Editor’s note: The New Hope Center is not full and is accepting those in need.

Homelessness and panhandling, while not the same thing, are two very real issues for some citizens in Lamar County. With the winter months upon us, that problem becomes amplified for those in need.

“We see a lot of people come in for help,” said Tanteta Scott of the New Hope Center. “We try to help as many as we can.”

The New Hope Center of Paris is more than just a place to spend the night, she said. It is a comprehensive program that teaches self-sufficiency and life skills to restore people to independence through training, support and personalized case management.

Sometimes, though, that isn’t enough. We still have people without homes, unable to receive help, like one homeless man in Paris named Billy Lester, also known as “Scooter.”

Photo: Amanda Cutshall / eExtra News || Billy ‘Scooter’ Lester

There may be no other option

Lester said he is aware of places like the New Hope Center and Christians in Action, which allow men to stay with them.

“I check in with them once a week,” he said. “Right now, with the weather being so cold, they’re all full. There’s nowhere else for me to go, and I’m not the only one who has this problem. There’s a lot of us who are homeless and have nowhere to go because the shelters are full. It’s almost impossible for a man to get help around here. This isn’t something I thought I’d ever resort to, but you have to do what you have to do.”

This could happen to any of us

According to the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, the leading causes of homelessness include insufficient income, especially due to the loss of a job, and a lack of affordable housing. Other factors include drug/ alcohol addictions, changes in family status, mental health issues, abuse at home and incarceration.

In Lester’s case, it is not only a lack of affordable housing, but also depression and change in family status, he said. Lester said he used to be a “productive citizen of Paris – with a house, a job and a family.” In the past five years, however, he’s lost his multiple family members, his job and his home.

“I started going downhill fast,” he said. “I lost my mom in 2012. A year after that, I lost my wife, then my dad and then my brother. About that time I lost my job and then my house and it has been downhill ever since. I have family in Paris, but they’re ashamed of me. I have one family member who speaks to me out of all of them.”

To get by, he panhandles on the corners of busy intersections in Paris.

Panhandling is not illegal

“There is a not a specific city ordinance on an offense of panhandling,” said Paris Police Chief Bob Hundley. “In fact, some cities attempts at writing panhandling ordinances have been found to be unconstitutional.”

Asking someone for money has been viewed by courts as free speech, he said. If the person asking for money touches a person, uses any profanity or otherwise creates a disturbance, those may be other types of crimes that can be filed as alleged by complainants.

A growing problem

According to Shelly Braziel, president of the Lamar County Homelessness Coalition, this year more than 100 children were identified as homeless in Lamar County. Of that number, 58 were from the Chisum school district and 52 were from the Paris school district.

“That doesn’t even count adults,” she said. “And when you factor in families that are doubling- and tripling-up in a home to get by, that number gets even bigger.”

The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty currently estimates that each year at least 2.5 – 3.5 million Americans sleep in shelters, transitional housing, and public places not meant for human habitation. At least an additional 7.4 million have lost their own homes and are doubled-up with others due to economic necessity.

Homelessness is such a big problem, in fact, that Sesame Street hopes to raise awareness about childhood homelessness by introducing a new muppet named Lily, a 7-year-old character whose family has lost their home.

Sesame Street Lily

Source: Sesame Street

How you can help

There are several options to help those in need in Lamar County. One way is to donate to the New Hope Center online.

Another way is to become an advocate and join the Lamar County Homelessness Coalition. You can do so by contacting the United Way of Lamar County at 903-784-6642.

And, finally, yet another way is to just give necessities to those standing on the corners. Lester said a majority of the help he has received has been from people giving him clothing and food.

“Everything I’m wearing right now was given to me by someone driving by while I was standing out here,” he said. “Someone just gave me this jacket a few days ago and it’s been a big help. I’m not out here asking for money to buy drugs or anything; I’m just trying to get by and survive.”