Fairfax Co. eyes signs to discourage panhandling at intersections

Fairfax County, Virginia, is moving toward becoming the first local community to post signs near intersections to discourage drivers from giving money to panhandlers.

“It is a distraction to have someone standing in the street, when you’re looking to make a turn or go through an intersection, and somebody starts walking toward your car,” said Board of Supervisors member John Cook. “I know, as a driver, I don’t like it — I don’t care who it is.”

In a Tuesday meeting, the board weighed ways to deal with the growing problem of panhandling at stoplights.

While some board members favored an ordinance, they were reminded of a long-standing legal reality — in most cases, it’s not against the law to ask for money.

“The solicitation of money is protected speech, under the First Amendment,” said Elizabeth Teare, county attorney. “There are multiple court decisions that strike down ordinances that are targeted explicitly at solicitation of money.”

“In general, we should try to avoid criminalizing behavior that is not having serious impact on people, not hurting people,” said board member John Foust.

Instead, the board decided to target drivers, by posting signs at select intersections that read: “Do not encourage panhandling by giving money from vehicle.”

Board member Linda Smyth agreed the county needs to reduce distractions at intersections.

“People cannot look at their phones and watch everything else that’s going on in rush hour traffic,” Smyth said. “It’s just a recipe for a tragedy.”

NBC Washington reports protesters at the meeting believed cracking down on panhandling penalizes the poor.

The board members agreed the sign would have a telephone number to put people in touch with resources to deal with homelessness and hunger.

While many panhandlers have a genuine need, in some cases “professional panhandlers” take advantage of people’s generosity.

“We know that’s something that does happen, and that’s something that concerns me,” said Board Chairman Sharon Bulova.

“There’s really no absolute in panhandling,” said board member Pat Herrity. “I’ve talked with people who said ‘I tried your programs, there was somebody breathing down my neck, I’d rather make $160 in four hours standing at a stoplight.'”

Board staff will continue work on sign design, as well as determining which intersections in the county have the most panhandling.

Similar signs are used in Roanoke and Henrico County. The board would have to take an official vote before putting up the signs.

Watch NBC Washington’s report:

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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