Advisory board seeks changes to solicitation law

Aug. 21, 2013 @ 05:57 PM

An advisory group has urged the City Council to alter its roadside solicitation ordinance to allow panhandlers to approach cars “upon invitation” in more places than the city currently allows.
The practical effect of the request would be to rescind a rule the council adopted late in 2012 that said panhandlers can work only on sidewalks. It barred them from medians and from the sides of non-sidewalk highway interchanges like the one at U.S. 15-501 and Interstate 40.
Now, members of the Homeless Services Advisory Committee agree the council should backtrack, save on the ban on the use of medians.
Its proposal, endorsed by committee members on Wednesday, would allow solicitations provided the people making them avoid walking in front of vehicles and only ask when a vehicle is stopped at a traffic signal or stop sign.
Committee Vice Chairman John Bowman said the recommendation also stresses the need for an invitation from a solicitation’s intended target, be it via eye contact, a nod or some other sign.
The point of that is to discourage “aggressive panhandling,” he said.
One committee member, Assistant County Manager Drew Cummings, questioned the invitation language on Wednesday. He termed it a “squishy concept” that could prove difficult to enforce.
“Whether one has been given a signal adequate or clear enough to approach a car is a difficult one for anyone to assess,” Cummings said. “I’m trying to imagine if aggressive panhandling would ever be enforceable.”
But Durham County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Stan Harris said a scenario involving a solicitor walking down a line of cars, knocking on doors or windows to get the attention of their occupants, would clearly run afoul of the wording of the proposed revision.
The committee also endorsed a broader set of policy recommendations that included what Bowman described as a call to “decriminalize” violations of the soliciting by handling them through a new “community life court.”
The idea is modeled on a program in Orange County, where prosecutors defer low-level charges if the person targeted by them agrees to seek counseling and other social services.
Homeless Services committee members delved into the issue after the City Council began fielding complaints about the existing rules, which went into effect in January.
Critics of the ordinance alleged city leaders in passing it were trying to “criminalize poverty” and that the new rules had barred panhandlers from the most lucrative places to seek donations.
The opposition was spearheaded by Carolyn Shuldt, an Apex preacher who leads Open Table Ministries, and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, found of Walltown’s Rutba House ministry.
But a separate criticism, voiced most prominently by Urban Ministries Executive Director Patrice Nelson, was that city officials hadn’t asked the Homeless Services Advisory Committee to weigh in last year before the council approved the no-medians rule.
Wednesday’s recommendation will also be making its way to the Durham County Commissioners, as the county also regulates solicitations and does so in a way that’s much more restrictive than the city.
County law prohibits asking the operator of a motor vehicle for money when the vehicle is in a road right of way. That applies everywhere in Durham County outside the city limits.
It’s to the city’s “credit we had an ordinance that allowed solicitation,” Bowman said. “The county doesn’t.”