Friday, April 12, 2013

A Triage Approach To Panhandlers

In the six weeks since I posted an essay entitled Distinguishing Homelessness From Panhandling, some in the faith community in Durham, North Carolina where I live have raised concerns that panhandlers might be required to serve jail time if they violate a public safety ban on solicitation along roadways.

I suspect those concerned didn’t read the blog or the study I wrote about, but then again, I often kid friends that according to some analytics I probably have many times more readers in China than I do in Durham.

The study notes that 38% of panhandlers are substance abusers, 40% suffer from depression, 17% are mentally ill and 7.6% suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.  From what I’ve witnessed when personally approached, that could also be the breakdown of panhandlers in Durham.

Some panhandlers may warrant jail time, which can be determined by careful triage to separate those involved in it as an unlawful pursuit or scam from those who need treatment for addiction or mental health issues.  Fewer than 1 in 5 people who are homeless also panhandle so that should not become an excuse to enable panhandling.

According to his newly-published book Clean – Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy, David Sheff cites the estimate that there are twenty million people with substance addictions in this country, approximately one in twelve over the age of twelve.

Sheff is including alcohol in those numbers and notes that “every day drugs kill over 365 Americans” and “in 2010, 85% of the U.S. prison population were incarcerated for crimes committed while under the influence of alcohol or other drugs including crimes committed to get money to buys drugs.”

This may include some panhandlers or maybe panhandling is an alternative or based on the study maybe even a fallback.  That would need to be part of the triage.

I doubt though that the $600 billion estimated as the annual cost in health, crime and lost productivity from drug abuse in the United States includes the $2.9 million that “givers” who live or work within the Durham city limits hand to panhandlers each year.

Those seeking to make panhandlers exempt from jail time need to work even harder to educate “givers” including many who are likely in their midst to alternative programs such as Durham Can You Spare A Change.  As the study reveals “givers” are part of the problem, not the solution.

But if Durham does hold panhandlers accountable for jail time, I hope it has or will adapt programs such as H.O.P.E. which involve immediate probation after arrest, twice-daily drug testing with violations instantly resulting in two days of jail time followed by a return to probation and testing until behavior has changed.

Maybe this approach in turn could be adapted to make sure those prescribed drugs for mental illness were diligent about taking those meds and channeled away from panhandling to transitional programs.

To help those who must overcome addiction, it probably isn’t feasible to assign panhandlers to Durham’s highly-regarded T.R.O.S.A because I doubt they would immediately qualify until sometime later during this cycle.

But as Sheff substantiates so well in his book, addiction is a disease not a moral weakness.  It isn’t about willpower or a lack of character.  It is treatable and preventable.

Durham’s new solicitation ordinance is a good one.  As a community we need to send a message loud and clear to “givers.”  In my opinion we also need a system of triage that uses jail time where warranted and also ensures treatment for mental illness and addiction.

There is a way to be a caring community without enabling panhandling.


emers0n said...
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emers0n said...

Reyne, is the $2.9 million we are alleged to contribute to panhandlers an actual figure derived in Durham, or is it scaled from the 2007 study in Clark County, Nevada?

John Emerson (referred by Bill Anderson)

Reyn said...

Scaled- and it includes giving by residents and commuters. Hope that is what you need John

jayzenner said...

I agree with you completely. To those in the faith community that are concerned about this ordinance, I think it is much more a sign that a community takes care of its people if they aren't forced to beg on medians. As demeaning and difficult as it has to be to earn a meager living this way, it could be easier for many than dealing with their problems of addiction. Not too long ago I saw a guy approach one of these folk near Home Depot yelling at him to clean up and get a job. Not a model of compassion but the opposite approach which enables this behavior may do as much damage in the long run.