Becoming the City We Want to Be

Back in March of this year, The Everyday Awakening covered the faith-based organizing efforts of churches and community groups in Durham, North Carolina who were concerned about a new anti-panhandling law that had landed dozens of beggars in court and three in jail. For a brief refresher on the story, here’s a clip from local TV news.

Following our public action, members of city council asked to meet with the ministers and service providers who had organized the public meeting and direct action against the new ordinance. With exemplary humility, they listened to our concerns. They said what politicians are too often reticent to say. “We made a mistake. We need your help to fix it.”

So, for the past three months, we have been engaged in the quiet and difficult work of research and revision.

Though everyone could wish that this process were faster, the process itself has been a gift. We’ve had a chance to meet the people who had legitimate safety concerns and hear what they need to feel like Durham’s streets are safe. (Many of these people, it turns out, are also concerned about our vulnerable neighbors who end up begging on the streets.) What’s more, we’ve had a chance to meet the lawyers, business people, social workers and city employees who are willing to come together after normal work hours to find a solution to our shared problems.

After three months, we have a revision to the ordinance that both addresses safety concerns and de-criminalizes begging.

But that is not all. We also have recommendations for new police training to better address folks dealing with mental health issues. We have a suggested plan for how police could work more closely with community partners who know and care about people on the streets. And we have a plan for a Community Outreach Court where nonviolent crimes that often land homeless people in jail can be diverted to address the real needs of people who are crying out for help.

When we were able to come together around a common table, these were all things that people of good will in Durham could agree on. What’s more, we got to know some wonderful neighbors in the process.

So, have we become the beloved community where all of us want to live and move and have our being? Not yet. But we have learned something, I think, about how we get there. And we have seen that, along the way, there are real gifts to celebrate.

For those of you who live in Durham, I want to invite you to our first celebration. On next Wednesday, June 26th, Durham’s Homelessness Services Advisory Committee (HSAC) will meet at City Hall at 3pm. They have a lot on their agenda, but if you could be there for the first 15 minutes, we’re going to thank the members of HSAC who’ve worked hard on this new plan and let the other members of the committee know that the plan has our full support.

After the revision is approved by HSAC, it will be scheduled for a vote at Durham’s City Council Meeting. Stay tuned for an update about how you can let our Council members know how grateful you are for this change–and an invitation to the celebration in their chambers.

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