Decriminalizing panhandling

Jun. 24, 2013 @ 05:40 PM

Durham continues to struggle with the seemingly intractable issue of homelessness, and its sometimes controversial public face of panhandling at major intersections and highway interchanges.

But it’s good news, and typically Durham, that we continue to struggle. Most people wrangling this issue understand that it is complex, and that there is no single answer.

The panhandling issue, especially, has proven thorny. Many people have been troubled by the sight of down-and-out folks approaching stopped or slowing cars, hand-lettered signs often in hand, and seeking a hand-out. They see danger to solicitors and solicited alike.

Others rightly point out that enabling a panhandler’s survival technique may in fact inhibit him or her from seeking more substantive long-term help and getting off the streets altogether.

Now, after several months and some arrests for intersection panhandling, and vehement objections from some homeless-advocacy groups, yet another compromise may be in the works.

The Homeless Services Advisory Committee is poised to recommend changes that would roll back the most restrictive parts of the ordinance.  A study group of that committee is prepared to urge the full committee that “panhandling be allowed and it be decriminalized in Durham,” study group chair John Bowman told The Herald-Sun’s Ray Gronberg last week.

The  study group, and the committee, are likely to suggest an “outreach court” similar to one in Orange County that would help homeless people accused of minor offenses get social services rather than fines or jail time. We’ve advocated that change before, and are encouraged it may be near.

It’s not yet clear how extensive the committee’s recommendations will be – or how the will be fielded by the City Council. But on decriminalization, at least, one council member who supported the ban has been publicly supportive.

Councilman Steve Schewel this spring suggested that in enforcing the ban, officials should look for “alternatives to taking people to jail.” At the same time, he underscored his support of one goal of the ordinance – encouraging homeless to seek longer-term help.

There are many details to hammer out. A draft ordinance under consideration by the homelessness study group would virtually overturn the earlier ban, allowing people to approach a vehicle while standing on a “public street/roadway corner or access ramp for the purpose of soliciting employment, business or contributions.”

We suspect many advocates of the original ban may not want to go that far.

But the group clearly is following Schewel’s admonition in April for ordinance critics to work with the city to seek a middle ground.

At the very least, diverting panhandlers from the courts and into social services would be a profound improvement over the present situation.