In defeat, protest, or a bit of both, a group of advocates walked out of a Durham City Council work session Thursday after the Council dismissed their concerns about the restrictive new panhandling ordinance.
Just minutes earlier, the Rev. Carolyn Schuldt had arrived at City Hall enthused to represent Durham’s homeless, joined by 10 others from the faith community. She hoped to convince council members to repeal the ordinance, which prohibits panhandlers from posting at the city’s most profitable spots.
The law, Schuldt told council members, “directly impacts the survival of a very vulnerable population by making them more dependent on government support as it is no longer possible for them to support themselves.”
Before Schuldt could reach the crux of her argument, the Council cut her off. Flustered, she distributed copies of a petition for repeal (signed by 437 local people) to council members, and then took her seat in the audience.
In his response, Councilman Eugene Brown expressed offense, saying that he resented the group’s “insinuation” that the city doesn’t care about the homeless. He addressed the advocates regarding their silent protest at the City Council meeting earlier this week.
“The implication by holding up the signs is that Durham is a city that has turned its back on the homeless population,” Brown said. “And that is simply not true. We are working to do what we can to meet this challenge.”
At that City Council meeting, Mayor Bell cited several programs and initiatives that are working to help Durham’s poor, as several homeless people sat in the audience.
Are the homeless failing to take advantage of these services, or are they not meeting the criteria? Schuldt’s point is that many homeless suffer from physical and mental illness, alcoholism and drug addiction, so are considered too “at-risk” to be eligible for such programs.
Panhandling is their last resort. “It is very humiliating, frustrating, demeaning work, done out of necessity by those with no available alternative,” Schuldt said.
For now, the ordinance appears to be in place. Councilman Brown reiterated that the ordinance was prompted by safety concerns, as well as citizens’ complaints. He said the Council’s position is actually a compromise, and less restrictive compared to rules in Chapel Hill, where begging is disallowed on public streets entirely.
As the Mayor concurred with Brown’s response, the advocates filed out of the room. They gathered in the hallway, murmuring with disappointment. “I was supposed to have five minutes,” said Schuldt, momentarily downcast.
She plans to attend next week’s work session to respond to Brown. “This is not the end. God is in our midst.”
Her nonprofit, Open Table Ministry, will hold a Winter Walk on behalf of Durham’s homeless population on Feb. 16 at 1 p.m. The four-mile walk on the American Tobacco Trail will begin at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
Pastor Rich Goodier of Mt. Hermon Baptist Church in Durham was among those in favor of repeal at the work session. “I hope that they will reconsider,” said Goodier. “They need to think about how to fight poverty, not fight the poor.”