Action Update: Unequal Enforcement of Panhandling Law

Photo by Pilar Timpane

Last Friday, when we announced that eight local ministers would violate Durham’s anti-panhandling law because we believe it to be an unjust law, I wrote a personal note to Durham’s Police Chief. I told him what we intended to do and where and when we would do it. I assured him of our commitment to nonviolence. We simply wanted to receive a ticket, as so many whom we’ve accompanied to court have, so we might plead not guilty and challenge the law in a higher court.

First thing this morning, we started getting calls from guys who panhandle regularly. The police were showing extreme force, they told us, sending out ten patrol cars at 7:30am and ticketing everyone who was asking for help. Naturally, most of the regulars on that corner fled.

We we arrived at 5pm, however, there was no police presence. Patrol cars did not arrive for another thirty minutes. When they did come, officers handed us flyers explaining the very ordinance we were there to challenge. Then they got back in their cars and drove away.

Our problem now, it seems, is not only an unjust law, but unequal enforcement of it. Two men who panhandle to survive have gone to jail for what we did this evening. Over a dozen people we know have been ticketed. Nine hours before public attention was drawn to this particular intersection, a man was ticketed in the same place for doing the same thing.

But this evening Durham’s police decided that Ordinance 14375 is not a law worth enforcing.

Photo by Pilar Timpane

We agree, of course. But our Constitution requires equal protection under the law. And that is not what we witnessed today–even under a bad law.

So we ask you, as we asked every car that stopped to roll down their windows this evening, to please join us in doing one simple thing:

Write or call Durham’s City Council: or (919) 560­‐4166. Our message is simple: we do not believe it should be a crime to ask for help. Please repeal Ordinance #14375.

It’s Holy Week, and we are looking with Jesus toward the beloved community that we know Durham can and should be. Unfortunately, some of our most vulnerable neighbors are bearing the cross this week. But we cannot continue through this Passion Week without recalling the question of the old hymn: “Must Jesus bear his cross alone / and all the world go free? / No, there’s a cross for everyone, / and there’s a cross for me.”

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  • Anna
  • Concerned Durhamite

    A few quick thoughts: 1) I think the panhandling rule is intended for the safety of drivers and those individuals who were previously panhandling…the law does not outlaw panhandling altogether but doing so at intersections and along the street 2) Don’t quote me on this one, but I seem to remember that 501c3′s (non-profits) can get permission to raise funds on public property with the appropriate permit (location matters) 3) This “ordinance” is actually a state law which Durham had been ignoring for the past 7 years. Panhandling at intersections and along the street had actually been illegal in the rest of NC, and the state told Durham they were in violation of the state law 4) I don’t believe it is intended to outlaw getting help, and I question the merit of help that panhandling is actually providing…there is a reason we have things like the Durham Rescue Mission 5) I encourage Durhamites to join their PAC (Partner’s Against Crime) group for their neighborhood…you receive regular updates on these laws from your local police as well as notices of activity that is going on in your neighborhood.

    • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      Thank you for your concern. When we met with City Manager, the safety concerns were indeed the impetus for this new ordinance (though they did not mention any State pressure). We are not suggesting any malicious intent, but have reported to City what we’ve seen and heard after two months of going to court with people who’ve received citations. This law is further complicating their lives and jamming up our already over-crowded courts and jail.
      Homelessness is a complex issue. (I’ve lived with the homeless for ten years and am intimately aware of its complexity.) I’m grateful for many services (both public and private) in Durham that try to help people navigate the difficulties of poverty. Durham is a great place. Because it is, I believe we can change this bad law.

    • chuck

      Just so you know, Durham Rescue Mission is nothing but a ‘work camp’ disguised as a shelter…they make millions every year off the backs of people who make the mistake of seeking refuge there. You are essentially locked inside the property, forced to do their work and fund raising, as well as being forced to attend religious services whether you ‘believe’ or not. So, personal freedom nor religious freedom are recognized at this ‘institution’. Furthermore, if you are disabled, they will not allow you to stay there- I know, they refused me.

