Schewel: Jail shouldn’t figure in panhandling cases

Apr. 02, 2013 @ 08:17 PM

Amid prodding from church groups, a key city councilman now says he and his colleagues should modify the new “roadside solicitation” ordinance that barred panhandling in highway medians.

But in comments during Monday night’s council meeting and again Tuesday during an interview, Councilman Steve Schewel stopped well short of calling for a repeal of rules that he and his colleagues approved late last year.

Instead, officials in enforcing them should look for “alternatives to taking people to jail,” perhaps by emulating a court-based intervention program that’s operating in neighboring Orange County, Schewel said.

He and Councilwoman Cora Cole-McFadden also made it clear they’d like to see critics of the ordinance cooperate with or assist local efforts to arrange services for homeless panhandlers.

“Fighting for the right of people to panhandle is not fighting to end homelessness,” Schewel said on Tuesday. “Giving someone a donation on the street might help them briefly, and it might help the giver feel better, but it does nothing to help that person get out of homelessness.”

On that front, “there are tremendous community efforts underway,” he continued. “Those are harder, longer tasks. They include getting people into treatment, and getting people into homes. That takes community will, and it takes money and it takes lots of people’s hard work.”

His comments signaled that there’s been no fundamental retreat, on the council’s part, from its preference for retaining the no-medians rule and addressing the problems of homeless panhandlers via an array of social services.

The pushback has come from groups like Open Table Ministries that argue Durham’s shelters and other services don’t necessarily fit the needs of people who rely on panhandling.

The no-medians rules went into effect in January and has produced a smattering of tickets and arrests. Precise numbers are difficult to pin down. A memo Tuesday from Police Chief Jose Lopez to City Manager Tom Bonfield said there have been 14 tickets and one arrest.

But the chief’s list didn’t include at least one case The Herald-Sun has reported on using arrest warrants on file at the Durham magistrate’s office. And Bonfield said he’d previously heard different, higher figures.

The Orange County program Schewel mentioned is similar to the drug, mental-health and domestic-violence courts Durham and other local jurisdictions have set up.

Organized by Jeff Nieman, Orange/Chatham assistant district attorney, Orange’s “outreach court” works with homeless people charged with low-level misdemeanors such as open-container violations or trespassing.

During sessions on Tuesday, lawyers and judges bring in representatives of an array of social-service agencies who can offer shelter, treatment or economic aid.

Defendants who join the program receive aid, the judge monitors their progress and authorities “forego actively prosecuting them in the traditional sense,” Nieman said.

Orange officials launched the effort without asking for extra money or staff and have worked with between 10 and 20 defendants in the past year. About half are people who’d been in court regularly for minor offenses, Nieman said.

Results-wise, “we have had a couple moderate successes of people who’ve gone from a position of homelessness to getting housing,” he said.

“A strong intangible [result] is having people who are used to either being ignored or despised by people in authority hopefully feel a very different thing,” Nieman said, adding that while the program may be the first of its kind in North Carolina, it’s modeled on precedents elsewhere in the country.

Scott Holmes, a lawyer who’s talked of challenging the city of Durham’s solicitation law, said Tuesday that he isn’t familiar with the Orange program but would like to learn more.

“I’m a big fan of diversion programs and ways the community can work with people without criminalizing them or stigmatizing them,” he said. “That’s a more healing way to deal with problems in our community.”

More generally, Holmes said it’s “really encouraging” that the council might be “willing to take another look” at the new ordinance. But he made it clear he still considers it far too restrictive.

“I think to give the folks the freedom to choose where they want to be would be a good way forward,” he said.