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Part 2: Organized Efforts

Community works together to find solutions to homelessness

December 10, 2021

The kindness of one individual can be seen as an ever-present spark in the lives of those who have lost their fire. They can be catalysts in recovery as they have the ability to set ablaze the desire for change. All it takes is one good Samaritan to change a life and that is what these individuals, as well as organizations, have been doing.

The community in Texarkana is heavily diverse with its people and business ownership. These individuals have been in the town for years and have seen the landscape change, even when it comes to homeless people.

Howard Gustafson is the owner of Ragland Piano Company in Texarkana. He is a master piano craftsman, as well as a long-time resident of the city, and being a downtown business owner has allowed him to see these effects firsthand with homeless individuals in town.

“A good example would be Roy Malone, going back probably 20 years or so,” Gustafson said. “When I first met Roy, he was just kind of a fixture here in town, and once he gifted me a belt that had belonged to his brother, but Mr. Malone eventually passed away.”

Although Malone was known to stir up trouble on occasion, he had an unmatched presence on the town that was cut short due to his sudden death.

“We wound up having a [funeral] service that a lot of downtown business people went to, and the first person to speak was a prosecutor,” Gustafson said. “He showed up to the funeral service of an individual that he had numerous accounts with and he described it as he was the kind of guy that wasn’t bad to anybody except himself.”

Individuals in the same situation as Malone, however, don’t always have the same reaction to those circumstances. Gustafson has seen how some of the encounters aren’t so pleasant, but he has plenty of respect and faith in Texarkana’s police system.

“The Texarkana Police Department strikes me as doing a very good job with balancing the needs of these individuals with the needs of the businesses,” Gustafson said. “So anytime that we’ve got an issue with somebody negatively affecting the property here, we’re able to work with them to get that generally resolved.”

The government and its systems of support are the core pillars of the homeless situation in Texarkana. A persons’ ability to have faith in the system can be a determining factor in their economic situation and the man at the center of it all is Texarkana, Texas, Mayor Bob Bruggeman.

Mayor Bob Bruggeman encourages those who want to help with the homeless situation in Texarkana donate to organizations that offer assistance to the homeless. (Photo by Dakota Dennard)

Bruggeman has been mayor for nine years and has seen the growth of the homeless epidemic in Texarkana.

“I think there’s more of a presence of homelessness in our city, and I think it’s more visible than it has been in the past because I see people walking along major thoroughfares, for example, Texas Boulevard,” Bruggeman said.

From Bruggeman’s perspective, Texarkana citizens should be wary before donating to these individuals. He has stated that not all of them are as they seem. 

“Usually if someone asks me for money or something like that, I try to learn a little bit more about them, like ‘Where are you going or where are you staying? How are you going to use this money?’” Bruggeman said. “If you ask a few questions, sometimes it’s kind of like peeling an onion. You can kind of determine whether this person is truly needing help or if they’re just trying to take advantage of a situation.”

Besides the skepticism presented, Bruggeman still helps those in the homeless community not only as mayor but as an everyday citizen as well.

“I participate in the local food drives that take place,” Bruggeman said. “I’ve also donated personal items, clothing, furniture directly to the Randy Sam’s shelter.”

As the mayor, Bruggeman is able to tackle the problem of homelessness from multiple angles. He hopes that along with thoughtful philanthropy that the citizens of Texarkana will allow certain organizations to handle this problem.

“Someone may be hesitant to help someone [because] they’re not really sure if this person is homeless,” Bruggeman said. “We have these organizations within the city that will determine whether someone truly is homeless and fits the criteria to receive some assistance.”

When speaking of organizations that can help the homeless people, the Texarkana Homeless Coalition, headed by Vashil Fernandez, has plenty of programs to offer assistance.

“The Homeless Coalition serves as an umbrella agency or organization that brings all the other organizations together with a common goal of trying to end homelessness,” Fernandez said.

There are many different debates on the reasons for homelessness across the country. With so many different thoughts and ideals, solutions sometimes lose focus of the actual problem at hand. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case for this coalition.

“I believe a lot of stuff with our homeless population, not just here but all over, can be rooted down to mental illness,” Fernandez said. “And if we can get the resources to reach those people, then I think that will help alleviate a lot of the problem and help encourage people to get into housing as well as become self-sustainable.”

In an effort to combat the housing issue, the coalition has formed a program called Rapid Rehousing, where they try to get the homeless off the streets and into better living conditions.

“We pay rental assistance, some utilities, offer other services like life skills classes, bus tickets to get to and from work, just different things like that, as well as, offer things to help with people that are on medication,” Fernandez said.

The largest battle that the coalition has had to face recently is panhandling. Due to this practice, the issue of homelessness has become even more prevalent to the public, which hurts the Homeless Coalition’s core goals.

“[Panhandling] doesn’t deal with the underlying issue of why they’re out there,” Fernandez said. “Giving panhandlers a one-off donation doesn’t really help them. It might actually just cause them to stay in a situation they’re in.”

 That’s why the coalition started Operation Responsible Compassion, which focuses on encouraging people to give in a more responsible way.

“If you’re giving to these agencies that are working on mental health, that are working on providing other life skill classes, that are working on feeding them, those are things that can contribute to helping with a person’s overall being,” Fernandez said.

These organizations can only provide so much assistance without one key thing–funding, something Fernandez said the coalition lacks. Despite this, he hopes that the homeless population will look to the coalition as a place to seek help.

“They should take advantage of all the resources that we have available,” Fernandez said. “The Texarkana Homeless Coalition is, along with all the agencies, there to help.”

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