Editorial: Jail's no answer for panhandlers

Apr. 06, 2013 @ 12:34 PM

It's a promising sign that at least one member of Durham's City Council may want to moderate the panhandling ordinance.

Trying to drive the homeless and destitute farther from view so that we don't have to think about them is bad enough. But criminalizing their efforts, throwing them in jail for asking for help from a median rather than a sidewalk, seems too much like adding insult injury.

In the pages of The Herald-Sun last month, we had at least one Police Beat round-up that included a panhandler jailed in the mix with burglars, rapists, pet shooters and convicted murderers. William Russell Elliott, 54, found himself in the Durham County Jail because he asked for money from passing motorists at the side of the exit ramp of Interstate 40 onto Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard. Police said he didn't wear a reflective vest. The ramp lacked a sidewalk. So, they arrested Elliott and held him under $500 bond.

We can't blame police offers for doing their job in this case. They're just enforcing the law. However, Elliott's criminal background includes convictions for burglary, robbery, prison escape, cocaine trafficking and embezzlement. Should the city punish people like this for seeking assistance through peaceful means? Or does that just encourage falling back on criminal behavior?

Groups such as Open Table Ministries have argued for a repeal of the panhandling ordinance, which was just approved last year. Protesters have waved signs declaring it shouldn't be a crime to ask for help.

"Fighting for the right of people to panhandle is not fighting to end homelessness," Councilman Steve Schewel said. "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 homeless."

The Herald-Sun's Ray Gronberg reported last week that although Schewel isn't ready to ditch the ordinance, he would prefer for officials enforcing it to find "alternatives to taking people to jail."

He didn't have to look any farther than neighboring Orange County's court-based intervention program for inspiration. The outreach court involves judges and lawyers bringing in social service workers to help the homeless find shelter, treatment or economic aid.

"A strong intangible [result] is having people who are used to either being ignored or despised by people in authority hopefully feel a different thing," said Jeff Neiman, an Orange assistant district attorney who organized the outreach court program.

We think Schewel's on the right track and we hope the city can work with Open Table and other compassionate organizations to find a middle ground that helps panhandlers find their way back to productivity and full employment rather than into our jails.