Justice not blind to homeless’ plight

Oct. 30, 2013 @ 06:00 PM

Durham’s long, anxious introspection on how to deal with panhandlers continued this week with about a dozen people charged with illegal begging appearing in court on charges of violating the city’s year-old, more restrictive law on street-corner soliciting.

Appropriately, they found a courtroom empathetic to their situation and intent on seeing them as people in need of help rather than punishment.

The city has been wrestling for more than a year – for years, really – with the dilemma of how to deal with panhandlers. While far from unique to Durham, our city’s panhandlers for a variety of reasons and past decisions have occupied an especially visible place on the city landscape. 

Outfitted with orange safety vests and standing at some of the city’s busiest intersections and interchanges, they have raised concerns about safety – theirs and motorists whom they approach.  Some officials and residents have worried the image they project at major, heavily traveled gateways reflects poorly on our city and may leave some motorists frightened.

Others, more empathetic to the plight of the panhandlers, still want to stop passers-by from handing them bills or coins. Such largesse may, they argue, actually discourage the panhandlers from seeking help that gets at the root of the issues that put them on the corners to begin with, help that offers a longer-term solution than simply the wherewithal for another meal or two.

The upshot last January was a stiffer city ordinance that restricted panhandlers to sidewalks -- barring them from medians or roadways with no sidewalks such as U. S. 15-501 at I-40, long a popular spot.  In Judge Marcia Morey’s courtroom, the emphasis was on channeling the defendants toward help, not in punishing them.

As The Herald-Sun’s Keith Upchurch described the scene, “service providers from legal aid, social services, a homeless clinic and others lined up in court to offer help to those who were cited and arrested.” 

Most cases were postponed until Dec. 18 – presumably until the City Council moves, as expected, to approve recommendations of an advisory committee to ease restrictions and move to “decriminalize” panhandling.

John Kobani, one defendant, summed up the situation from the panhandlers’ point of view. “I had a sign and wasn’t bothering anybody” when a police officer ticketed him, he said. “How am I going to pay a $250 ticket when I’m there trying to eat?”

If the ordinance is relaxed, attorney Scott Holmes, who represents many of the panhandlers, expects to ask that all 70 charges be dropped.

The courtroom scene Tuesday clearly reflected Durham’s best nature, and the postponement opens the way to move toward a more comprehensive, less punitive approach to dealing with our panhandlers.

We’ve endorsed that approach before, and are pleased it seems to be moving closer to reality.