How a Brown Student Grew in His Faith While Living Homeless

Faith in Times of Hardship: How a Brown Student Grew in His Faith While Living Homeless

Kevin Simmons went to Brooklyn Technical High School, one of the best high schools in the state of New York. He excelled in their Gateway to Medicine Program, which involved a curriculum of advanced science and math courses. In his junior year of high school, Kevin continued to thrive despite his family’s big move: to a homeless shelter.

Kevin didn’t grow up with much. His family of four lived in a small apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where he had to share a room with his sister who was ten years his senior. But Kevin looks back at his childhood fondly.

“Growing up there was actually pretty fun. Pretty much close to everything, close to downtown…a library was close by that I went to almost every day, my video game store, McDonald’s and everything in between. It was great,” said Simmons.

Home-life started to become stressful for Kevin’s family when his father, Billy Simmons, hurt his back on the job at the New York Presbyterian Hospital. Due to his inability to work, financial strain was placed on his family. Meanwhile, the price of living in Park Slope continued to rise. Kevin’s mother, Mary Simmons, worked as a clerk at the New York City Hilton Hotel. The stress of her work led to health issues of anxiety and high blood pressure, causing her to also leave her job. At the end of Kevin’s sophomore year, his parents knew that moving was inevitable; they were fearful of the possibility of having to retreat to a homeless shelter.

Kevin wasn’t aware of how dire the financial situation was for his family at the time. He was just worried about making friends in school and doing well in his classes like any other teenager. Even as his family was being evicted and registered to live in the New York City Homeless shelter, Kevin still had a sense of naïve optimism about the situation.

“It didn’t really hit me immediately. I was thinking ‘Okay, we’ll get out of this eventually.’ Then after a while, your brain just starts noticing, ‘Hey, this isn’t home,’” said Simmons.

Every day after school, Kevin would go the New York Public Library to use the computers since he didn’t have any access to one at the shelter. The local library had a 30-minute limit for computer use. “I remember trying to make it like a game, like a Mission Impossible race to the finish line. Let’s say I had to write an essay. I would have to break up my essay by section, draft most of it out by hand, and for those 30 minutes, I’d just type. I didn’t have time to waste,” Simmons stated.

After Kevin finished his schoolwork at the library, he would return to the shelter. “You go inside, and there’s this security check, you know, like the one that you see in airports. You had to put your stuff on a conveyor belt and walk through a metal detector because people would bring weapons, drugs, alcohol, things like that,” said Simmons.

Kevin shared a room with his parents while his sister lived in a separate women’s shelter.

“We’d been moved around a lot in that shelter, but from what I can remember, our first room was green. Not grass green, but puke vomit green. It was pretty disgusting and what made it even worse was the fact that the exhaust pipes ran into our room. It would smell really awful,” he said.

Their room was an old bathroom that had been refashioned into a bedroom to accommodate people in the shelter. They had three beds, a small metal counter, and an old graffitied mirror. They moved in at the beginning of the summer without any form of air conditioning, just in time to feel the full force of New York’s humidity and heat.

Meals were provided in the shelter’s cafeteria. For breakfast, there was an option of a small box of Corn Flakes or Raisin Bran, with a half pint of milk. Kevin used to love Raisin Bran growing up, but after a year in the shelter, he “never wanted to eat Raisin Bran again.”

“The conditions in the shelter were pretty bad, but the bathrooms—the bathrooms were the worst part,” he recalled.

With the cleaning janitor coming in sporadically at best, the bathrooms were always dirty. They’d have the smell of urine and leftover waste. A woman on Kevin’s floor had a son who was disabled. He had difficulties using the restroom and would often leave bodily waste on the floor. “I kid you not, when I would take a shower, I would smell myself five or six times before I walked out. And I’d usually just take another shower to be safe,” said Simmons. “I didn’t want to go school smelling like the shelter.”

Kevin made a point to keep his living situation private. He didn’t tell anyone at school he was homeless; not his teachers, his peers, or his counselors. Kevin didn’t want anyone to pity him or treat him differently. He wanted to succeed in his classes and go about his day as “normal” as he could.

Each floor of the shelter had guards surveying for the safety of the residents of the shelter. Sadly, the guards were the ones making the conditions of the shelter unsafe. Some guards would just steal the residents’ possessions. A lot of the male guards would sleep with the women in the shelter. They would harass the women or assert sexual, disparaging comments and jokes. Unfortunately, Kevin’s mother had to endure this harassment.

“My parents had these long faces. They just didn’t smile as much as they used to. They were worried we’d stay in there even until today,” he explained.

During his stay, Kevin had days that were more hopeful than others. He prayed to God daily about getting out and being able to live in an apartment again. He began carrying a Bible in his pocket and became more active at his church. Staying immersed in Scripture is something that Kevin says saved his life.

“You know suffering’s a part of life, and I knew God had some plan, so I thought, I just have to see what He does with this… see where it goes. That was my mindset going in.”

Kevin had faith at times when even his parents didn’t.

“There’d be some days when my parents were just straight up depressed. And I’d say ‘Don’t worry, God will work it out somehow, I know He will.’ I would say near the end of the year of staying there, I started to accept that maybe God would want us to stay here for whatever reason, and I was accepting of that,” said Simmons.

Billy Simmons, Kevin’s father, was a Marine veteran, and by the end of a year living homeless, the family discovered a program for disabled veterans. Through the Homeless Veterans Initiative, they were eligible to receive funding from the government to buy an apartment. The program offers housing for families below the poverty line; they subtract a certain amount from your rent based on how much you are able to pay.

The day he found out he was leaving the shelter, Kevin admits he was skeptical. He had been living there so long; it was difficult to imagine that they’d ever be leaving. He wasn’t convinced until the day that they moved out–when he got to see his sister. He had gone so long without spending time with her, having the whole family together was a true “home” to Kevin.

“And then when it happened, I was relieved, but at the same time I was sad because I had grown so much as a person, being homeless. I felt like I would never have that kind of growth again in my life,” said Simmons. The family ended up moving into a small apartment in East New York. When they moved into their new apartment, they were in shock. After a year, everything felt different. They didn’t have to worry about a 10:00 pm curfew, they didn’t have to worry about guards. They didn’t have to get their bags checked when they walked into their house.

Today, Kevin is living in a dorm at Brown. He’s concentrating in Neuroscience and is actively involved in the Branch, a Christian fellowship on campus. He leads a Bible study every week, and on some Saturdays, he volunteers in downtown Providence with The Elisha Project.

“We prepare bagged lunches: meatball subs, chips, and a drink. We hand out lunches at a different shelter each week in Providence,” said Simmons. “Being a Christian, you believe in a God that loves you and wants you to take that love and share it with other people, whether that is caring for the poor, caring for the fatherless, or caring for those who are less fortunate. Serving these people knowing what I have now at Brown, it just causes me to be thankful, because everything I have is a blessing from God.” Living in the shelter for a year gave Kevin a passion for giving back and serving others. It was a test of faith that ultimately led to total trust in God.

“I’ve always been taught that wealth and any material possessions, you know, you won’t take them with you when you die. It doesn’t matter how rich you are, it doesn’t matter how good looking you are, at the end of the day all that matters is what you put your wealth and your value in,” said Simmons. “I don’t put mine in my possessions, in my looks, in my intelligence; I put it in my faith. I feel like I have even more than the people who are rich because I have happiness in Jesus Christ.”

Kevin Simmons is a junior concentrating in neuroscience.

Elizabeth Jean-Marie is a senior concentrating in immunobiology.

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