Panel may urge rollback of panhandling restrictions

Jun. 21, 2013 @ 07:03 PM

A proposal to roll back a ban on in-median roadside panhandling appears likely to make its way from an advisory group to the City Council sometime this summer or fall.

A subcommittee that’s been studying the issue will report Wednesday to Durham’s Homeless Services Advisory Committee, which in turn is to relay recommendations to elected officials.

Lawyer and Homeless Services Advisory Committee member John Bowman is chairing the study group, and on Friday confirmed that it will urge that “panhandling be allowed and it be decriminalized in Durham.”

The proposal will be part of a package of ideas that also include the potential creation of an “outreach court” modeled on one already running in Orange County that would offer homeless people accused of minor offenses a chance to obtain social services.

Bowman declined Friday to go into further details about the group’s ideas, as they need an endorsement from the Homeless Services Advisory Committee before they can go to the council.

But a local minister opposed to the no-medians rule, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, told supporters earlier in the week that city leaders are preparing to roll back the ordinance they passed late last year.

“With exemplary humility, [council members] listened to our concerns,” he said in a blog posting. “They said what politicians are too often reticent to say: ‘We made a mistake. We need your help to fix it.’”

A member of the study group, Wilson-Hartgrove added that there are also proposals to beef up Police Department training on how officers should deal with people who have mental health issues and for the department to “work more closely with community partners who know and care about people on the streets.”

He additionally emailed fellow opponents of the no-medians rule a draft of a revised ordinance that would allow people to approach a motor vehicle while standing on a “public street/roadway corner or access ramp for the purpose of soliciting employment, business or contributions.”

The draft – which computer metadata indicates was prepared by local attorney Scott Holmes – said solicitors may not walk in front of a vehicle during a transaction and may only approach stopped vehicles.

The new wording wipes out the changes to Durham’s solicitation rules that went into effect in January that said roadside solicitors can only work from paved sidewalks.

The rules change effectively banned in-median solicitations of the sort formerly common at the Fayetteville Road/Interstate 40 interchange near The Streets at Southpoint mall and at the U.S. 15-501/I-40 interchange on the border between Durham and Chapel Hill.

Wilson-Hartgrove is the founder of Rutba House, a Walltown-based ministry. He’s been working with other advocacy groups like Open Table Ministries that have criticized the no-medians rule.