Elected leaders suggest steps to deal with growing homeless concerns in Port Arthur

Published 12:32 am Wednesday, October 11, 2023

The influx of people experiencing homelessness is visible at various intersections, outside some businesses and in wooded areas in the city, Port Arthur leaders noted this week.

District 3 Councilwoman Doneane Beckcom is seeking to address the growing homeless population and panhandling with the possibility of reestablishing the city’s Homeless Coalition.

District 3, she said, has the largest homeless encampment in the city. Several months ago she met with city leaders and the chief of police to share concerns.

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Beckcom said she is contacted almost on a daily basis by residents and has also been contacted by members of the Homeless Coalition asking what they are not meeting.

Mayor Thurman Bartie said the coalition was handled by previous councilwoman Ingrid Holmes and due to unforeseen events, regular meetings were not being held.

That’s when Director of Health Services Judith Smith began assisting the homeless through the health department, he said.

Where do they come from?

District 1 Councilman Willie “Bae” Lewis said he was told the homeless individuals are being brought to Port Arthur from other cities in order for them to access medical services at the Medical Center of Southeast Texas and afterward the hospital releases the individuals and they are not brought back to their home city.

Lewis said this could not be verified but he believes the individuals should be released into a controlled environment, preferably the city they came from. This would require a person or entity to check documentation on the individuals.

Finding answers

Position 5 Councilman Thomas Kinlaw III said he also spoke with city leaders and Police Chief Tim Duriso and said the city needs help finding a solution and encouraged the reestablishment of the coalition.

“At this point, it’s getting bad,” Kinlaw said. “If we don’t stop the ship now and address the issues, it will blow up. Let’s do something to try and help these individuals.”

City Manager Ron Burton said the city has worked at addressing the homeless population. He harkened to a meeting two to three weeks ago in which the city’s Grants Program Administrator Mary Essex told of the $1.4 million in funding from Housing and Urban development that was distributed to various nonprofit organizations such as Catholic Charities and Legacy Community Development for case management as well as the Salvation Army.

“Apart from the coalition that was formed by the mayor and led by then Councilwoman Holmes, the city has invested quite a bit in coordinated and collaborative effort through nonprofit organizations,” Burton said. “It’s not that the city hasn‘t done anything. The city has put its money where its mouth is. The machinery is working. We have to continue to work with the nonprofit organizations to assist the clientele that is homeless.”

Burton said he would ask Essex for a report on each of the nonprofit organizations on how they are tackling homelessness in the city.

Some help is on the horizon. Speaker of the House Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, announced funding for a mental health facility has been approved and would be located in Beaumont.

But, Beckcom said, it will not be here for three to five years.

Burton said there is also money in the coffers from the state opioid fund and the intent is to put together a well-crafted plan with the assistance of the health department to address the homeless issue and mental health.

The city has tried to address the issue in the past, Position 6 Councilman Donald Frank said. This was through a coordinated effort of civic and social groups who, at that time, brought portable showers and food to a homeless encampment on 9th Avenue.

“At the core and crux of the problem is mental health issues. There are so many mental health issues facing our community,” Frank said.

Last year a large homeless encampment at 950 9th Avenue was shut down, and the 20 to 30 people living in tents were dispersed. Bartie said no residents were vacated from the property, as none were present when the site was bulldozed.

During an April 2022 news conference, Bartie said action to evacuate and clear the property had been authorized by the 60th Judicial District Court due to consistent code violations and trespass warnings.

Mayor Pro Tem Tiffany Hamilton provided a remind that “not all who wander are lost.”

“When homelessness is approached, please take the opportunity to have a humble approach and respectful approach when dealing with homeless people,” Hamilton said, adding some are Veterans, some are escaping domestic violence, some have been kicked out of their home or lost their homes or are being trafficked.

The issue of homeless in the city will be brought back to council at a future meeting.