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I got to be at housing at...

SIMMONS: Tell your case manager that you need to be in housing. Tell them that is what's important.

FESSLER: Or maybe to talk with Simmons, now volunteering at a help desk by the front door, doling out flyers for free dinners as well as lots of advice.

SIMMONS: They provide all kinds of services, and they cater to single moms and children. That's what they do.

Well, you know if you're on SSI, you can go to any senior building that you want.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I thought it was 60 and over.

FESSLER: Professionals at the clinic say Simmons reaches people they sometimes can't, that he knows where to get help, how to cut through red tape. He's now staying with a friend, but he spent three years in a shelter. So he's got lots of credibility.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Right now, I'm having problems with food.

SIMMONS: With food?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: 'Cause I don't get food stamps.

SIMMONS: OK...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: They cut me off.

SIMMONS: 'Cause you know there are places like Franciscan Center. They have a food pantry up there.

One thing I try not to do is tell them what to do. 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.

FESSLER: And the demands here do seem endless. Several clients use walkers or wheelchairs. Some are missing limbs. Many need addiction or mental health services. One woman by the door hops nervously as she brushes her teeth. Outside, it's cold and rainy. Two dozen people sleep on the clinic's front porch each night or across the street by the interstate. That's where Theodore Maddox first saw Simmons over a year ago.

THEODORE MADDOX: He never knew that I was watching him, but every day I saw him. And I used to inquire about, who's that dude there? Who's that dude there? And everybody was telling me - and I just said, man, that's a person I would like to emulate.

FESSLER: Maddox was in bad shape - on drugs, an ex-con, homeless for 15 years. But when he heard Simmons say he'd rather be homeless than living inside while others were on the street, it got Maddox thinking.

MADDOX: Here's a dude that's unselfish. So he taught me how to be unselfish, you know? Don't just think about me. I have to think about other people, too.

FESSLER: He started to clean up his life. Now at age 56, Maddox has his first apartment. And he's joined Simmons and a homeless speaker's bureau to share his story at local colleges. Simmons seems to be involved in just about everything. He lobbies city hall and at the state Capitol and mentors homeless youth. He also just got a part-time job helping those who face eviction. But Simmons says what people need most from him is encouragement.

SIMMONS: I'm glad you here, my friend.

JAMES: All right, man. Thanks for your time. I'll see you later.

FESSLER: Simmons hugs a big bear of a man named James, who tells Simmons he's no longer living out on the street. When he leaves, Simmons starts to tear up.

SIMMONS: Every day I hear these stories. People come to me, like, you know, I'm not out here anymore. Thank you, you know? I'm like, I didn't do much. I just said get up. That's all. Just get up.

FESSLER: Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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