Group seeks repeal of no-medians rule for soliciting

Feb. 08, 2013 @ 01:30 PM

City Council members Thursday brushed off a church group’s request that it rescind Durham’s recent move to bar roadside solicitors from working the medians of its major highways.

The request came from Open Table Ministries, whose leader, Carolyn Schuldt, told council members the ordinance that went into effect in January in practical terms had made roadside begging all but impossible.

The law allows soliciting from sidewalks, but in reality excluding medians means “very few locations are within the constraints and none are convenient or profitable” for solicitors, said Schuldt, whose group works with the unsheltered homeless.

She added that the ban is damaging to the homeless because of rules at one shelter that restrict access to its services.

Leaving it in place will make the homeless “more dependant on government support because it makes it impossible for them to support themselves,” Schuldt argued.

Council members listened, but voiced no interest in repealing the ban.

“The position we took [to impose it] was actually a compromise position” given that some members favored banning roadside solicitation entirely, Councilman Eugene Brown said.

He added that the “city is committed to working with those who need assistance, with trying to provide some hope” for the homeless.

Brown’s comments received an endorsement from Mayor Bill Bell. The council then moved on to other business, without giving administrators instructions to follow up on Schuldt’s request.

Schuldt’s comment about shelter rules, which she attributed to “the largest shelter in Durham,” was an apparent reference to the Durham Rescue Mission.

And it exposed a fissure in the approach taken by different advocates for the homeless – one on which the council is definitely taking sides.

In interviews after Thursday’s council work session, officials from the Rescue Mission and Durham’s other big shelter, Urban Ministries, made it clear their goal is to encourage the homeless to seek treatment or help for whatever problems pitched them onto the streets.

Rescue Mission founder Ernie Mills said his organization does insist on its quarters remaining drug-free and that clients work, if on nothing else than on chores around the mission. It also makes sure clients aren’t fugitives from the law.

The mission’s Web site counsels against giving money to solicitors, arguing that it’s better to provide an actual meal or a beverage to people in need of those things. Mills said that strategy avoids fueling substance-abuse problems.

“It’s been my experience that 85 percent of the panhandlers are panhandling for their next fix,” Mills said. “It really very seldom is done for the food and shelter they need. They’re welcome to come to the Rescue Mission; that’s what we’re here for. But we are a drug-free place and they throw up those excuses because they don’t want to throw away their drugs.”

Mills’ counterpart at Urban Ministries, Patrice Nelson, said her group allows few-strings stays in its shelter for up to a week at a time and 60 days a year.

Clients can secure a bed for longer if they enter and progress in a variety of programs designed to see to it that receive help for any substance-abuse, mental-health, family or economic problem that has contributed to their homelessness, Nelson said.

Nelson added that she had “mixed feelings” about Schuldt’s argument, as among the homeless there are those who are “too mentally unstable or afraid of the shelter” to turn to it for help. She also noted that Durham’s Homeless Services Advisory Committee hadn’t vetted the no-medians ordinance before the council acted on it late last year.

But “my goal is to help those who are homeless to come in from outside and to access the services needed to get them into permanent housing, with the support needed,” Nelson said. “There are many statistics that show people who are living outside are more likely to have medical, mental and legal issues that go unattended. They are the most vulnerable people and the most likely to die because of their living conditions.”

She said Schuldt’s groups and others do encourage the unsheltered to “come in.”

“It’s important for us to work as a community,” Nelson said, adding that if the ordinance remains, advocates and officials need to band together and make sure there are “safeguards [for] those [who] are going to be even more vulnerable now.”