Panhandling ordinance making life harder for homeless

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As Tammy Kobani peeled apart the folded, soggy piece of white paper, she saw that some of the words had become illegible. However, one number remained intact: $213, the fine she must pay.

Tammy stands illegally with her sign. The new ordinance prohibits standing on the side of a road without a sidewalk. (Staff photo by Caitlin Owens)

Tammy Kobani stands illegally with her sign. The new ordinance prohibits standing on the side of a road without a sidewalk. (Staff photo by Caitlin Owens)

Coincidentally, the piece of paper got wet as she engaged in the same behavior that earned her the ticket. Despite the rain and snow, Tammy stood beside the side of the road, like she does every day, and performed the only activity that allows her to survive: panhandling.

Unfortunately for Tammy, a 50-year-old homeless woman, the corner she stood at for years has become an illegal place for her to stand and “fly a sign,” or panhandle. An ordinance passed by the Durham City Council banned many of the typical roadside practices of the homeless. Enforcement of the ordinance began in mid-January.

“It destroyed our lives. We can’t make money for anything,” Tammy said. “We used to be able to go to the corner. I’ve been on that same corner for years, and people know me.”

The homeless, or anyone else, can no longer sit, stand or walk on medians. They cannot engage in roadway solicitation unless they are on a one-way street, a paved sidewalk, or receiving something from a passenger on the right-hand side of a motor vehicle. They also cannot be on an access ramp, within 100 feet of a bridge or accompanied by an animal (unless it is a registered service animal).

Tammy, along with many other members of Durham’s homeless population, feels that the ordinance leaves few and unprofitable places to fly a sign.

John looks at his tent, its contents strewn on the ground. Someone recently stole his heater out of the tent and threw the couple’s belongings outside. (Staff photo by Caitlin Owens)

John Kobani looks at his tent, its contents strewn on the ground. Someone recently stole his heater out of the tent and threw the couple’s belongings outside. (Staff photo by Caitlin Owens)

“The reaction from the people that depend on panhandling for their very survival has been frustration and huge anxiety,” said Carolyn Schuldt, executive director of Open Table Ministry.  “They will call me on the phone and say, ‘I just don’t know what I’m going to do.‘”

Open Table Ministry serves Durham’s homeless population, including Tammy and her husband, John.

Kimberley and Christopher Moore, a homeless couple who also have a relationship with Schuldt and her ministry, live in a tent in the woods of the New Hope Commons area.

Kimberley, 37, was forced to relocate because of the ordinance. However, she still flies a sign, conveying a message that only increased in importance after the implementation of the ordinance.

It reads, “Everybody needs help sometimes.”

“We’re not unhuman.”

Christopher Moore, who is 39 and usually goes by C.J., met Kimberley while they both still lived in Massachusetts.

Although they undertook the journey to Durham together, they both wandered separately onto the streets and into a state of homelessness.

Kimberley lived with her uncle in an apartment, helping care for him. They both received disability benefits from Social Security and could live off of their combined payments. She also worked construction jobs whenever she could. She still receives disability benefits and takes medication for epilepsy and bipolar disorder.

After she was caught with drugs, the apartment complex evicted her. Her uncle moved to a nursing home and Kimberley found herself on the streets.

“Then I met Christopher and he said he was going to North Carolina and I said, ‘I want to come,’” she said.

At this point, C.J. was already in a bind. He worked as a truck driver for 20 years. However, after failing to pay child support, C.J. lost his license. A convicted felon, he couldn’t find another job.

“It sucked. Where the hell am I going to sleep? What am I going to do? How am I going to feed myself? I have no job,” he said. “They say you can go to McDonald’s, you can go to Wal-Mart, you can go get a job. Yeah, but I’m a convicted felon so that kind of puts a damper on the major corporations.”

Kimberley and Christopher Moore live in the woods. Although they receive disability, the payments alone do not provide enough money to meet their needs. (Staff photo by Caitlin Owens)

Kimberley and Christopher Moore live in the woods. Although they receive disability, the payments alone do not provide enough money to meet their needs. (Staff photo by Caitlin Owens)

C.J. tried living in motels, then in shelters. However, diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, he hated sleeping in a shelter with dozens of other people.

“That’s part of my disability. I can’t be around a lot of people,” he said.

Now he and Kimberley live in a tent in the woods. Although they both receive disability benefits, they rely on panhandling to supplement these payments.

“I still receive disability and it’s not enough,” Kimberley said. “We buy our own propane and gas because we have a generator and heater and cook stove. And medications, we have to pay for those. We go out to eat; we eat food.”

“We are homeless, yes. But we’re not stupid. We need what we need,” C.J. said. “We’re not unhuman.”

The enactment of the new ordinance made meeting these needs more difficult. Not only do they have to work longer hours, they also lost some of their regulars.

“Now that we’ve had to change spots, I don’t get those people and I don’t see those people. It’s like starting all over,” Kimberley said. “You gotta get to know the people and know the spot, and they gotta get to know you and read your sign and hopefully help.”

Both have looked for work, but employers refuse to hire them. Kimberley said she feels looked down upon by employers, who ask how she will be clean and presentable for work.

C.J. thinks that, in a way, the ordinance is an extension of the perception that the homeless are less human than other people.

