LAUREL, Miss. (WHLT) – Community advocates in Laurel are calling on city leaders to provide better treatment and shelter for the homeless.

A recent City Council hearing in Laurel sparked debate over the city’s treatment of the homeless.

Emma Hill and Tommy Cheeks both minister to those in need, and they said the city removed many of the benches the homeless slept on at Daphne Park.

“That’s leaving them where, on a bright sunny day, they’re fine. There are other benches out there, but when it rains, they don’t have a place to go,” said Cheeks, who is the pastor at Park Haven Baptist Church.

Laurel Mayor Johnny Magee said the benches were removed after being damaged by those staying in the park.

“It was reported that they were tearing up the benches, and we don’t have money to continue to replace benches when somebody tears them up,” the mayor said.

Hill and Cheeks are recommending a long-term homeless shelter or housing to help those in need get back on their feet.

“The main thing is for them to get their own place, so they can have an address because there are some of them that want to work. They don’t have I.D.s and with that, they don’t have an address to do the things that they need to do to get out of the situation they are in,” said Hill. 

“Right now, as of today, an immediate need we have is a place for them to get out of the cold, and the city has some buildings that they can do that with,” said Cheeks.

Magee said while he wished the city could do more, a shelter simply isn’t in the budget.

“We are not positioned financially to build a shelter or to provide a place for the homeless. Not that we are heartless or uncaring, but the fact that that is not in the wheelhouse of the City of Laurel,” the mayor stated.

Magee said he’s open to hearing suggestions on other ways to provide shelter. Hill and Cheeks said they will keep pushing for solutions.

The Salvation Army of Laurel does provide overnight shelter, but beds are limited.