Spare some compassion

Aug. 22, 2013 @ 06:17 PM

Despite fairly stringent regulations that went into effect in Durham earlier this year, panhandlers seeking help from motorists stopped at major city intersections are still very much in evidence.

A new ordinance may have banned them from medians and exit ramps at interchanges such as I-40 and Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard, but they still haunt the corners there and at other busy spots. Some risk arrest by pushing past the boundaries set by the new law.

We suspect their continued presence indicates this is a situation where regulation may be trying futilely to hold back a tide of need. We can – and should – debate whether giving a dollar bill or two or pocket change to panhandlers truly helps them combat the demons, often mental illness, substance abuse or both -- that put them on the streets in the first place.

But until we effectively deal with those issues – and a number of well-intentioned people and organizations are trying to do just that, often with far too few resources – there will be people who feel their only hope for subsistence is holding out their buckets or their hands to passing motorists.

Beyond its practical challenges, the law has prompted many to protest, with good reason, that it criminalizes poverty. Should we be sending someone to jail for seeking a few bucks for his or her next meal?

Those objections have coalesced, after months of healthy discussion, into a compromise proposal from the Homeless Services Advisory Committee, a group that might have weighed in had it been given an opportunity before the City Council adopted the new ordinance late last year.

The committee would still bar “aggressive panhandling,” as it should. Overly intrusive panhandlers can distract or frighten motorists momentarily trapped by a red light, and panhandlers stepping toward moving vehicles or walking heedlessly through traffic can endanger themselves and drivers.

The proposal would continue the ban on working from the medians, another high-risk perch.

But a panhandler could approach a vehicle stopped at a traffic signal or a stop sign, providing there was evidence the motorist had invited the approach. While that’s a bit difficult to define, a nod, eye contact or similar sign – one imagines an overt “come on over” wave of the hand would certainly be clear – would constitute an OK for the approach.

The committee also recommends people accused of panhandling violations be handled not through the criminal court system but through a new “community life court,” as now happens in Orange County.  The goal would be to channel the offender not toward jail but rather toward social services that would tackle the root causes of the roadside soliciting.

The recommendations will go to the City Council and to the County Commissioners, who years ago adopted even more stringent restrictions even though the vast majority of panhandling occurs within the city limits.

We would urge both groups to follow the committee’s call for a more compassionate response to panhandling.