At the July 16th Fairfax County Board meeting, Supervisor Pat Herrity (R) moved to draft an ordinance that would prohibit “any engagement of pedestrians with cars while on medians or intersections,” with the intent of restricting “curb-to-curb panhandling.” The Board voiced numerous excuses why they needed this ordinance (see video, below), but Supervisor John Cook (R) unintentionally revealed the reality: “We hate to see people in need.” Yes, that’s the truth–seeing panhandlers reminds happy, comfortable suburbanites that we are failing to take care of every member of our society.
So, no, it’s not really about the “public safety hazard” caused by people desperate enough to stand on a median for hours with a cardboard sign, stepping into the street dodging traffic to accept a dollar from a stranger. It’s easy to tell that it isn’t about that, because the Board spent most of their meeting time discussing the importance of assuring that firefighters could still stand in the street asking for money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and that school kids could still yell and dance with signs on the side of the road offering car washes.
Nor is it about the “rings” of panhandlers who “are not people who are living in the woods close to our neighborhood” according to Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D), but rather are people allegedly dropped off from other less wealthy areas by their panhandling industry bosses, to “abuse the generosity of our citizens.” Such stories have been around for decades, but there is almost no evidence or data to show that they are true.
Nor is it the concern expressed by Supervisor Herrity that people “think they’re helping people, but are [harming the panhandlers by] encouraging bad behavior.” Even if this were true, as one legislator I asked about this issue told me, “people are capable of shaking their heads and saying no.” This isn’t a valid excuse to make a law. Note that laws that outright ban panhandling are unconstitutional, the Supreme Court having ruled that asking for money is speech protected by the First Amendment. This ordinance focuses on the median and intersections, on curb-to-curb panhandling, to get around the courts.
It’s really about the panhandlers ruining “the perception of a good, safe place to live, where everyone is taken care of.” It’s NIMBYism, pure and simple. And so, the solution is apparently to criminalize poverty, to levy a fine on somebody who’s already in a position of begging in the street for money. (Similar legislation in Winchester sets a $100 fine for the first offense, $250 for every incident thereafter.) As the legislator I spoke to said, “This is making a mockery of people who are down and out!”
The Board voted unanimously–UNANIMOUSLY–to move forward with drafting the ordinance. No one offered the dissenting view that we shouldn’t be criminalizing poverty. The Board will discuss the draft at their September 17th public safety meeting. If you have a strong opinion on this, you might want to contact your Supervisor and let him or her know.
UPDATE by Lowell: See below for statements by Alicia Plerhoples, who was a Democratic candidate for Fairfax County Board Chair this past spring, and by Linda Sperling, the Democratic nominee in Fairfax County’s Springfield district who is running against Republican Supervisor Pat Herrity, the sponsor of the above-discussed panhandling ordinance.
Plerhoples: “Criminalizing panhandling is criminalizing poverty and has no place in a Democratically-controlled Fairfax County. The Board of Supervisors should reject this proposal if it’s serious about uplifting progressive values and rejecting a concept of poor people as “other”. 75,000 Fairfax County residents live below poverty. They are our neighbors, our school children, our community.”
Sperling: “IMHO there are two aspects to this proposed ordinance: the public safety aspect of people darting through traffic, and the actual panhandling. The public safety issue absolutely is a concern, I don’t want to see anyone hit by a car darting through traffic. However the actual panhandlers…While there are organized panhandling rings (which I agree need to be addressed), there also a good number of people who panhandle out of necessity. We need to get to the root cause/solve the root cause of why people are so down on their luck that they have to panhandle to feed their kids. One of the richest counties in the nation morally shouldn’t have residents who have to panhandle to get by. We need to address our affordable housing crisis to start…it costs approx $1800/mo to rent an apartment in Fairfax County (and home prices average $500k). We also need to increase access to reliable public transportation so driving/access to a car isn’t a prerequisite for someone being able to get to work every day. Tackling the root causes of panhandling, such as affordable housing and transportation (among others) can get us to a place as a county where this type of ordinance won’t be necessary to begin with.”