Charges against panhandlers dropped

Dec. 18, 2013 @ 07:27 PM

Fourteen people accused of violating the city’s ordinance against begging left court Wednesday with all charges dropped after saying they had gotten help through social services and committed no new offenses.

Among those facing charges of illegal panhandling were a woman who lives in a tent and a man caught drinking Wild Irish Rose wine in the street.

But one by one, they appeared before Durham County Chief District Court Judge Marcia Morey – often standing beside a social worker – to say they had stopped violating the city ordinance and, in many cases, found a job and housing.

Assistant District Attorney Brian E. Lewis agreed to requests from defense attorney Ian A. Mance of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice to dismiss the charges.

Morey agreed to wipe the slate clean. After the hearing, she said she was encouraged to have the charges dropped.

The judge appeared stunned when a woman said she’s lived in a tent near U.S. 15-501 for four years. The woman, who faced five panhandling-related charges, said she suffers from bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

But she’s getting help from Carolina Outreach Foundation, a Durham-based nonprofit that helps those with mental health disabilities.

A total of 44 charges against 14 defendants were dismissed. Three other cases, including a 16-year-old charged with failing to wear a reflective vest – had court dates rescheduled for Jan. 22.

The defendants were charged after new City Council-approved rules went into effect in January requiring panhandlers to stand on a sidewalk when they ask for money. Last month, the council debated more changes to the ordinance, but took no action.

Richard Andrews, who was cited twice this year for illegal begging, told the judge he had been sleeping on the streets for six months, but has found housing. He said he’s got a job doing home remodeling and is “making progress” in his life.

In an interview before his charges were dropped, Andrews painted a dismal picture of a panhandler’s life.

“I hate it,” he said. “It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done, and that’s the truth.”

Andrews, 58, said he owned a construction business in Durham until 2008 when the bottom dropped out of the housing market.

He said he made $2,000 a week before losing his job.

“Now I don’t have nothing,” Andrews said. “I was just doing this [begging] to eat, man. I’m not hurting anybody. I sit there on a bucket. I look at the people. They wave, and I wave.”

Andrews said he never approached anyone.

“They roll down their window and hold a dollar out,” he said. “That’s it.”

On good days, Andrews said, he might make as much as $17 between 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. On bad days, it could be $2.

“We could be out there breaking into houses and stealing from people, but we choose not do that,” Andrews said. “We’re good people. I think people get us wrong because we’re on a corner. They look at us and say: ‘That’s a drug addict, that’s a bad person.’ But that’s not the case. We’re out here to survive.”