It’s 10 o’clock on a blustery Monday morning and Tammy Kobani has earned four of the $37 she needs to pay today’s motel bill. A man in a gray car honks, rolls down his window and places a folded dollar in her gloved hand.
“Thank you,” she says.
For the past three years, Kobani, 50, and her husband, John, 55, have manned two corners near downtown Durham: Roxboro Street and Jackie Robinson Drive, and the nearby intersection of Roxboro and Morehead Avenue. Both spots are well trafficked, as drivers head to and from the N.C. 147 access ramps.
Yet in the last week, Kobani says police have run her off the corner three times, as part of enforcing new restrictions in the city’s panhandling ordinance [see Chapter 54].
On Dec. 17, Durham City Council unanimously passed the changes. While the law has been tightened over the years to prohibit, for example, begging at the transit station, near banks and after dark, new rules banish even more forms of public solicitation. As a result, the homeless, working poor and undoubtedly some con artists have largely disappeared from Durham’s road medians and street corners.
While there may be legitimate public safety concerns associated with panhandlingincluding for the person asking for moneythe enforcement of the ordinance may be impractical. Ticketing, arresting, prosecuting and jailing panhandlers who cannot pay the $250 fine would tax an already stressed judicial system.
And for advocates of the homeless, the ordinance masks a great social problem facing Durham. “If we don’t see homeless people on the street, it should be because we’ve met their needs in a real way,” says Melissa Florer-Bixler of Raleigh Mennonite Church. She spoke Monday night at a vigil and church service for the homeless in the parking lot of Trinity United Methodist Church across from Durham City Hall. “Not because we’ve made them invisible.”
Among other prohibitions, the confusing new restrictions make it illegal for people in a “solicitation-restricted right-of-way” to use “speech,” “sounds,” “signals” or “motions” to request occupants of a motor vehicle “to deliver any tangible thing.”
Panhandlers must stand on a paved sidewalk away from bridges, or on streets leading to or from bridges. That makes Kobani’s cornera dirt area near an N.C. 147 overpassapparently off-limits, although she says police have told her conflicting information. Panhandlers can accept “a tangible thing” only from a passenger, only when the car is stopped at a light or sign on a one-way street and only if the car is in the lane closest to the edge of the road.
City police say they have notified panhandlers of the new rules. Violators can be ticketed, fined, required to go to court and possibly jailedat an average cost to the county of $98 per day to house an inmate in Durham County Detention Center.
“They can’t get blood out of a rock,” says John Kobani, who has liver disease and is often too sick to work his corner. (That corner at Roxboro and Morehead was the turf of Willie Davis, a popular homeless man who, in 2008, was murdered about a half-mile away.)
INDY Week asked Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez if ticketing panhandlers is a departmental priority, compared with pursuing more violent crimes. “I don’t make a list of what’s important. It’s all a priority,” he replied. “The ordinance is there and we’re going to enforce it.”
Councilwoman Diane Catotti says the ordinance is a compromise. “We didn’t ban soliciting outright. For public safety reasons we wanted to move people off the medians in the roadways.”
“This is a heartbreaking situation for what it does to individuals who depend on it for their lives,” counters the Rev. Carolyn Schuldt, chaplain and executive director of Open Table Ministry, which advocates for the homeless. “It’s unjust to jail them for being poor.”
Under the light of the streetlamps, Schuldt, several other members of the faith community, homeless advocates and the homeless themselves gathered before Monday’s city council meeting in protest of the ordinance. Ministers prayed and read Bible verses near a makeshift altar. A homeless man, Timothy, put a coat on his dog, Reeses, who waved his tail at passersby. Kimberley Moore, wearing the reflective vest required of people soliciting on the roadways, was accompanied by her service dog, Shadow. She told the crowd: “I said I would never hold a sign. And then my sister-in-law said, ‘Put your pride aside.’”
Moore says she worked in construction for 13 years before she developed nerve damage in her neck. She has been panhandling for three years, usually at U.S. 15-501 and Mt. Moriah Road, near the Durham/Orange county line. There, she says, police recently told her to move to 15-501 and I-40, where she was ousted again.
“What the corner does is help us live, to buy our meals, to buy dog food,” she says. “I’m not walking up to you. It’s your choice.”
The group moved out of the cold and inside City Council Chambers, where, during the meeting, they sat silently and held small paper signs protesting the ordinance. Meanwhile, the council approved a $270,000 grant to the nonprofit group Housing for New Hope, to help fund a rapid re-housing program for the homeless. And in his annual State of the City address, Mayor Bill Bell noted, “unemployment is down, crime index is down, housing sales are up, new development is up. Residents feel good about their city.”
But some residents are not feeling good about Durham’s upswing. Kobani, a mother of twoher children live with friends as part of a court orderbecame homeless after her mother died. Without a permanent address, she can’t get a job. On the street, though, she can make as much as $70 a day, which, depending on the number of hours, is equivalent to minimum wage. (However, Kobani says she has rejected money from people who “offered me $100 to do this and that.”)
Yet if traffic is slow or she gets shooed from the corner, Kobani can’t earn enough for a motel room. Instead, she and John spend the night in an unheated tent in the woods.
On this Monday morning, she takes her spot on a dirt patch dotted with four pinwheelsa gift from John, who found them in a dumpster. Cars pass and she stands quietly with her sign: “Homeless, please help. If not, God bless.”
“I’m breaking the law right now,” she says.
Additional reporting by intern Elizabeth Van Brocklin.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Painted into a corner.”