Softening panhandling stance

Feb. 17, 2014 @ 07:27 AM
Durham’s long, complicated and sometimes tendentious debate over how to handle homeless roadside solicitors – “panhandlers” in the common idiom – is about to take another step.
The City Council tonight will consider and probably approve amendments to the roadside solicitation rules first adopted in December 2012. Those rules resulted from an effort to balance a bevy of concerns about panhandlers who had become common sights at high-profile locations such as interstate-highway off-ramps and busy intersections along, for example, U. 
S. 15-501.
Many concerns were well-meaning if at times in conflict. Solicitors on medians or aggressively approaching passing vehicles inspired fear for safety of solicitors and motorists alike.  The issue was and is embroiled in an on-going and serious debate over how society best serves those who, out of bad luck, mental health issues or economic setbacks find themselves begging for handouts along the highway. And less nobly but perhaps understandably, some critics worried about the effect on the city’s image of reflective-vest-clad, often disheveled individuals greeting visitors along gateway entrances.
Almost immediately, many who care deeply about the homeless community raised alarms that the rules were too restrictive, and argued we were threatening to jail people whose main offense had been trying to get money for a meal.
The upshot was a series of recommendations from the city’s Homeless Services Advisory Committee to soften the ordinance.
The changes the council will likely pass tonight incorporate some, but not all, of those recommendations. To have fully embraced the recommendations, City Manager Tom Bonfield wrote in a memo to council, “would have significantly modified the intent of the ordinance adopted earlier by City Council.”
The new version of the ordinance, as Bonfield summarized it to council:
-- “Removes restrictions limiting solicitation to one-way streets.
-- “Allows for invited solicitor interaction on two-way streets with either the driver or
passengers, from the passenger side windows, when the vehicle is stopped in the
lane closest to the side of the roadway.
-- “Allows for service animals to accompany authorized road side solicitors.
“The proposed ordinances were presented to homeless services representatives for review and received a generally favorable response,” Bonfield noted.
“Generally” may be the operative word. Carolyn Schuldt, for example, a critic of the ordinance posted on fellow critic Scott Holmes Facebook page that city officials “are just trying to wear us out,” The Herald-Sun’s Ray Gronberg reported.
But Holmes himself urged people to support the changes, even if they still “seem too restrictive.”
Unmentioned in the ordinance revisions are a recommendation of the advisory committee we continue to think has merit, and hope that the idea remains alive – to refer those charged with ordinance violations to Durham’s Community Life Court.
Councilman Don Moffitt, who like others on council have been sympathetic to the concerns raised, told Gronberg “I don’t think anybody’s thrilled with the outcome, which indicated to me it’s probably a reasonable compromise.”
Moffitt’s conclusion -- “generally speaking, it’s a good solution.”
We agree.