“We’re already on the side of the road because we’re homeless and now we can’t even be where we’re being heard by some people,” he said. “Now, we’re completely pushed off to where we can’t even be seen.”

“I’d take any other way over being homeless.”

“They gave me seven months to live a year ago,” John said matter-of-factly.

How quickly Tammy’s husband is dying, nobody knows. According to the doctors, he should have died a few months ago.

Rather than complaining about the wait, John, 55, excitedly explained that he should finally receive his Social Security disability benefits within the next couple of weeks. The payments will be enough to get the couple off the street and into a motel.

The couple used to collect between $80 and $100 a day by panhandling. Because of the restrictions of the ordinance, they said they’re now lucky if they can earn the $37 needed to stay in a motel for the night.

John’s immune system has grown weak and he gets sick at least once a week, he said. Most days, Tammy flies her sign alone while John sits nearby in the woods.

They used to eat lunch and dinner and drink coffee in the mornings. Now, they eat one meal a day: a burger off the McDonald’s dollar menu.

They also used to sleep in a motel room every night. Now, they said they often sleep in a tent in the woods. Their heater was recently stolen out of their tent. Someone also went through their belongings and threw many of them outside, where the rain soaked them.

Tammy and John married last year. They come from separate backgrounds.

John spent many years of his life in and out of jail, making getting a job difficult. He’s now terminally ill and can’t work, suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, he said.

He drinks less, tried attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and knows he needs a more serious program. But to John, leaving Tammy alone on the streets is not an option.

“I need the long-term, and I can’t see her trying to make it alone while I’m in a program,” he said.

Tammy lived with her mother until she died four years ago. She received a housing voucher, but couldn’t quite get her life together after her mother’s death and ended up losing the voucher, along with custody of her children.

“I was just lost. Me and my mom were best friends,” she said. “I lost everything.”

Tammy ran out of money with nowhere to go. She became homeless.

Her spot used to be a street corner in downtown Durham – that is, until the ordinance made standing there illegal.

Tammy faced the choice of risking a ticket or not having money while the couple waited for John’s disability application to be processed. She chose panhandling.

Tammy holds her sign on a street corner. If she doesn’t earn enough money, she and John will be forced to sleep outside in a tent at night. (Staff photo by Caitlin Owens)

Tammy Kobani holds her sign on a street corner. If she doesn’t earn enough money, she and her husband, John, will be forced to sleep outside in a tent at night. (Staff photo by Caitlin Owens)

Feb. 15, her luck ran out. She received a ticket after walking around a car to the driver’s side, where someone held out money for her. Tammy said a police captain saw her and then instructed another officer to come give her a ticket.

By the time the second officer arrived, Tammy was standing in a legal spot, she said. The officer apologetically wrote her a ticket and told her she could keep flying her sign where she stood.

John said they are not going to pay the ticket. He wants to go to court and believes it will get dismissed, as have all the tickets his friends received for illegal panhandling.

If the ticket doesn’t get dismissed, Tammy and John don’t know how they will pay it.

“If you could afford to pay a ticket, you wouldn’t be standing out there on the corner,” Tammy said.

John said that if he could, he would get a job. However, he said doctors have told him that he can’t work.

“I’d take any other way over being homeless,” he said.

The new restrictions severely limit where the homeless can fly a sign and how profitable panhandling is, John said.

John fears that with no other means of earning money for survival, people will begin to turn to crime.

“I’m telling ya, crime rate is going to skyrocket,” he said. “Not me and her, but most of these homeless people would rather go to jail than be out here in the winter.”

John does not understand why the ordinance is needed in the first place.

“I can understand them stopping people from flying if they’re in the road, banging on people’s cars and scaring people,” he said. “But if you got a lady, or you got a man, standin’ there on the sidewalk, with a sign, and not even talking to the people going by, and they call you over to the car and that’s the only time they go to the car, why stop them? What are they doing wrong?”

Open Table Ministry and its friends, both inside and outside of the homeless community, are protesting the ordinance.

They began circulating a petition, which is available on Open Table Ministry’s website. Schuldt also spoke at a city council meeting and plans to attend future meetings. She is currently organizing other forms of protest as well.

“I’ve never met someone who flies a sign when there’s another option available,” she said. “It’s a miserable way of making a living.”

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CaitlinOwensMug
Chief investigative reporter for the Durham VOICE and UNC-Chapel Hill student. Contact the Durham VOICE staff at thedurhamvoice@gmail.com.


4 thoughts on “Panhandling ordinance making life harder for homeless

  1. Sabrina Bowyer says:

    There are a lot of details involved in this story that either may be inaccurate, or questionable. Before any person becomes all upset, please note that I was homeless for years, so I do know the struggles, and boy do they come!
    A license to legally panhandle is given by the city of Durham for around $25 with safety vest.
    As far as the legitimacy of one of your featured persons is not completely accurate.
    As far as another couple, living off SSI AND panhandling for only five days a week is an average of $2600.00 a month and $3320 a month if seven days a week (that amount doubles when these couples split up). That’s a couple grand a week that taxes must be paid on, which brings another angle due to folks not reporting money.
    As far as a housing voucher, a copy is always filed.
    Overcoming homelessness involves conformity, which many of us lack and see no reason to conform to a society that has spit us out onto the streets.

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