by Sue Ann Rybak
Mt. Airy resident Bill Simon’s memoir, “Frontline Human Services Delivery 1970-2011; Was I part of the Problem or Part of the Solution?” tells the story of how a member of the Dog Town gang became a youth services gang control worker, where he discovers his passion for empowering and advocating youth. He discusses the extreme stress and depression that social workers, mental health workers and other professionals in the human services department face on a daily basis.
From his carefree and reckless days as a member of the Dog Town gang to a determined youth gang service worker, where he discovered his passion for social service work. Simon, 65, discusses how the extreme stress and trauma he experienced while working as a juvenile detention worker eventually led to his addiction with drugs and alcohol.
His journey to become a social service professional began on that fateful night of April 4, 1968, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed. “We used to hang out at the sandlot on the 100 block of Sharpnack Street across from the Richmond junkyard,” he said. “Every spring, we would have what we called the opening of the corner to drink wine, shoot dice and plot mischief. There was always this gladiator mentality. We would send our charge out, and the other gang would have their charge to see who was the best with their fists. I was 16 at the time and one of the youngest members of the gang.”
Simon said Johnny Boy, a youth-gang worker from the United Progressives, headed by Melvin Burgess, informed the boys that Martin Luther King, Jr., the “turn-the-other-cheek, peaceful preacher” had just been assassinated. He said the news filled the gang members with rage.
“Brother Dave and Johnny Boy urged us to make sure Dr. King’s assassination would not be in vain. They said we had to cease our gang turf wars, cut off our processed hair, clean up our community and learn who we were as a people…we attended their community-organizing and political education classes…and became a shadow to Brother Dave and Johnny Boy.”
As a community organizer for the Republic of New Africa during the race riots at Tasker Homes Housing Projects, he worked to organize street-youth gangs and encourage them to participate in “purposeful community activities like the breakfast program.”
On July 4, 1970, Simon was arrested after nearly being beaten to death by a group of drunk white men. After the charges were dropped, Lt. George Fencl, head of the Philadelphia Police Civil Disobedience Unit, helped him get his first job in social service as an “Indigenous Gang Member Youth Service Member.
“My assigned street gangs were Mau-Mau, Black Bottom and Tasker Pjs. Our job was to build a rapport with gang members and pacify and mentor them through various programs, including job placement, mentoring, truancy-intervention programs, family counseling and organized sports.”
The services were delivered “24/7 on an on-call basis to defuse tension within the gang or rival gangs.”
Simon said service members met monthly with several at-risk youth-related agencies including school truancy programs, the police’s Juvenile-Aid Division, the Recreation Department, community sports leagues, performing arts groups and civic organizations. And the program worked until the city cut funding and privatized the gang-control unit.
In 1977, Simon got a job at a long-term juvenile detention facility working with adjudicated delinquent youth. “I was 27 years old at the time,” he said. “The kids housed there were between the ages of 12 and 21. It was always a challenge not to be looked upon as just one of the kids. Many times kids would tell me stuff that they wouldn’t tell older youth leaders.
“My most stressful job was at the Youth Study Center. The dungeon-like building was built in 1951 to be an intake facility. Youth were only supposed to stay there for 30 days until the court decided if they would go to jail or a group home. It was a jailhouse mentality there. It had all the ills of prison. Kids would often be intimidated out of food and have to make bargains for extra food. Many one-on-one physical fights happened there daily. Two times during my employment there were mass inmate riots requiring police intervention. The unit that housed the youths 16 to 21 had taken one of our staff members as hostage on two occasions during my tenure at the facility.”
Eventually the extreme stress and exhausting work schedule of seven days on, two days off, four days on and then four days off took its toll on him. In the book, he writes, “For me, seeing so many youths that were just a generation younger than me being incarcerated and warehoused was disheartening on a daily basis…One night I was introduced to freebase cocaine by some friends…and became instantly addicted to the drug. In late 1988, I was on the run from the drug dealers, who took up residence in my home. I owed them money…so I disappeared into the homeless shelter system so I wouldn’t have to give them my welfare check and food stamps.”
By the spring of 1989, he was red carded from almost every shelter in the city due to his continued drug use. “Soon I found myself living in vacant crack house on welfare days,” Simon wrote. “Then I would live and sleep in Vernon Park when I ran out of money.” Until one August night in 1990, while sleeping in the rain under a filthy rug on a park bench in Vernon Park, he had “a moment of clarity” that hit him “like a thunderbolt.”
“In my mind I saw my mother, who passed away in 1974, say clearly to me, ‘Son, I did not raise you to live like this,’ Simon wrote. The next morning he attempted to get a shelter bed but was denied due to his “track record.” He was sitting in the waiting area when he saw a woman he used to work with at The Youth Service Agency.
“I got the bed with strings attached,” Simon wrote. “I would first have to go to detox.”
After nine months of being clean and sober, he got a job as a residential counselor at a men’s homeless shelter. “Ironically, or because of the Creator’s plan, the job was with one of the shelters I had lost a bed at due to noncompliance to the rules while in my active addiction,” he wrote. “Poverty causes one to make decisions outside of the paradigm of right and wrong.”
Simon retired in 2011 and is now the founder and president of Philadelphia Public and Human Services Guild Inc., whose mission is to advocate, consult and partner with grassroots helping organizations on best practices of frontline human services delivery.
Simon will have a book signing Thursday, Nov. 3, 5:30 p.m., followed by dinner at 6 at Platinum Grille Restaurant in Market Square Plaza, 7719 Crittenden St. More information and RSVP at 215-668-7747.