Panhandling for veterans

Chuck McMasters, left, accepts donations at the intersection of Lamar Avenue and the Loop in a matching dollars drive for Lamar County Homelessness Coalition.

Recent conflict over panhandling at a major Paris intersection has driven local business owners to take action and clarify how the community can make a difference for the homeless.

Chuck McMasters, owner of Washmaster’s, stood at the intersection of Lamar Avenue and Loop 286 Wednesday and Thursday collecting donations, which will be matched dollar for dollar before being donated to local organizations, he said. He decided to take action after seeing a local disabled veteran, Ashley Waggoner, push back against panhandlers allegedly pretending to be veterans to receive money.

“I know the money is not going to a good cause,” McMasters said. “Everybody thinks we’re against the homeless; we’re not against the homeless. We want to make sure anybody who has really got a homeless problem, we help them get up. I don’t mind being your crutch, but I don’t want to be your wheelchair.”

Waggoner also stood on the corner for hours Wednesday, holding a sign stating “Don’t give to scammers. 22 vets die every day. Use your money to help those who actually need it.” In a self-filmed Facebook Live video, Waggoner approached the corner while a panhandler was there. The panhandler, who had earlier stirred controversy over videos he posted to YouTube with his thoughts on those who give to him, became upset at Waggoner’s presence, telling her she was impacting his ability to survive. Eventually, the Paris Police Department was called, and officers asked the panhandler to leave. Waggoner stayed on the corner for a time afterwards.

Soon after, McMasters took to the corner to raise funds for the Lamar County Homelessness Coalition. McMasters said he plans to meet with Shelly Braziel, president of the homelessness coalition, to plan a fundraiser for later in the spring that will assist those experiencing homelessness in Lamar County.

Braziel said those wanting to help can look to the need for an emergency shelter. The Salvation Army’s emergency shelter is currently closed due to a need for a sprinkler system, with the organization falling $48,000 short of having the project funded, she said. The lack of sprinklers is hampering its reopening. Any donations will help meet that need, she said.

She also encouraged people to attend the next coalition meeting at noon March 19, hosted at the Lamar County Human Resources Council, where attendees can learn more about what the coalition does to connect nonprofits, business owners and the city together to address homelessness.

“These business owners, they are compassionate and their hearts are very big,” she said. “It’s a positive way to help these people who truly need it.”

Other options include New Hope Center, a faith-based, 12-month transitional housing program to assist homeless individuals attain skills to become self-supporting Christians In Action serves only men, and it houses a limited number who work for the group’s cardboard recycling center. The Shelter Agencies for Families in East Texas, or SAFE-T, provides a shelter in Mount Pleasant for victims of domestic violence.

Other than housing for one or two nights provided by these or other agencies, there is no nighttime shelter for the homeless.

Waggoner said in the Facebook Live that she was stirred to action after learning the panhandler in the YouTube video was lying about being a veteran for financial gain. People rarely question what’s written on panhandlers’ signs, and it’s not uncommon to see one stating veteran status. Studies show veterans are a particularly high-risk group for homelessness due to mental health problems, substance abuse and economic hardship related to their service.

According to one estimate, the number of veterans without stable accommodation was nearly 58,000 across the U.S. as of 2013.

A cohort study collecting data on 310,685 individuals who served in the military from 2005 to 2006 identified the strongest predictors of homelessness as military pay, substance abuse and being diagnosed with a psychotic disorder. That same study showed specific risk factors — singleness and a substance abuse problem — as the strongest predictors of homelessness. Other factors included being black, having a low income and being in 46 to 55 age group.

To learn more about local resources for veterans at risk of homelessness, contact the Paris VFW at 903-785-5677; or visit the Texas Veterans Portal at https://veterans.portal.texas.gov/, which connects veterans and caregivers to benefits and services earned through military service.

Macon Atkinson is a staff writer for The Paris News. She can be reached at 903-785-6963 or macon.atkinson@theparisnews.com.

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