With the help of counselors, generous readers and the “hacker” community, the man in Danny Westneat’s recent column has started a new job. James Simmons has made the leap from a shelter to the corporate tech world.
When I heard James Simmons was on day one at a new job, his first in years, I texted him a note: “Stay strong, you can definitely do it.”
He wrote back: “I absolutely CAN!” followed by four smiley faces.
For more punctuation he added his shiny new title: “Sr. Analyst / IT Audit & Security Compliance.”
Until Sunday, Simmons was living in a Seattle homeless shelter. Now, after years of battling poverty stemming from a bad arrest, he has started a full-time job at a global technology services firm in Portland, Ore.
“I’m a little behind the 8-ball with the working world,” Simmons joked when I caught up with him Tuesday. “But it’s going OK. As you can see from my texts, I’m feeling optimistic.”
The leap Simmons is trying to make — from shelter to six-figure, white-collar world — is almost unheard of in the social-services realm. His story was featured in The Seattle Times two Sundays ago under the headline: “Being homeless a struggle — even with a $100,000 job offer.”
It told how he was homeless for seven years after serving a one-year stint in prison — even though his conviction was overturned after the arresting King County officer was fired for lying. So while technically Simmons, 55, has no record, he has struggled to get jobs as the arrest still dogs him on the Internet and in background checks.
“Officially I’ve been cleared, but effectively it’s like they gave me a life sentence,” was how he put it.
Because he’s a certified information systems auditor, Simmons was able to score Skype interviews as well as preliminary job offers with national corporations. All as he was toting a donated laptop around from coffee shops by day to a shelter bunk bed at night.
Last week he finally got two firm job offers. One was a “get-back-on-your-feet” offer doing low-paid office work. The other — the one he took a deep breath and accepted — is in Portland doing security compliance work.
Simmons asked me not to name the company because he’s only two days into the job. I wish I could. It deserves recognition for giving him the chance that others wouldn’t.
“It’s a second chance for his life, that’s how he sees it,” says Walter Washington, the program manager for Compass Housing Alliance’s 60-bed men’s shelter near Seattle Center. “It’s a huge risk, to go from forgotten and homeless to such a high-demand field. But his view was, it’s now or never.”
The logistics were difficult. How do you start in a new city with zero money? Compass pulled together donations to give Simmons a train ticket, three weeks in a Travelodge motel and $15 a day in meal money, all until he gets his first paycheck.
Some help came from United Way’s “Navigators” program, which is specifically designed to give the homeless a lift up out of poverty.
Readers also deluged me with offers to help. Simmons’ story especially made the rounds in “InfoSec” — information security professionals who saw Simmons as one of their own. It’s a digital tribe I did not know about.
“We’re basically hackers,” explained Robert Hansen, VP of Labs for White Hat Security in Austin, Texas, who contacted me about Simmons. “We’re about 100,000 strong. We don’t like to see security people get wronged.”
They arranged Macy’s gift cards and also forwarded his résumé around the country.
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“If James Simmons gets a job near Raleigh, NC, he can stay at my house until his first paycheck,” read one of dozens of similar InfoSec tribal letters to me.
The hard part for Simmons will be “in about 15 days, when all the hubbub dies down,” Compass’ Washington says.
“I went shopping with him, and it was the first time he’d bought clothes in years,” Washington says. “Then the checkout clerk recognized him from the paper. At one point we had to sit down in the middle of Macy’s and just talk. It was like, ‘Steady, man.’
“He’s got a lot of years of being down to overcome.”
Simmons’ rise up and out was the talk of the shelter this past week. But it’s faded now. Simmons’ bunk has already been filled by somebody new.
“He’s got a pretty amazing story, too,” Washington said. “You want to hear it?”