Guest author Shelly Braziel, Executive Director of Lamar County Human Resources and Chair of the Lamar County Homeless Coalition (LCHC), outlines how the coalition responded to growing community support for an individual leading a rogue online campaign to criminalize panhandling in Paris, Texas.
A Paris-area resident began broadcasting live Facebook videos of him interacting with persons experiencing homelessness that were panhandling. In the videos (which have been deleted from his Facebook page), this individual’s behavior ranged from compassionate to aggressive; in one video, he is seen praying with unhoused people, while in his most shocking post, he called one person over to his truck not to give him a donation, but to show off a gun sitting in his lap. He also told panhandlers they weren’t allowed to solicit donations and gave out wildly inaccurate information. His posts gained an almost cult-like following that led to an alarmingly large segment of the community becoming very misinformed about what the law says about panhandling and homelessness.
Unfortunately, people experiencing homelessness commonly face threats to their safety. See the op-ed piece “We don’t need protection from the homeless. They need protection from us.”
The LCHC Board met twice to discuss these videos and met with local law enforcement and city officials multiple times for additional guidance, eventually determining that engaging with this individual or his followers directly would only escalate the situation. Considering (1) the largest question was whether or not the City of Paris had a “no panhandling” law and (2) local newspapers and other media outlets were giving the individual a platform, the coalition chose to issue a blanket statement regarding laws that would criminalize homelessness. The coalition penned a press release titled The Lamar County Homelessness Coalition will not support any city ordinances that would serve to criminalize homelessness that ran in a local news outlet.
It was not long before it became apparent that the general public wanted to know more about homelessness issues. After issuing the press release, dozens of community members reached out to LCHC through social media and email with questions. The coalition found the general public lacked key knowledge surrounding homelessness in Lamar County, so they brainstormed ways to educate the public and settled on the following tactics to raise awareness:
The Q & A was announced one week prior to the event. They utilized FB events, the local newspaper, and other media outlets to spread the word. Leading up to the event the coalition accepted questions via Facebook & email. The Q & A was held at a local coffee shop and people were invited to watch & participate in person or watch from home or work. We obtained a sponsor to provide coffee and breakfast to those that attended in person. The Q & A lasted for one hour, 7:00 am to 8:00 am, we began by introducing all of our board members (all 8 of our board members were present). We designated one person as the MC, this person read off all of the questions and directed each question to a member of the board that specialized in that area or directed that the question would be a group discussion. We designated a second person to watch the live comments for any questions. Those questions were written down on notecards and passed to the MC as they came in. In one hour we were able to answer 15 questions submitted in advance, and 3 submitted in the comments.
Outcome: While we only had 15 people in person, including board members, the video itself had over 1200 views. Two follow up stories were done by local media outlets. Two polls were done after the event; one resulted in the board deciding to do a second Live Q&A later in 2019 and the second poll resulted in the decision to host the next event after 5 PM.
Starting with the March 2019 General Membership Session, all general meetings are broadcasted on Facebook Live in an attempt to increase our current members’ ability to participate and as another opportunity to raise accurate awareness surrounding homelessness. So far this tactic has been successful – at the March meeting alone, 35 members were present and the video was viewed over 500 times.
Initially, the board of directors proposed hosting a public forum on homelessness but decided instead that LCHC would carve out 15 minutes during two coalition meetings for open public discourse. Two discussion topics were selected and piloted during fall meetings, and the coalition will decide if the mini forum is an event worth hosting at additional meetings at a later date.
The LCHC board also decided to raise public awareness through a “cardboard sign” campaign on Homelessness Awareness Day. Teams of two to four stood at major intersections in town holding up cardboard signs that listed homelessness facts and figures. Those driving by on their lunch breaks saw the groups and the response was overwhelmingly positive – one woman even got out of her car to give sign-holders hugs. LCHC did not issue a press release before the event, but did have multiple follow up stories. They also broadcast Facebook Live videos throughout the day.
Finally, LCHC planned to host a Homelessness Summit in April of 2020 but unfortunately, the summit was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The future event will last a full day, be held at the local junior college, and have approximately eight to twelve break out sessions as well as a morning keynote speaker. They are also working on offering CEU’s for at least one or two sessions.
The event will be marketed to Lamar county community members, local law enforcement, home health, and mental health professionals, in addition to surrounding counties and homeless coalitions in the region. Some of the sessions scheduled include a panel of local nonprofit Executive Directors discussing available services and service gaps, a shortened version of Bridges out of Poverty, mental health, and healthcare for those experiencing homelessness. The summit will be free and open to the public thanks to community partnerships and local sponsors.