Durham, tune up and tune in

homeless in durham

Off Key

It’s an odd thing about music that a chord or note just a half step off from its intended key can sound the most dissonant.

Alternatively, a chord you miss by a long shot that is clearly a mistake can ring less troublesome to the senses.

My beloved hometown missed in a big way recently.  Most of us didn’t notice.

This was no half-step, slip-of-the-finger miss either.  Rather, it’s a move so unlike Durham that it leaves one wondering if we’re in the right concert hall at all.

On December 17, Durham’s City Council unanimously approved an ordinance that prevents citizens from panhandling except under certain, limited conditions.  In addition, these allowable conditions also happen to make it nearly impossible for a person in need to ask and receive help along Durham’s roadways.

There are plenty of folks who can fill you in on the facts, the details and even the minutia.  The ordinance is available online for viewing if you so choose.

That doesn’t interest me.

My take is a) it doesn’t feel right; b) more specifically, it doesn’t feel like love and, most especially; c) it doesn’t feel like Durham.

Where is the city recently lauded as the most tolerant city in our country?

How about the home of Black Wall Street?  The cultured, ‘real’ and foodie town that hosts a now Oscar-worthy film festival that has set up shop even as I write?

If that doesn’t strike a chord, how about a Southern town smack in the heart of the Bible Belt that has forgotten the teachings of its leader, Jesus, in regard to the value and treatment of the poorest among us?

Don’t forget two universities, a world-class hospital, RTP and a host of other independent, textured, intentional and positively groovy things that make Durham exactly the gem it is.

What about all that?

The city just months ago named America’s most tolerant has drawn a line of distinction between the majority and the rights and innate value of our most vulnerable neighbors.  Homeless people are not to be seen.  The already invisible are now downright nonexistent.

There are many ways to evaluate the change.  Here’s the reality.

Durham, North Carolina, now fines panhandlers to the tune of $250 for breaking the new rules.  And as anyone can tell you, a person who has to beg for another night’s hotel stay doesn’t exactly have the cash lying around.

As a result, the most challenged citizens of the Bull City now face jail time for the simple act of asking for help that every one of us has the right to accept, ignore or refuse.

The desperation of extreme poverty is now a crime.

The Best Intentions

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m saddened by the irony of my honorable hometown compromising its integrity.  I don’t, however, believe this is a matter of bad intent.

I believe City Council members who say the ordinance, an extension of one issued in 2003, is a compromise position meant to promote the safety of all citizens of this great town.

A couple of our City Council members are people I know, respect and really like – people who have worked alongside Durham’s housing nonprofits in some cases for decades to create lasting improvements for the benefit of all.  These are good people.

It’s also true that social change moves in pattern along a continuum, swinging from extreme to opposite extreme before finally resting in a balanced position some place along the middle.

For about two decades Durham has reveled in a heyday of progressive change and forward movement in affordable housing.  I have eight years of professional experience to back this claim.  I’m sure of it.

At the same time, the last few years have hinted at a shift back from the progressive end of the continuum through the revocation or reallocation of community development block grant (CDBG) and other funding away from agencies with proven track records toward other options and pet projects that stand to offer more appearance than substance or efficiency in the actual permanent change department.

Our City Council servants are decent and committed folks.  And life moves in waves and patterns, and progress is no different.

If there’s any single error in human judgment, in my mind it’s the City Council’s choice to move forward with the changes without inviting the public discourse Durham would so obviously expect.  It’s not our way in this town to sneak in a Trojan Horse or stealth ordinance instead of simply having the conversation.

Orchestra of Many

The fact is we live in a democracy.  We are an orchestra, and missed chords and bad rhythm are everyone’s problem and everyone’s responsibility.

We all have a role here.  No one, including our public servants, is to blame.  I don’t find that an effective approach.

However we came to be where we are, we all now share the responsibility of addressing an ordinance that criminalizes the most extreme levels of poverty, addiction and mental illness, leaving the most hurt and fragile among us even more hurt and fragile.  It also relegates the most disenfranchised among us to the Durham County jail – out of sight and out of mind.

Whether you get there by way of faith, conscience or good old common sense, it’s just not right.

And it’s on all of us.

Grace Notes

I’m a believer in grace – that Good always wins in the end.  It’s just my style to believe the town with the most Ph.D.s per capita of any town in the country can work this out.

We are the community where a Civil Rights activist and a Klansman can become life-long friends.

This is the city rebuilding its downtown on a foundation of social entrepreneurship in a region sprinkled with B Corps, a town that supports the start-ups and cheers for underdogs.

In Durham this Good Friday, I sat in Duke Chapel with many hundreds of Durhamites as Dean Powery offered regarding modern-day injustice, oppression and suffering, “OMG WUP.  What up, ppl?

Only in Durham can something so impassioned be presented in a way so truthful and real.

It’s a fair question, too – What up, people?

At a recent public meeting organized by local clergy and housing advocates, a member of our City Council said the one thing you would not expect to hear in many cities as a controversy or fight develops.

“We might be wrong,” he said.

Now, in a land of texture and ‘real’ in the season of Easter and new beginnings, this seems to me to be a very good sign.

If any town can avoid the nearly inevitable war such struggles can cause, it’s Durham.

If any community can call ‘no bull’ or even B.S. and simply start over, admitting our collective failure, it’s ours.

We deserve a do-over.  It’s best for everyone, and no one more than hurting people who are now hurting and silenced even more.

There’s nothing we can’t figure out.  Heaven knows we have the practice doing what folks outside insist can’t be done.

We may have momentarily forgotten who we are, but we haven’t lost our substance.

We are now aware there’s a problem.  It’s time to come together to get in tune, do what’s right and move in the forward direction.

Where do you stand?  What up, people?

Most importantly, in the spirit of the Bull City, what will you do?









One thought on “Durham, tune up and tune in

  1. Help rather than fine….for sure. It is certainly beyond reason to fine those poor folks….YOU are so good!

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