George Philyaw made his way down the narrow, uneven median on a busy road in Germantown, Md., proffering his sign as vehicles churned past at 40 mph — or faster:
“Homeless -N- Hungry. Anything helps.”
A woman waiting to turn left rolled down her window to hand him a plastic-wrapped bagel and a bottle of water. “God bless you,” he said, accepting it. But after the light turned green, he commented, “I’d rather have the cash. Then I can buy what I want.”
Philyaw, 48, said he has been soliciting from medians for “six or seven years, eight — I lost count after two.” He’s never been hit by a car, but he’s heard of others who have — most recently in June, when a homeless man named Richard Lee Cooper was fatally struck by a Toyota Sequoia half a mile from the site in Montgomery County where Philyaw was asking for help on a cold recent morning.
Prompted by Cooper’s death, Montgomery County Council member Craig Rice (D-District 2) recently introduced a bill that would make soliciting vehicles from roadways and medians a Class C violation in Maryland’s most populous jurisdiction.
“From my perspective, it’s totally about safety,” Rice said. “For us to just turn around and say, ‘Well yeah, we’re just going to let those folks be out there and take a chance with their own lives’ is not okay.”
But the question of how to deter roadside panhandling without unfairly targeting the least fortunate has been a dilemma across the country. Banning panhandlers would also mean banning anyone from roadside solicitation, including firefighters during their annual “Fill the Boot” campaign to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Firefighters and the MDA testified against Rice’s legislation during a public hearing.
Advocates say laws that prohibit soliciting violate the First Amendment rights of panhandlers and criminalize poverty, making it harder for those who are struggling to find a job or a stable place to live.
“I cannot support creating new legal barriers to people who are already in a crisis situation,” said Amy E. Horton-Newell, chair of the Montgomery County Interagency Commission on Homelessness. “There are better ways, and I think we should put our heads together and come up with them.”
Some communities have tried issuing permits for roadside solicitors, attempting to allow firefighters to fill the boot while keeping career panhandlers from roosting on medians. Others, such as Omaha and Albuquerque, passed bans on pedestrians standing on medians — although Albuquerque agreed to halt enforcement of its law after the city was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union, which claimed the prohibition was a violation of freedom of speech.
Springfield, Mo., and Wichita passed ordinances in December that not only ban pedestrians on some medians, but also prohibit drivers from giving money or items to people soliciting in roadways.
Some Maryland jurisdictions allow roadway solicitation; others, such as Frederick County, prohibit it. Robert Drummer, senior legislative attorney for the Montgomery County Council, called the idea of issuing permits “probably impractical because of the First Amendment.”
“We would have to let everybody get a permit unless you could somehow prove that they were . . . less safe than somebody else that wanted a permit,” he said. “You can’t.”
Roadside panhandlers are a common sight for anyone who’s ever driven the more exurban parts of Route 355 in Montgomery, which despite its overall wealth has persistent pockets of poverty in the north and east. Or Georgia Avenue. Or Connecticut Avenue near the Capital Beltway.
Capt. Thomas Didone, director of the Montgomery County Police Department’s traffic division, supports a ban; he said he can think of one other death and a serious injury among roadside panhandlers in recent years.
“Cars lose control, and the medians are there to help contain and prevent them from going to the other side of the street into oncoming traffic,” Didone said. “They’re not engineered for people to camp out for hours and hours.”
Bonnie Smith, 46, who stood in the median of Shady Grove Road at Route 355 on a recent afternoon, recalled once watching a Jeep hurtle onto a part of the median where she often stands in an attempt to pass traffic last summer.
“It is unsafe. . . . My angels are watching me,” Smith said, adding that she has been panhandling for about a year and a half and would be “in a tough situation” if she could not do it anymore.
Rice’s legislation, which was co-sponsored by council member Roger Berliner (D-District 1), would need permissive legislation at the state level — something Rice said was unlikely to happen this legislative session. A similar effort by him and then-council member Phil Andrews failed years ago.
But bills have a year before they expire, and Rice said there is a chance the Montgomery County delegation could take up his proposal next session.
If the county passed a ban, Didone said, county police would speak with panhandlers to explain the new restrictions. Violators could be ticketed, fined and scheduled for court hearings. Those consequences worry advocates for the homeless, who note that unpaid fines and missed court appearances can add up to criminal records or bench warrants.
“If you have any kind of legislation like this where you’re ticketing people and fining them, a person experiencing homelessness will not be able to pay that fine,” Horton-Newell said.
Under current law, officers can only cite panhandlers if they are aggressive or if they step into the roadway.
Lt. Jeff Eyler, assistant patrol operations commander of the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, said he wasn’t sure if his county’s law, which carries a $70 fine, has reduced the number of panhandlers there. But, he said, the ban gives his officers a useful tool.
“They seem to know, if a marked police car pulls up to the intersection or goes by, they typically will fold up their signs and walk away,” Eyler said, adding that officers tend to talk to violators and try to help them get access to services before writing a ticket. “We’d rather not issue citations. What good is that going to do to someone who is homeless?”
John Mendez, executive director of Bethesda Cares, a nonprofit group that works with the homeless, estimates there are about 900 to 1,000 homeless people in Montgomery. Despite the cardboard “homeless and hungry” signs, he estimates about 40 percent of roadside solicitors drivers see are actually homeless. His organization encourages motorists not to give money to them.
“People who are panhandling and they’re out there on those medians, it’s incredibly dangerous,” Mendez said. “Consider handing that money to people who are working to provide supportive services.”
That was the message of an effort council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) spearheaded with County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) in 2013.
“I have sympathy for anyone who is in poverty. But panhandling in the street is undesirable. It’s not safe. It conveys somehow the county is not providing services for people in need, and that’s not so,” Leventhal said.
Philyaw, who said he rotates among different spots during the morning and evening rush hours but avoids the intersection where Cooper died, said a ban on roadside solicitation wouldn’t stop him.
“It’s not going to stick. It won’t stick,” he said, shortly before picking up his backpack and heading to a bus stop. “What are you going to do, give me a ticket? I’ll file it under ‘T’ — the trash.”