Durham CAN

It has been brought to my attention that what I have written about politicians in this summer’s Sunday school quarterly could leave some folks with the impression that I don’t believe it is possible for elected officials to act in the public interest.

I could make the excuse that Amos and Micah both are occupied with oracles against the leaders of Judah and Israel. However, their own words are not intended to be a condemnation of any who would govern. Instead, they objected to how these leaders governed. I had not by any means meant to suggest that “politician” and “public servant” are necessarily mutually exclusive terms. Neither do Amos and Micah seem to support the idea that those who would lead are necessarily unjust and self-serving.

So in the midst of the more readily found stories of malfeasance, I would like to share a hopeful example of what community leadership can be: Durham CAN. (“Congregations, Associations, and Neighborhoods.”)

Last night, my husband joined folks from all over Durham for a meeting convened by Durham CAN. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss plans to make Durham a better place for everyone. Not vague plans, but concrete policy suggestions – specific proposals for affordable housing (including proposed building sites and blueprints), specific proposals for fair paying jobs, and specific proposals for improving police-community relations. Government officials came to the meeting, having already been briefed by Durham CAN (so that they wouldn’t be blind-sided by any of the proposals). They came prepared to share their own commitments with the assembled body. Among those who spoke were Bill Bell (the mayor), Ellen Reckhow (a County Supervisor) and Steve Schewel and Cora Cole-McFadden (members of the City Council.)

My husband came home from the meeting feeling glad that we live in Durham, and feeling actually excited about certain of our elected officials. Excited on the level of, “I can’t wait to vote for that person again. They really do care about _____.”

There are some politicians who do indeed work for “justice for all.” Some of them do it once in awhile, some of them do it more often than not. Praise God! Let us pray that there would be even more of them.

Poverty under wraps

There are so many ways to become homeless.

For instance, when a young man was preparing to be released from jail (for a non-violent, non-drug related crime, incidentally), he had to figure out where he was going to live. His brother invited him to come stay with him. What my friend did not realize was that his brother was living with 3 other roommates – and almost all of them were abusing drugs. Not the sort of situation you want to be in at any time, but especially not when you are on probation. In a city he was unfamiliar with, not yet having a job, with very little savings, and a criminal record that he had to report on any rental application, he was not going to find an apartment overnight. He decided that the shelter was a better option than living with his brother or living in the woods, so he got a bed in the shelter, and people who worked there were able to help him get an apartment and apply for veteran’s benefits to go back to school.

For instance, when a chemical engineer was laid off, she had trouble finding a new job, and lived for awhile off of her savings. Just after her COBRA benefits expired, her husband, who had always done the finances for the family, had an expensive hospitalization followed by a lengthy convalescence, and lost his job as well. The mortgage went unpaid for a couple of months, and the house was foreclosed on. Because it was summer time, they decided that the best way to preserve their meager savings in case they had still had not found jobs before the days grew colder was for themselves and their two teenage daughters to camp in park campgrounds. They would stay until they reached the limit of allowable days (usually a week or two), and then pack the tent into their station wagon, and drive to the next park, all the while interviewing for jobs.

For instance, when a growing season ended and the fields were picked over, a family of farmworkers left the leaky roofed shack with no electricity and no plumbing that was “included!” in their wages, and crowded into a van with another family, hoping to find work further north working other fields, picking other crops, living in another featureless lean-to. They hoped that they would not be stopped, because no one in the car had a driver’s license. They had crossed the border looking for jobs that were better then what they could find in Mexico – but which paid less than is legal to pay citizens of the United States.

For instance, when a young woman who had been treated unsuccessfully for depression for many years was overcome by her illness, she stopped going to work, then stopped eating, and finally stopped getting out of bed. She was evicted from her apartment, and found herself living in a car until a family friend discovered her situation and invited her to live with their family. She went from car to house, but it was not her home – insofar as she was now subject to the rules and rhythms of a household very different from the one she had grown up in. The chipper insistence of the well-meaning couple with little understanding of mental illness that she “look on the bright side!!” was oppressive. But the only alternatives she could think of were suicide or a return to her car. Until, finally one day, she didn’t understand how, she found she had the strength to apply for a job bagging groceries. Getting out of the house, meeting new people, and receiving a paycheck, she accepted a new friend’s offer of a ride to the county mental health clinic. There she was put on a medication that she hadn’t tried before. Maybe it would work this time.