    • chuck

      I also need to add that Durhams` own rules stipulating ‘panhandling’ covered those working on medians, how many they could cross to receive a donation and that they could not ‘ask’ but just accept. Any harassment, beligerent behavior etc was not to be tolerated towards motorists or the general public and those doing so, should be reported and punished accordingly…it requires a safety vest, a license and adherance to the rules, which most abide….this change does not give the access they need to survive by limiting them to one way streets, the passenger side of the vehicle etc and it is next to impossible to find a street in Durham that meets that criteria that one can actually make any money. Is it against the law to ask for help??? It is okay for local politicians to go anywhere they please to ‘beg’ for contributions for their campaigns, but a poor person cannot ask for help??? Tell me that somewhere in your heart you have a glimmer of compassion?? What if this was your brother,sister,father? Would you simply pass them by? thumb your nose at them?? Most of these people are unable to work due to physical or mental disabilities, so giving them a newspaper with the classifieds is like giving you the keys to a jet fighter plane….it doesn`t help you and you couldn`t do it anyways.

  • Bill Grindstaff

    Kate and I will continue to pray for Jonathan and those that are making their best effort to help our needy brothers and sisters. I read the article and comments in the Durham Herald and some of them are terribly mean spirited. I think this issue is simple regardless of spiritual affiliation or belief; the economy is finite. We can’t all be CEOs, we can’t all even hold jobs that “pay a living wage”. I wish that those of us that have resources could recognize that we will never all have the same opportunities from the fruits of our labors. How can we be so calloused as to be unwilling to take from our surplus and share with those in need. What if that person were your father, mother, brother, sister – would you let them go hungry? Would you even deny them an enjoyable evening if they asked it of you? Should they be forced into a shelter or forced into cubby hole under an interstate overpass in order to try to stay warm and dry?
    Here’s an even bigger rub, we’ve just been talking about Durham, North Carolina, USA……..what about Haiti, Rio de Janeiro, Beijing, Singapore, Budapest, San Salvador, Bnei Brak, Huancavelica, Maha Sarakham, Lota………….these cities are all outside of our borders. There are starving children in these cities, starving children that will die today while we sip our Starbucks……… Again, it is simply not possible for ALL of us to have 6- or even 5-figure incomes. These simple facts make us ALL culpable for those that will die today.
    There are needs and needy all around us. Most of us that can read these words have enough to share. So, whether we are on a street corner, or in a forest, in a city, or in the desert, I wanna ask again – of you and of myself – “Mister, can you spare a dime?????????”

  • Jeff Lloyd

    I actively fought to push for stricter enforcement of panhandling laws where I live. They create an unsafe environment for drivers and pedestrians by blocks sidewalks and impeding traffic when they reach across the road to take money. The vast majority of panhandlers are professional scam artists and deserve to be arrested for creating safety concerns as well as being a major nuisance.

    • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      Jeff: I’ve heard the scam artist accusation a lot. But never from people who’ve taken the time to get to befriend these folks. I’ve lived with formerly homeless folks for ten years. I agree: they’re not perfect. But they’ll also tell you that I’m not either.

      If people want to ignore panhandlers, they’re always free to do so. But if we, as a society, push them out of sight and make their existence illegal, we’re not only hurting them. We’re hurting ourselves.

  • Matthew

    Would it be possible to calculate (on average) how many dollars and cents these folks stand to lose weekly as a result of the ordinance? If so … then an effort could be made through means that are in conjunction with the ordinance to raise the lost money for the panhandling men and women. Although I tend to agree with Jonathan that such an ordinance complicates the lives of people struggling with the complexities of poverty and homelessness, it is also possible that the city council did not pass this ordinance simply because they dislike the poor and marginalized on their streets — quite possibly is was in fact for safety reasons. As such, I think this solution meets everyone halfway.

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