When Tony Simmons first met his friend Paul Behler seven years ago, they made a pact: “You got my back. I got your back.”
A man had just been stabbed to death at a Baltimore homeless shelter where they were staying, and the new friends leaned on each other to feel a little safer navigating a life on the streets filled with uncertainty, risk and danger.
They became two of Baltimore’s best-known advocates for people experiencing homelessness — sharing their experiences from the city to the state capital to push politicians to spend more on permanent, supportive and affordable housing.
On Sunday, Behler, 67, met the fate Simmons said his friend feared all those years before.
According to Baltimore police, Behler was robbed and stabbed to death shortly before 2 a.m. at a bus stop in the 300 block of W. Saratoga Street in downtown Baltimore. Behler’s friends say the location, not far from Lexington Market, had a bench where he frequently spent time.
“Paul would sit in that spot every single day,” Simmons said Wednesday. “That’s where he would sit and read the paper and pass the time.”
Simmons, who rents a home near McCulloh Street and North Avenue, said when he saw Behler about two weeks ago, Behler told him he was too afraid of catching COVID-19 to stay in a shelter. So, Simmons believes Behler was sleeping on the bench when he was attacked.
Police charged Brelan Handy, 27, of Glen Burnie, and Kenneth Smith, 61, of Baltimore, with murder, assault and robbery.
Friends say Behler was estranged from his family, and Simmons and others did not know much about Behler before he become homeless about a decade ago. His social media accounts, which his friends said Behler set up himself, say he grew up in Catonsville, was a 1971 graduate of the now-closed Cardinal Gibbons High School and was a musician and concert piano rebuilder for 40 years.
He was a founding member of the advocacy group Housing Our Neighbors; helped start Baltimore’s first street newspaper, Word on the Street, and was part of a Faces Of Homelessness Speakers Bureau. The paper, which sold for $1 a copy, was launched in 2012 and published until 2014. Behler was a lead writer.
Bonnie Lane, who rents a room in the Abell neighborhood in North Baltimore, worked on the newspaper with Behler. She remembered him as a hardheaded intellectual who tried to use his life to champion change.
“If he had housing, he might still be alive,” Lane said. “The people in power have the ability to house people. And they need to do it.”
While friends continue to arrange a funeral, a moment of silence for Behler is planned during a 3 p.m. rally Thursday outside City Hall to demand officials address Baltimore’s housing crisis.
Housing Our Neighbors wants to see at least $175 million of federal coronavirus relief funds spent on rental assistance and eviction protection. They also are calling on Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young to extend an eviction moratorium in Baltimore beyond this month and move all shelter residents from hotel rooms to permanent housing.
Tisha S. Edwards, interim director of the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services, said Young moved swiftly to minimize the impact of the outbreak on both city residents experiencing homelessness and those at risk of becoming homeless. And the city remains committed to making homelessness “rare and brief,” she said.
Since March, the city moved 450 people out of shelters into hotels. Another measure was to allocate $13 million in rental assistance to prevent tenants with unpaid rent from being evicted.
“The pandemic required the city to act immediately to protect individuals experiencing homelessness from infection,” Edwards said in an email. “Moving forward, we remain committed to work in partnership with our service providers to identify safe and affordable housing options for individuals experiencing and at risk of homelessness.”
In announcing Behler’s death, police said they were looking for relatives. Detective Donny Moses, a department spokesman, said Wednesday that family had been located.
Megan Hustings, managing director of the Washington-based National Coalition for the Homeless, said the lives of people experiencing homelessness are often cut short due to lack of health care, exposure to extreme temperatures and violence.
Research shows the leading causes of homelessness are lack of affordable housing, low wages or unsteady employment, a decline in available public benefits, domestic violence, mental illness and addiction.
Advocates in Baltimore said more than 100 homeless men and women died last year. The Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services estimates that 2,500 homeless men, women and children live in Baltimore.
Kevin Lindamood, president of Health Care for the Homeless, said he remembers when he first became the organization’s president, Behler marched up to him and demanded to know his qualifications. Over the years, he pushed Lindamood to do better and seek meaningful input from the people they serve.
“To hear that he was murdered while sleeping at a bus stop is both a tragedy beyond measure and an indictment of a society that continues to allow homelessness in the wealthiest nation in the history of history,” Lindamood said. “We must come to understand housing and health care as fundamental human rights.
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“It’s what Paul fought for.”