By Emily Leayman
When people discover the locations of the tent cities surrounding Reading, Pa., the homeless people living there feel they must move. But there is one man they can trust, who was once in their situation too. Randy Simmons was formerly homeless and a federal prisoner. Those experiences caused him to found We Agape You, an organization that provides resources and job opportunities for homeless people wanting to work.
Aside from privacy concerns, Simmons found other reasons for the homeless to be wary of visitors to the tent cities. “True homeless people are not too quick to take you into their homes,” he said. “Homeless people rob other homeless people.”
But if people encounter the homeless, whether in the tent communities or on the streets, Simmons advises to approach them with caution.
When he first created his organization, he encountered a homeless man who was trying to get in the hospital. But the hospital would only take him if he was drugged or drunk, so he asked Simmons to buy him alcohol.
Simmons adds that homeless people are suppressing pain from whatever got them there. They turn to alcohol to cope and may unconsciously make bad decisions.
The welfare system does not help either, Simmons said. He believes that the system – which gives up to $700 a month of assistance, a cell phone, medical assistance, and food from shelters – is abused. The homeless can also stay at shelters or receive housing, provided that they find a landlord complying with Section 8 of the Housing Act of 1937.
In addition, they know which non-profits can help them. Berks County has a high number of non-profits, according to Simmons. In his opinion, “It is possible to end homelessness.”
Shelters like Opportunity House provide temporary living and soup kitchens like Kennedy House offer meals, but not all of the homeless are going there, according to Simmons.
When Simmons spent the night at a tent city, he remembers how cold it was at 4 a.m. But he discovered not all of the tents were for living; some were for storage. Tents had items like blankets, sleeping bags, whole turkeys. A lot of these items came from non-profits.
Experiencing homelessness firsthand, Simmons understands the circumstances that put people on the streets. “The people who are living under bridges, the people who are suffering, they know what they wanted to do [in life]. It didn’t happen,” he said.
For people who don’t want help, he said, “I don’t agree with it, but I understand it.”
According to Simmons, he cannot help people who do not seek work. This is why he recommends approaching homeless people a certain way.
“Don’t tell them what you will do first,” he said. “See what they want to do.”
He also focuses work on homeless children who cannot help their circumstances. Some parents even prostitute their children to earn drug money, according to Simmons. He said that the adults know better, but children do not and “The sad part about [it] that people aren’t writing about is that [they have children],” Simmons said.
Simmons is currently helping 47 people find work. Some of his success stories are a man who travels to prisons to speak and a few who started their own company.
In addition, he organized a breakfast for the homeless on Sept. 12. He hinted that East Penn Manufacturing, one of the largest employers in Berks County, will be hiring. After that event, even just one homeless person who got hired is another Simmons has helped.