Unsolicited Endorsement: Revising a panhandling law

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eric headshotby Eric Ginsburg

Several months have passed since the Greensboro City Council dropped discussions about revising the city’s panhandling law, but I’m struggling to see any justification for not adopting a modest change.

Here’s the problem: The city’s current ordinance makes it so that someone who is convicted of panhandling without a license twice in five years can’t get a panhandling permit.

There are already other parts of the ordinance that are restrictive, limiting where and how people can ask for money as well as who is eligible for a permit. But what sense is there in preventing someone — a person with nowhere else to turn who has simply asked for support without government approval — from obtaining a permit when they hadn’t before?

City Attorney Tom Carruthers gets what I’m talking about.

“That sets up a problematic scenario where you don’t qualify and if you continue to beg you continue to be arrested,” he said.

The goal of the ordinance isn’t to create this revolving door where (generally homeless) people are constantly being shuffled into the jail system, he said. But after a local public defender suggested the change and city staff brought the tweak to a council work session, the reform died due to lack of consensus about moving forward, Carruthers said. It never even appeared before council for a vote.

Councilman Mike Barber said at the time that he didn’t support the changes, but he couldn’t be reached for comment this week.

We could choose to live with our heads thrust deep into the sand, and to make hollow claims about reducing homelessness while simultaneously criminalizing it. As it stands, our panhandling law is pretty audacious, suggesting council cares more about how to limit the movement and activities of people experiencing homelessness than they are with solving it.

I’m sure some will protest, such as Mayor Nancy Vaughan, who points out the city’s increased funding for homeless-resource organizations or initiatives like her poverty summit. Vaughan also couldn’t be reached for comment before press time.

But when council can’t push through even a small modification, a move that would correct a mistake that council itself created, that’s exactly the message it’s sending.