For instance, when an eager young college graduate moved to a city he had long dreamed of living in, he soon discovered that the cost of living there was impossibly high. Working two 30-hour a week jobs was not enough to prevent him from illegally sharing a studio apartment with 12 other people. When that became unsustainable, he moved into a friend’s car. Too ashamed of his “failure” to confess the truth, his weekly phone calls to his parents from a public phone were filled with tales of how he was enjoying life in the big city. One day, he saw a young couple he assumed to be tourists, who had just walked out of the Ben & Jerry’s in a chic shopping district. Frustration overcame him, and he followed them down the street chanting, “I wish I could have an ice cream cone, but I can’t! I’m too poor for an ice cream cone. Nobody’s buying me any ice cream cones!” He couldn’t have known that they, too, had just moved to the city in great hopefulness, only to have spent three weeks living in a run-down residential hotel, unable to afford an apartment. This outing had been something that they had looked forward to for more than a week.

There are many more ways of becoming homeless – losing one’s home in a natural disaster, addiction, schizophrenia, PTSD, fleeing an abusive relationship, being kicked out of the house because of being an abuser oneself… and so much more.

And there are many more people who are poor without being homeless. There are the working poor and the elderly poor and the disabled poor… the not good enough English poor and the not white enough skin poor… the raised with low expectations poor and the raised with unreasonable expectations poor… the rural poor and the urban poor… poor single moms and poor single dads, and poor grandparents raising grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

I wonder: does roadside begging make all of this poverty any more visible to anyone?

If we wish to urge the City of Durham not to hide poverty, perhaps we ought to shut down 147 for a week, and route all the traffic through East Durham.

Nonetheless, so long as panhandlers are not actively obstructing traffic – so long as they do not walk into the street, nor stop cars at green lights, I increasingly fail to see the argument for banning roadside panhandling – morally, it is a justice issue; legally, it is a free speech issue. On public property, aren’t we allowed to say nearly anything? Even if it is, “Can you spare $2 for ‘bus fare’?”

Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether or not we ought to give money to those who ask for it, it seems we must let them ask.

Drive-by charity

UPDATE: Thanks to Jessica Andrews, I have now had the opportunity to read the ordinance on roadside solicitation. It very nearly outlaws roadside solicitation altogether. This means that the Herald-Sun article was sadly misleading – possibly even outright inaccurate. Although I wish that the change.org petition itself had some salient facts about this legislation in the header, so that people could be more informed before signing, I have decided to sign it. Durham is not Richmond, and there are sadly few opportunities for pedestrian encounters between the homeless population of Durham and those who have more resources.
Though I continue to believe (as laid out below) that begging at its best should be a community building activity, it does not follow that those who have no option but to beg should be denied any means to an income simply because urban sprawl renders only roadside begging feasible.
In politics, this would be called flip-flopping. But as a Christian, I have other categories that affirm that it is a virtue to change my mind when love compels me.

THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE:

I grew up outside of Washington, D.C. – so when it comes to thinking about homelessness, I am a city girl. When I was old enough to go on excursions into the city on my own or with friends, I would pack a number of sandwiches and some fruit, and allow plenty of time for conversation with panhandlers on the sidewalks between the Metro station and wherever it was I was going.

Later, when I went to college in Richmond, Virginia, I encountered homeless and generally vagrant people regularly, as I walked to class or to the grocery store or to the post office. A smoker at the time, most often I would share a cigarette with someone I ran into on the sidewalk, and we would talk about the poor mental health facilities in the city or the Vietnam War or blues harmonica or whatever else was most on their mind before shaking hands or hugging, and continuing on our respective ways. I was late to class more often than I was on time.

So I have to admit, I am not a big fan of roadside solicitation. No one learns anything about each other (except, I guess, some handful of dense car owners who discover that poor people actually exist – though these individuals are usually sufficiently dense to rationalize that said panhandlers are not actually poor.) Community is not built. Connections are not made. Physical contact is absent. It is a fast transaction: I can assuage my guilt about my advantages by holding a dollar bill out the window. Or I can ignore the person who is standing there looking at me, on the other side of the glass, feeling hopeless.

More than once, I have seen a man or woman separated from the side of the road by a lane of traffic when the light turned green. Literally in the path of cars coming off the highway. And I have been angry that there are so few interfaces between people of different classes on foot that roadside begging has seemingly become the only solution.

I follow Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove on Twitter, and today he tweeted: “pls join us in challenging Durham’s anti-begging ordinance.” I was running errands all day, and didn’t have time to click through to the change.org petition and read more, but I was concerned – an anti-begging ordinance!? How awful! Later on Facebook, his status read in part, “Our fair city has decided to make it illegal to be a beggar in Durham’s chief shopping districts. No one wants to be reminded of someone else’s need when they’re on their way to buy a plasma screen TV or a new pair of jeans.” He included a link to a blog entry he had written for Patheos on the subject – and I bookmarked it for later, and headed off for lunch with a friend.

