Fairfax County supervisor pushes for panhandling ordinance

August 2, 2023

DC News Now

By Hayley Milon

FAIRFAX COUNTY, Va. (DC News Now) — Supervisor Pat Herrity will once again urge the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to weigh an ordinance regulating panhandling.

Panhandling is the act of asking people on the street for food or money. The Fairfax County Police Department receives hundreds of calls involving panhandling each year.

“It’s a public safety issue,” Herrity said. “It’s only a matter of time before someone’s going to get hurt pretty bad.”

Herrity has put forth similar proposals several times — most recently in July of 2022. The county conducted a safety study, examining 108 panhandling locations and intersections that see high vehicular collisions.

“Of the top 35 intersections with the most traffic accidents, only four were reported as panhandling locations,” reads a memo from Thomas Arnold, deputy county executive for safety and security. “Because these four intersections are also heavily trafficked by vehicles and pedestrians, staff cannot draw a firm conclusion that panhandling contributes to a number of vehicular collisions.

Herrity and Prince William County Supervisor Jeaniene Lawson (Brentsville District) are holding a town hall meeting with the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office to discuss panhandling. Herrity said that in Loudoun, a similar ordinance has been effective.

But the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has successfully fought a number of similar ordinances in courts, chiefly arguing that they violate the right to free speech.

Eden Heilman, legal director for ACLU of Virginia, said that an ordinance must leave different ways to pass money or goods on to a person in need (e.g., a driver pulling over to the side of the road, getting out of their car and giving items to panhandlers).

“It has to be narrowly tailored to serve a specific government interest. For example, if the government is concerned about people getting in traffic accidents or potentially the flow of traffic or safety, there are ways to tailor ordinances to specifically address those concerns,” she said. “If it’s just a really broad blanket ban on soliciting or asking for money, then those of very suspect of First Amendment principals.”

Fairfax County has a robust program aimed at providing essential services and job search assistance called “Those in Need.” “Operation Stream Shield” has graduated over 2,200 people into full-time jobs. The Office of Public Affairs also conducted a campaign to educate the public on alternative resources, discouraging people from giving to panhandlers.

Herrity plans to reintroduce his ordinance proposal in September, after the August 17 town hall meeting.