Montgomery County launches campaign to discourage roadside panhandlers

September 10, 2013

As a population, roadside panhandlers register barely a blip in 500-square-mile Montgomery County. A recent survey counted just 31, many with ragged cardboard signs pleading hunger, homelessness or unemployment.

But their vigils on medians and at intersections amid often slow-moving traffic give them a presence well beyond their numbers. On Monday, citing safety issues and moral concerns, county officials and social-service providers announced a campaign to discourage motorists from giving money to panhandlers.

“Panhandling isn’t safe, and it doesn’t help those who are doing the begging,” said County Council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large). The effort — “Give a Hand Up, Not a Hand-Out” — asks that contributions be directed to charities intended to help panhandlers with the problems that have driven them to the streets, usually mental illness and addiction.

Leventhal, who called Montgomery “a caring and compassionate county,” said the initiative is not intended to be callous. “We don’t want to criminalize poverty,” he said.

To reinforce the safety issue, Leventhal was joined by County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and other supporters near the intersection of Georgia Avenue and Veirs Mill Road, where a panhandler, Mary Josephine Fish, was killed in May. Authorities said a car jumped the median and hit Fish, 52.

Not all panhandlers are homeless, but many are. It makes them a subset of the county’s homeless population, estimated in annual surveys at near 1,000. Like many localities, Montgomery has struggled to eradicate homelessness, but the problem remains complex and often impervious to progress. Susan Kirk, executive director of Bethesda Cares, which works with the homeless, recounted seeing an elderly man recently at the intersection of Bradley Boulevard and Wisconsin Avenue. His sign said he was a homeless veteran, but Kirk recognized him as someone who was placed in housing a year ago.

After years of complaints by motorists, the county formed a task force in 2011. Officials initially considered making panhandling illegal. But a state attorney general’s opinion said that allowing soliciting by some groups — such as firefighters with their annual “Fill the Boot” campaign for muscular dystrophy — but not others raised First Amendment concerns.

Other ideas included adding parking meter-style machines that allow people to contribute without giving directly to the panhandlers. But the machines, which are in place at a few locations, are not effective, Leventhal said.

State legislators and county officials also considered trying to restrict panhandlers by establishing a permitting system, requiring them to register. But Leventhal said that would only have reinforced the county’s liberal nanny-state image.

So they settled on a public awareness campaign that includes bus ads and a way for people to give via their cellphones. By texting “SHARE” to 80077, donors can send $5 to the Community Foundation for Montgomery County, a nonprofit group that will distribute proceeds to groups working on the issue.

Leventhal said he hopes that the initiative will make a difference but also acknowledged that the situation will never disappear.

“Begging has been with us forever,” he said. “Buddha was a beggar.”

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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