Sporting matching outfits down to their blue sandals with neon laces, Lesean and Deshawn sleep in their stroller as their mother looks on with concern etched in her eyes. Everyone is exhausted after a trip that morning to the emergency room for the 10-month-old twins.
When their sons spiked fevers during the night, Michele Fields and her husband, Winfred Rogers, who are homeless, took them to Duke Hospital. They found out it wasn’t too serious, likely a virus or cold.
Standing with her sign on Durham medians, Fields used to ask for money for the family to sleep at a Red Roof Inn. Now they stay with Durham Interfaith Hospitality Network (DIHN), a nonprofit that connects homeless families with local congregations that provide overnight shelter and food. The organization also provides assistance finding permanent housing, medical care and jobs.
“I haven’t always been like thisbeing out there soliciting like this. But what would you do if you were in this situation, where there are no jobs?” she asks. “Just because I’m out there doesn’t make me a bad person. I’m just a person going through a struggle and I have to support my family.”
And with the City of Durham’s revised panhandling ordinance, Fields had been breaking the law. Since the city’s ordinance on solicitation changed in January, it’s illegal to solicit from medians. The ordinance prohibits “standing, sitting or walking” on a median. Fields said police have warned her to leave the median, but she kept returning.
“If I’m not capable of finding a job right now, if this is the closest thing for me to legally get money, then I’ll do it. Regardless of the consequences,” she said.
The 24-member Durham Homeless Services Advisory Committee, which advises the city council and county commissioners, is submitting recommendations to relax the panhandling restrictions. The committee includes appointed members of city and county government, and from education, veterans, faith, law enforcement and health care sectors.
Besides median restrictions, the city ordinance allows solicitation only on a paved sidewalk by the traffic lane closest to the edge of streets with a speed limit of less than 35 miles per hour. People can solicit only from a passenger on the right side of a vehicle, and solicitation cannot occur on access ramps or within 100 feet of bridges.
The committee suggested amending the ordinance to permit solicitation from drivers and from access ramps.
The Rev. Carolyn Schuldt is executive director of Open Table Ministry, which advocates for the homeless and building relationships in the community. She recently met Fields and her family and connected them to resources at DIHN.
Schuldt says the city ordinance eliminates the main source of income for the homeless. “But even more than that, it’s important to the community because without allowing them to be visible, they are forgotten,” she said. “And that just can’t be.”
On a front porch in Durham, Billy Barnhill carefully folds the creases of a worn piece of paper. “I’d like to see it go back like it was,” said Barnhill, who has been cited three times for violating the ordinance. “Back to old rules.” He’s holding the old rules, the ones with fewer restrictions.
“It’s a waste of taxpayers’ money to lock someone up for holding a piece of cardboard,” Barnhill exclaims. “It’s a waste of money to put me in jail. It’s ludicrous.”
Barnhill has been staying at Just A Clean House, a center for recovering addicts and alcoholics, since he broke his leg earlier this year. After weeks in the hospital and four surgeries later, about half of the muscle in his lower leg is gone. He used to live in the woods behind the Home Depot and said he injured his leg falling over a stump while he was drunk. Unless he can get on disability, he says he’ll have to panhandle.
“Ninety percent of the people that give money get to know the person because they see them every day,” Barnhill said. “Because they have probably been in this situation or know someone who has, and they have the money to spare.”
To address the broader issue of poverty in Durham, the Homeless Services Advisory Committee has also recommended the city adopt a Citizens Partnership Group of community resources to assist those panhandling and the police officers interacting with them.
“We are a community, and there is room in Durham, and there are sufficient resources for everyone,” Schuldt says. “Because a man standing on the street corner is not going to take anything away from someone who is not willing to give it. But it does give them an opportunity to share, and to share community.”