By Tamara Standard
Once homeless in Springfield, Massachusetts, later homeless in Pawtucket, Matthew Simmons has been many things more than the label ‘homeless’, but it has been one of the many experiences he survived.
He has also been a cross country runner, a skate rat, wannabe gangster, graffiti artist, break-dancer, airplane machinist, world traveler, restaurant chef and owner, and a hopeless drunk. Now, he is a recovered man, walking sober, humbly and palpably serene.
Although he has known the luxury of co-owning an Italian restaurant in Suffield, Connecticut, he finds more peace now washing dishes at Kips Restaurant and acting as house manager at the Hope House #2, a sober living facility in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
How did he get here? “I used to live very high, and not metaphorically, but at a high level and never thought I could get as low as I have gotten.”
Just a little over 2 years and 7 months ago, Matthew was hitting bottom living near the fountain in Lippitt Park on Hope Street in Providence.
Referring to coins that had been tossed in, “I would take anything that was silver right out of that fountain” He described his homeless life staying under bridges in Massachusetts to parks in Rhode Island for a total of 10 months.
Close to the park in Providence was a 12 step meeting that eventually drew Matthew in. “I knew I had a problem. “Besides, nothing else was going right and I knew there would be coffee and some snacks at the meetings.” They welcomed him with open arms he remembers, giving him the job to greet new members.
I had tried to quit two other times and that would last only a while and then, I would begin to rationalize, and tell myself I just won’t drink like I used to.” He shook his head and said, “That type of attitude doesn’t work.”
He made some friends in this new community and one man realized the desperation of his situation. It can happen like that. People watch and pay attention, especially when you are making a sincere effort to change your life. This man was told one day that Matthew had a new place to stay. He congratulated Matthew and asked him “Where?” Matthew replied, “It’s at Mineral Springs Cemetery, underneath an awning. It’s quiet there; no one bothers me.”
It was then that the people stepped up and a collection was raised for a few weeks rent at a local sober house. A Catholic priest and the Providence dioceses contributed heartily. Matthew was deeply moved by the kindness of new sober friends willing to help him to begin to get things in order.
He needed an ID, food stamps, a place to shower and do laundry. Access RI became an excellent resource, where he registered as ‘homeless’ and made use of its address for mail. He found that he even qualified for SSI due to a debilitating fall he took close to 10 years ago, but he chose to work instead.
This fall is another of the intense experiences he survived. It is the fall that launched him into his alcoholic demise literally and figuratively, for he fell over fourteen feet off his patio porch and landed in front of his basement door on the cement. His wife found him there with his face ripped off and hands behind his back.
“They had to put my skull back together like a puzzle. They cut out 18% of my brain due to hemorrhaging,” He explained calmly. “I am legally blind: I can’t see out of my right eye; I can only see half out of my left. I can’t smell anymore.” He spent two and a half months in a coma and flatlined eight times.
“The amount of alcohol that was in me was close to three times the legal limit. While in the coma, the Doctors did MRI’s and saw that my liver was 25% smaller than it should be from the amount of alcohol I had been drinking. So later on in life I started getting seizures if I drank. I have had four of those, one of which was actually due to not having any liquor; I was going through withdrawals.”
The fall obviously brought the alcohol problem to the forefront, but his home life was also crumbling. He was married with a young daughter and his wife and he were struggling. This deterioration of the home life led him into a downward spiral and he lost his airplane machinist job, which led to his first bout of homelessness under a bridge near the Connecticut River. He found his way to Rhode Island by way of an old roommate who offered him a job in the kitchen of a restaurant in Pawtucket to get him off the streets. Although that job didn’t work out, losing it humbled him enough to receive the gift of the sober life he lives now.
“It just came to me…how much worse…how much farther could I fall and continue to think, ’No, things will get better, I will just get a job at Cumberland farms…’ but how is that going to happen when you don’t have any ID, you don’t have a shower, you don’t have clothes?”
Currently, he is two and a half years sober. His advice to anyone struggling is, “Don’t be afraid and start to open yourself up to trusting. Even if there is someone who wants to help you and you don’t know them well. There are some people who just want to see other people do well.”
That was difficult for him to believe in the beginning. He also recommends to keep busy. “When I am idle I start to scare myself…that’s when those creepy, tempting thoughts begin to take hold and it is so easy to fall in the trap by saying what’s one gonna hurt?”
He has escaped death multiple times and with his seizures, he is very grateful that someone was always around to notice. He attributes this to the 3 angels on his shoulders who are his Godfather and Godmother and his stepfather, who sadly passed away in his arms when he was only 15. He knows they are with him all the time.
For a man who used to go to the mall and walk around the food court twice just to get the free samples, this fall led him forward to the modest yet richly rewarding life he lives now. “I don’t want to sound corny but I find solace in this. People constantly question me, ‘How come you are always smiling?’”
In closing this ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ told me joyfully and with a wink, that the thing he has mastered is called having fun.
Photo By Tamara Standard