As I was driving to Saladelia, I remembered the times that I have been stopped in that parking lot (near a bus stop) and asked for money, and how that has led to conversations. I even ran into a friend from church that way one night – it was dark and he didn’t recognize me at first, but then we hugged and caught up with one another. I remembered how few those interactions have been over all since moving to Durham – what a sprawly city we are. I thought about how many people simply hop in their cars to get from one place to another, and never run into one another on the streets. I thought about the connections I used to make in Richmond, and thought that the begging problem in Durham was a complex one, created by the very existence of places like Southpoint mall (or, as a theologian friend of mine would have it, “The Death Star”), that have total control over their parking lots and fake streets. I wondered if the only choices were roadside begging or no begging at all.

And I longed for some of my old smoking buddies from Richmond.

After lunch, I hurried to my first errand, and there, in front of the store at the strip mall, next to the long line of clearance baskets, was a man leaning up against the wall with unkempt facial hair and a very heavy army surplus coat and a knit stocking cap. He was next to several shopping carts. All of them were empty but the one his hand was resting on – that one held a duffle bag and sundries.

It was the opportunity I had prayed for, in a way, but he was a person, not my personal answer to prayer. I didn’t want to just walk up like I had a right, but I didn’t want to ignore him either. I didn’t know what to do, exactly. I couldn’t remember. Or I’m richer now, more distanced. Either way, I was embarrassed about my ineptitude. I started at the clearance baskets farthest to him, and found a number of interesting items, and as I came closer to him with my hands comically full of stuff, I said to him sheepishly, “Guess I ought to have taken a cart after all!”

He pushed one of the empty ones towards me, saying, “I think this is one of theirs – why don’t you take this one?” And we began talking about — everything.

I remembered as I talked to him one of the great things about talking to homeless people: being reminded that they are people. Each person is different, but I have yet to meet a homeless person who is from central casting. Like any other person, this man was not magically wise, but he did have some wise things to say. He was not entirely insane, but he did have some unreasonable expectations and overwrought fears. He hadn’t given up on life, but he had hopes and dreams, along with a recognition of how he had sabotaged them at times. He wasn’t completely ignorant, but he did have one or two appalling prejudices and gross misconceptions. He wasn’t an absolute fountain of wit, but he had a good line now and then. (I especially liked this one: “I suppose if I win the lottery, then I’ll become a Republican.”) He was a mixed bag – like any of us. And like any of us, the conversation we shared was a conversation that neither of us could have had with anyone else. Two children of God, known intimately and intimately loved, enjoying one another’s company.

As it happens often in these types of situations, he didn’t ask for money until we’d been talking more than 5 minutes, and we kept talking for many more minutes after I had given him some. More than 45 minutes, actually. It was the first time in years that I experienced the realization that I was going to have to be the one to bring the conversation to a close, because he really had nowhere else to be and nothing else to do. Though, practically speaking, he needed to cut me loose in order to have any hopes of collecting any more money that day. We exchanged names, and shook hands, and promised to pray for one another.

I thought about Jonathan’s Facebook status. Would I see this gentleman in that strip mall again? Or would the ordinance make such meetings impossible?

Finally, after getting Hannah in bed tonight, I had the chance to check out Jonathan’s blog post about the City or Durham’s anti-begging ordinance. It included an excerpt from an article in the local paper that seemed to suggest that what had actually been outlawed was panhandling in medians. Huh. So I clicked through to the article itself, and discovered a few items of interest:

  • Panhandling has been banned only in medians. Begging anywhere else is still allowed. Even on the side of the road.
  • This is not just the case in the “shopping districts,” but everywhere in Durham.
  • The vote took place in mid-December. The ban is already in effect.
  • In addition to the ban, city council also voted to discontinue requiring licenses for roadside begging. So a $20 fee was eliminated.

Now, perhaps there is a slippery slope here that I am not appreciating — after all, Jonathan lives in community with people living in poverty. He is in touch with what goes on in Durham, especially among the least, the last, and the lost. But my ears don’t hear, “war on the poor” when they hear “don’t panhandle in the medians – stick to the roadsides.” Not that there aren’t plenty of ways that we keep the poor ground down into the dust in our culture. Three strikes you’re out laws and not enough public defenders, that’s a war on the poor. Locating the dirtiest factories in the poorest areas, that’s a war on the poor. But outlawing begging in medians sounds like a reasonable safety measure. Though in full disclosure (as I made clear above) my feelings about roadside begging carry a lot of baggage about our failure to be community and reinforcing the power dynamics between the car-haves and the car-have-nots.

Before I sign the petition, I need to head over to Ninth Street or downtown or back to the strip mall. I want to have some conversations first hand with the people most affected by it. And then I think I’ll head over to Urban Ministries of Durham and see what the staff there think, too. Because sometimes hastily signing a petition has served the same purpose for me that poking a dollar bill through a half open window has for the tribe of car people passing the roadside beggars – with little effort required on my part, I get to feel better while still getting to keep my distance. The time has come to re-engage with those on the margins – especially as I am sufficiently far from the margins now to make such engagement that much more effortful.