Council approves revisions to Durham's soliciting rules

Feb. 20, 2014 @ 07:02 PM

City Council members voted 6-0 on Thursday to pass a set of revisions to Durham’s “roadside solicitation” rules that relax some of the restrictions that took effect about a year ago.

The new rules will go into effect in a month and do away with a provision in existing law that allows solicitations only on one-way streets.

It retains, however, the original intent of city officials to clamp down on solicitations from highway medians and at interstate ramps. Panhandlers and people involved in various types of roadside commerce must stick to sidewalks.

Members initially were set to vote Monday, but put off the decision so city attorneys could draft a couple of last-minute changes to the new rules package.

One made it clear that solicitors can work both sides of a sidewalk-equipped one-way street, provided they don’t step out into traffic.

The other addressed a quirk in Monday’s draft that would have allowed solicitors to deal with people in hard-top vehicles, but not those in convertibles.

“Now you can solicit a convertible as opposed to just a hardtop,” City Attorney Patrick Baker said.

Baker did, however, again deflect City Councilwoman Cora Cole-McFadden’s push for a rule that would restrict panhandling near homes.

He in past meetings had questioned the legality of that idea and on Thursday signaled little interest in having the city pioneer an attempt to address the issue.

Given the First Amendment and various court decisions, “it’s a minefield trying to go beyond basic prohibitions,” Baker told the council.

Thursday’s vote capped an effort that began last year after some ministers and lawyers who advocate for the homeless criticized the previous limits as an attempt to “criminalize poverty.”

Officials responded to those complaints not just by reviewing the ordinance, but also by working with local judges to see to it that anyone accused of violating the rules gets access to social services in lieu of criminal proceedings.

Those moves didn’t soothe all the complaints, which began again after council members postponed Monday’s vote.

But calls by local lawyer Scott Holmes for people to email the council to push for changes to the rules may have backfired. The messages the council received on the issue this week by and large supported the existing rules, not the revisions approved Thursday.

“I do not see how encouraging panhandling can be seen as an appropriate response to poverty and homelessness,” said one activist, Dick Ford.

He said Durham has “many fine programs … to help the homeless, supported both by the public and private groups,” and that the city “unlike some jurisdictions” is “not banning the poor and homeless but trying to help them.”

Another resident, Scott Carter, said he wrote to make sure members know “there are Durham citizens who support reasonably tight restrictions for soliciting.”

“I do recognize that there are many people living in poverty in Durham, and I understand that this is a very difficult problem, but I do not agree that part of the solution is allowing (and even encouraging) them to solicit from cars along our roadways,” Carter said.