Day in court brings relief for Durham panhandlers

jwise@newsobserver.comDecember 22, 2013 

PANHANDLERS4-DN-102913-HLL

Judge Marcia Morey works through the new Community Life Court to get help for a panhandling defendant instead of sending him to jail. As the system was, Morey said, “We would see the people arrested; they’d spend a night in jail and have no connection with any of the social services. … ”

HARRY LYNCH — hlynch@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

— Thirteen people charged with breaking the city’s panhandling rules had their charges dismissed last week after making connections to improve their lives.

Their cases were the first concluded under a system meant to put those in need in touch with social-service agencies instead of sending them to jail or charging them fines they could not pay.

“I’m really pleased how it turned out,” Chief District Court Judge Marcia Morey said after the Community Life Court session Wednesday.

The pleasure was a mutual feeling as Morey dismissed charges and remitted bonds after hearing defendants’ and supporters’ updates on their progress. She had heard and continued their cases in October, with directions to the defendants that they seek help to get off the street corners.

“I thank God, that’s all I’ve got to add,” said Richard Andrews, who faced two charges for illegal panhandling and has, since October, found a home-remodeling job and a place to live.

“At least I’m off the streets now,” said Andrews, who had been begging on a corner for months. “The corner is the last place I want to be. I hate it, it’s humiliating. … I’m trying my best to do my best. I don’t know what else to say.”

Morey responded: “This is great news. I hope your self-esteem starts to soar again.”

Under the new arrangement, panhandling defendants who agree to seek and accept help with health, addiction, housing or employment issues may have their cases continued for some weeks, and charges can be dismissed if the judge and district attorney are satisfied they have made progress or are in the process of doing so. The cases are handled through Community Life Court rather than through the previous District Court process.

“I think it’s appropriate because (panhandling) is an issue that affects our community,” said Assistant District Attorney Brian Lewis. “It just allows a more focused look at these cases, where we have time. In normal district court we can have anywhere from 60 to 150 (cases) – there’s not time to sit and listen.

“This is a matter that, as a society, we need to address,” Lewis said. “At the same time, we can’t just let the rules be violated.”

Getting help

Defendants have been helped by various agencies, including Housing for New Hope, Open Table Ministry, Carolina Outreach, Lincoln Community Health Clinic and the Department of Social Services. Some have been housed, some employed, and some helped to navigate the systems for disability insurance and veterans’ benefits.

Defense attorney Ian Mance said he was very pleased and gave a great deal of credit to Open Table Director Carolyn Schuldt.

“She’s been working hard in between court dates in making sure that folks connect with the appropriate social service agencies,” Mance said. “It made my job very easy today when I came in and found out that just about everyone had made some real progress.”

After Schuldt and others complained that “roadside solicitation” rules passed in late 2012 made a crime of poverty, City Councilman Steve Schewel promoted a referral approach to panhandlers, which is used in Orange County. It was also included in a package of changes recommended by the city-county Homeless Services Advisory Committee in August.

The City Council has yet to act on the recommendations, but Morey and City Manager Tom Bonfield went ahead and arranged to change the court process. The first cases came to Community Life Court in October. Two months later, Morey said the system had worked better than she expected.

“We didn’t know (what would happen),” she said. “They may not have shown up (in court); they may have ignored the services. But yeah, I’m really pleased.”

As the system was, Morey said, “We would see the people arrested, they’d spend a night in jail and have no connection with any of the social services. And then have another charge. …

“As the gentleman said, this is humiliating. They’ve all fallen on hard times. They all have stories of what has happened in their lives. … There’s something behind the homelessness and the hard times they fall on that we have to have some understanding for.”

Wise: 919-641-5895

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