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Panhandler's life gives kids lesson in homelessness
      by George Myers Jr. Columbus Dispatch Staff Reporter
      Saturday, March 25, 2000.

      For a group of spirited fifth-graders in the suburbs, homelessness isn't about what can happen to somebody somewhere else. It's about tackling it  at home with all available resources.
     "It's the nation's No. 1 problem,'' said Lele Yutzy, one of Laurie Anthony's students at Riverside Elementary School. "And we've got to fix  it.''  Anthony's students work on solutions to homelessness -- planning   fund-raisers, writing letters to Washington, budgeting to purchase goods  and more.
      Thanks to the guidance and an "unexpected adventure'' of their teacher, the   children can relate to the problem, which they hope never to experience firsthand.
      "I'd be lonely -- scared beyond belief that no one would be there to protect me,'' fifth-grader Megan Shade said. "The worst thing,'' classmate Grace Miller said, "would be trying to find anybody that would actually even care.''
      But the students at Riverside, in the Dublin school district, are not alone. They are surrounded by classmates who care. For them, learning about homelessness is about statistics and math, grammar and social work, economics and action -- and unexpected turns.
      Homelessness, Jessica Jacobs said, "can happen to anybody at any time, even if you have a real good job and lots of money.''
     The children's interest in the problem springs from Anthony encountering a  panhandler in New York City. On sabbatical from teaching two years ago, Anthony and her family -- her  husband, T.J., and son, Joey, now 16 --lived in  Manhattan just around the corner from a grimy sidewalk that J.C. Simmons called home. He has been a fixture there for at least six years,  bivouacked on a sidewalk beside Carnegie Hall at 7th Avenue and 57th Street. Even when construction rails separate him from passers-by, the bearded man is undeterred from working those who walk past.
     "Hellooooo. Have a great one! Thank you; thank you, sir.''
      For more than 30 years, Simmons has found it easier to be among people who can't know him well.
      But anything can happen. And something did -- to Simmons, Anthony, her students and Simmons' own children, who for years believed him dead. Anthony, who has degrees in social work and special education from Ohio State University, struck up a relationship with Simmons and soon began  taking notes.
         First, trust -- then their friendship -- grew. When the notes accumulated,  Anthony worked them into a book, Have a Great One! A Homeless Man's Story.  It has provided her students reason enough to want to fix some broken parts of the world.  After learning about Simmons and homelessness, Anthony's students dug in,  aising $60 for Columbus' homeless by selling copies of a special school newspaper.
     More fund-raisers are planned. The students' spring goal: to clean up a house and buy items for Faith Housing, which offers transitional housing for homeless people in Columbus.
        Lele Yutzy and Daniel Gonzalez serve as the project's "business managers'' as classmates help determine the most appropriate items to buy for the homeless and the most economical place to get them. In a writing assignment, the class sent Vice President Al Gore's wife a  letter about homelessness; Tipper Gore, who has spoken out about  homelessness often, wrote back with praise.
      Last week, raised arms fluttered like kite tails as the students took turns talking about the homeless. They were quick to participate, except when asked how they'd feel if a parent suddenly left them to live on a street corner. The classroom faucet dripped twice.
      "I'd run after him,'' Rebecca Neff finally said. "I'd yell, 'Dad, come back!' ''
      For Anthony, the cause began with Simmons; how could it not? He snares pedestrians' attention with a robust greeting and smile, then  leans a rainbow of linked cups and Pringles cans into their paths to coax a little money from them.   J.C. Simmons' donors at 7th Avenue and 57th Street in Manhattan drop their coins through a series of cups and cans that lead to a water bottle. The container bottoms have been cut away. Coins dropped in the uppermost cup roll down through each until rattling into the Deer Park Water bottle that Simmons grips. Simmons also sells copies of a book that a Dublin teacher wrote about him.
      "Thanks, and have a great one!'' he calls out.
       Most of Anthony's students own her book, which they read at home, often 
with their parents. 
      "It's been such a wonderful way to teach them about writing,'' Anthony said. 
"I wanted to see if I could help somebody, beyond (giving) money. I wanted 
to learn why someone became and stayed homeless. I wanted to understand 
homelessness better. I wanted to help, as a friend.'' 
      Simmons' children wanted to know something about him, too, but he was 
dead, wasn't he? That's what their mother, Mamie, had told them -- and she 
died in 1996, with nothing more to say.               
      Over eight months, Anthony interviewed Simmons. Simmons, 68, came to care for the 48-year-old teacher he calls "Lady Laurie'' in almost fatherly ways -- cautioning her about not talking to some vagabonds he knew, about the dangers of traveling with a purse.
     Simmons still roosts in Midtown, with traces of Anthony stacked near his side. He makes a little extra money selling copies of Have a Great One! to  passers- by. They share the earnings 50-50.
      On 57th, Simmons answered questions about his life with a cheery,"It's in the book. It's all in the book.'' Anthony said Simmons, a native of   North Carolina, is "a little delusional, a little paranoid,'' perhaps because of his experiences. As she researched the national statistics, she was discovering a man willingly lost from home.
      Simmons abandoned his wife and seven children -- one since has died -- on Long Island in 1964. He moved to Harlem to get a better job, he told them. He drifted through a blur of jobs, each rarely lasting more than a year, until 1976.
      Then something happened -- something disorienting that he won't discuss in detail, not even with Anthony. Drug lords beat him and took over his apartment. Fearful for his life, he fled to the streets.
    In 1959, Simmons had graduated as student-body president from Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., where he was praised for high grades in math and science.
      For most of their lives, his family had no sense of that promise, or why  some paths weren't taken, or why darker ones were.
      Simmons had told Anthony about his family. After some months, Anthony  telephoned his children to say she'd met him. That he was homeless came out slowly.
      "I was shocked to know he even was alive,'' daughter Mechell Bowie, 46, said from her home on Long Island. "My mother told us he was dead, but I believed he was alive somewhere. I know God is good and he has a plan.''
      Since those first phone calls, Bowie took her daughter, Tamika, to visit Simmons on 57th. He bounced his granddaughter on bended knee. Tamika is 6, but she understands some things. She now sends $10 a month to Feed the Children, a charitable group that offers food and other assistance to underprivileged children and families in the United States and internationally.
     Thanks to a Social Security check, financial help from Anthony beyond the book money and someone Simmons befriended on the street, Simmons sleeps indoors at night now, in a studio apartment in the Bronx.
      Still, he panhandles on 57th.
      "He's very comfortable where he is,'' Bowie said. "He wants to stay there.
      I can't see him as often as I'd like to, but I know more blessings are going to come out of this.''
Copyright  2000, The Columbus Dispatch   

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