Magazine article The Christian Century

No Place for Alms: A Curb on Panhandling

Magazine article The Christian Century

No Place for Alms: A Curb on Panhandling

Article excerpt

AS SHE PREPARED to plant herself in the middle of an eight-lane highway in Durham, North Carolina, Episcopal priest Rhonda Lee was scared. Not because she was about to spend an hour asking strangers for money, but because the cars beside her were moving fast. It was a windy day in March, with temperatures near freezing, and the vehicles whizzing by only made it worse.

Lee picked her spot and hustled over to the median, a concrete bump between two-way traffic. Homeless men and women often spend their days there begging for spare change. A new law in Durham makes standing in the median illegal, and Lee was there to protest the measure. Proponents say the law's purpose is safety Critics claim that the law, which forces panhandlers to the passenger side of the road, reduces their ability to receive charity and effectively criminalizes solicitation.

"As a clergyperson I am also dependent upon alms for my income," said Lee, one of six pastors who engaged in civil disobedience that evening. The least she could do, she thought, was to break the new law to try and bring attention to her neighbors' plight. The pastors were joined by some 40 others, including a few of the regular panhandlers.

Ordinance 14375, which went into effect in January, prohibits sitting, standing or walking on medians as well as being on an access ramp. The city council was concerned that panhandlers were distracting drivers and leaving litter at major gateways into the city.

"The position we took was actually a compromise position," Councilman Eugene Brown said at a meeting in February. Some council members favored banning roadside solicitation entirely. Brown added that the "city is committed to working with those who need assistance."

Laws that restrict panhandling have been on the rise amid the recent economic recession. In a 2011 survey of 234 U.S. cities, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found more than half had passed legislation aimed at addressing panhandling. From Tampa, Florida, to Berkeley, California, churches have fought the restrictions. Last fall, congregations joined students at Cal-Berkeley to fight a proposal that would have made it illegal to sit or lie on a business district sidewalk between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. Voters eventually rejected that proposal. Last year in Philadelphia, churches fought to overturn a new law banning the practice of feeding the homeless in city parks.

Open Table Ministry, an antipoverty group in Durham, has been one of the most vocal opponents against the ordinance. It started a petition to gather support. "By pushing solicitors out of sight, the aforementioned ordinance severely limits valuable members of our community in their attempt to gain necessary means of survival," the petition reads. "This ordinance further isolates those who are already marginalized and struggling, making them all but invisible to the public eye. Disregarding, perpetuating, and ignoring poverty is not an acceptable way to build up our community."

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, founder of Rutba House and associate minister of St. Johns Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, has helped organize alongside Lee and Open Table Ministry. On his website he referred to the homeless in Durham as "our neighbors, our children, our veterans, our friends. In truth, the homeless are us. Only, their human vulnerability has been publicly exposed. When they stand on our roadways to ask for help, they are inviting all of us to consider what kind of community we want to be."

Many ministers in Durham have mixed feelings about the law. …

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