Montgomery tackles issue of panhandling

By Erin Donaghue
The Gazette
Thursday, June 24, 2010; GZ19

In response to concerns about safety problems posed by panhandlers in Montgomery County, a work group has been formed to study the issue and recommend solutions.

The group, which is composed of police, county officials and residents, has been meeting monthly since January and is developing recommendations for County Executive Isiah Leggett (D). It was created after members of the Wheaton Urban District Advisory Committee wrote to Leggett in July, asking him to create the task force in response to panhandlers in Wheaton and elsewhere in the county.

"Years ago, you didn't see people begging and panhandling in the street," said the county police department's assistant chief, Betsy Davis, a member of the work group. "Over the years, it's become more prevalent on street corners."

Panhandling is legal in Montgomery unless those asking for money act aggressively or block traffic, police said. Aggressive behavior, as described in the county code, includes threatening someone, asking for money in a manner that would intimidate a reasonable person, touching a person without consent or following a person who has not given money, police spokeswoman Lucille Baur said.

Capt. Russ Hamill, commander of the 2nd District police station, said, "This obviously does cause some concern for the community; we get calls usually about panhandlers in the middle of an intersection or on a traffic island."

But because panhandling is legal, Hamill said, law enforcement officials are "left between a rock and a hard place" until the work group recommends a new approach.

"It does cause us concern, but it would require legislative change for us to do anything," Hamill said.

Whether to impose further restrictions on panhandlers -- or require them to obtain permits to solicit money alongside roads -- has been a source of debate.

Davis said the group is learning about the approaches other jurisdictions take toward panhandling. Gaithersburg, for example, restricts panhandling in roadway medians.

But enforcing such an ordinance could prove tricky, she said. If panhandlers were required to obtain permits or if panhandling were to be made illegal in certain circumstances, violations would be difficult to enforce.

"If we ran to every call and locked everyone up, we'd be in central processing all day," Davis said.

She said the work group is in the "listening" phase, and she hopes to give a summer intern the task of gathering research about approaches to panhandling from jurisdictions across the country.

"I don't want to rush into making any of these decisions," Davis said. "We're trying to listen to see what the best practices are."

Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery) of Takoma Park said he introduced legislation last year that would have required roadside solicitors to undergo a permitting process and traffic-safety training. He introduced the bill, which did not pass, after being approached by community groups with concerns about panhandlers approaching drivers at intersections.

Raskin said enforcement of the proposed bill might have been a problem.

"Every law, including laws against murder, is difficult to enforce," he said. "That doesn't mean we should simply give up the effort."

Approaching the problem correctly will require extensive outreach to those in need of services, said County Council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) of Takoma Park, who is a member of the work group.

"As a legislator, I believe the effect of legislation is limited," Leventhal said. "I would rather address the root causes of the problem."

Mental health and addiction problems might come into play, advocates for the homeless say. Many panhandlers might be feeding drug and alcohol addictions and unwilling to be connected with services, they say.

Finding funding for extensive outreach programs could prove difficult, Leventhal said.

But the bottom line, advocates say, is for people to direct donations to outreach services, rather than give panhandlers money.

"If people didn't give, [panhandlers] wouldn't be out there," Hamill said.

Advocates recommend against giving money to panhandlers. The homeless outreach group Bethesda Cares provides wallet-size cards with information about their services that residents can offer instead. In downtown Bethesda, residents can donate spare change to one of several red meters that collect money for Bethesda Cares. For information about Bethesda Cares, visit http://www.bethesdacares.com.

To read the June 9 report on what nonprofit groups say about giving money to panhandlers, go to http://www.gazette.net.

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