Retiring: Robert Simmons. *Photo by Mikaela Ian Pearman
Retiring: Robert Simmons. *Photo by Mikaela Ian Pearman

He’d never say it himself but Robert Simmons is a hero to the underdog. He has just retired after 28 years helping the homeless. He knows what it’s like as he was once among them himself.

For the past 28 years, Robert Simmons has dedicated his life to helping Bermuda’s homeless population better themselves.

He has worked as a supervisor and manager at the Salvation Army-run Emergency Housing Complex on Parsons Road and he says he’s worked with thousands over the years who needed a helping hand.

Mr Simmons started working for the Salvation Army on March 31, 1986 when he found himself homeless.

“Captain Brad Smith told me that it was only for alcoholics. I convinced him that Bermuda was going through a housing shortage.

“He thought that was absolutely so and said I could stay there on King Street for two weeks.”

Mr Simmons said every time he saw Mr Smith, he would ask him if he had found a place to live. But on one occasion, the question was different.

“He said he had a proposal for me. He said he was going to open a new facility for homeless persons and would I consider being one of the supervisors.

“I told him I had no experience in that area but I was willing to give it a go.”

Speaking on the job, Mr Simmons said: “I learned a lot of the human element. People must be treated with dignity and respect regardless of their backgrounds.

“Bermuda being a very small place, it’s easy for us to be judgmental to people who find themselves in difficulty. I always tell the clients that one never knows when he or she is going to become homeless. It’s not necessarily alcohol, drugs, stealing or being put out of your home.

“It could be a hurricane or a storm that could make you become homeless.”

Mr Simmons said people have come into the shelter from prison, beaches, alleyways, parks, bus shelters and many other places.

The shelter allows for 39 men at a time, who are allowed to stay for two weeks maximum.

“It’s been a vast number of people who have come and gone back to better living. Some have got married. 

“Some move in with their families. Some who were jobless find employment and some have started their own businesses.

“People have stopped me to say ‘you don’t know how much you helped me while I was there’.”

Mr Simmons said what stands out to him the most is that now he sees a lot of young men coming in compared to when he first started when most men were over the age of 60.

“We’re definitely attracting a younger set of people. It could very well have something to do with the economy,” he added.

Asked about his wish for homeless people in Bermuda, Mr Simmons said: “I would like to see a state-of-the-art homeless shelter in Bermuda providing dental care, general healthcare, a thrift shop and a work programme for individuals because when the shelters first opened in Bermuda, there was very little thought for providing a work programme.”

Mr Simmons suggested courses in carpentry and masonry would be a good start.  

He also said both the UBP and PLP, when they were in power, promised to provide a homeless shelter and failed to do so.

“It’s been a disappointment to me. I thought I would have seen something like that in my years.”

As for what he’s learned over the years, Mr Simmons said: “I’ve learned that we never know when we are going to be affected by homelessness on the island.

“It doesn’t matter which walk of life you are from and that’s why I try very hard to appreciate the worth of individuals.

“I spend a lot of time in the city and the mere fact that a person is stretched out on the sidewalk doesn’t mean he’s drunk.

“He could’ve slipped down or have some type of health experience.”

Mr Simmons said he has enjoyed working for the Salvation Army and thanks all the staff, including Major Sean Critchlow and his wife, Brenda.

“I’ll miss my clients. I will miss what I have been doing with them.

“I would do it 100 times over if I had to.”