A Fairfax County Lawmaker Is Pushing To Curb Panhandling – Again

August 18, 2023


By Morgan Baskin

A Fairfax County supervisor’s plan to propose restrictions on panhandling has prompted both ire and some support from Northern Virginia residents, highlighting growing tension about how to address economic insecurity in the region. 

Pat Herrity, a long-serving Republican lawmaker representing the county’s Springfield district, has said he plans on reintroducing an ordinance next month to restrict panhandling that is closely modeled after the policy adopted by neighboring Loudoun County. 

Loudoun’s ordinance bans the exchange of objects between roadways, and allows police officers to cite those who ignore the ordinance after multiple warnings – a policy, boosters say, that jives with case law supporting the notion that panhandling is a protected act of free speech. Herrity has previously floated similar measures that the larger board has declined to adopt, as recently as last fall. 

In an interview with WAMU/DCist, Herrity called panhandling a public safety issue, pointing to what he calls “aggressive” behavior by some people on street corners and in medians. “It’s something I increasingly hear from our residents. I hear about close calls, near misses,” Herrity says. “I hear about the increasingly aggressive nature of some of the people in the medians. I hear, constantly, stories of panhandlers that are actually bringing their children into the medians. And it’s a public safety issue, for their safety, and for the safety of our residents.”

The best available data does not indicate that there is a strong correlation between panhandling and traffic accidents. At the behest of the board, the county executive’s public safety staff studied the effects of panhandling in a report published in July of 2022. The group looked at traffic incidents in areas associated with panhandling across 108 locations, then cross-indexed them with known panhandling locations; of the 35 intersections with the most traffic incidents, only four were reported panhandling locations. (Those include intersections along Braddock Road, Leesburg Pike, and Spring Road.)

“Because these four intersections are also heavily trafficked by vehicles and pedestrians, staff has been unable to find a significant public safety risk related to or stemming from panhandling,” the group wrote. “While panhandling appears dangerous and generates considerable public complaint, available [Fairfax County Police Department] data does not support a determination that panhandlers are more likely to be injured or killed than other pedestrians, or that locations where panhandlers are present have an increased risk of traffic accidents.” 

In a somber virtual town hall held jointly on August 17 by Herrity and Prince William County Supervisor Jeanine Lawson, the two lawmakers nevertheless argued that anecdotal evidence indicates that panhandling has increased and makes Northern Virginia less safe. (Both Lawson and Herrity are up for reelection this year; Lawson is running for chair of the Prince William County board.) They were joined by a senior member of the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office to talk about the county’s panhandling ordinance and field questions from callers, who in turn praised and questioned the need for anti-panhandling ordinances in Fairfax and Prince William counties. 

“I like to talk to panhandlers. I’ve talked to a lot of them, and I don’t think the county should make a law against that,” one caller who identified herself as Mary said at the town hall. “What I’m hearing people describe is not panhandling being so much of a problem [as it is] aggressive panhandling or traffic safety. I think you should address that more narrowly. And I also think it’s disingenuous to tell people that the county takes care of everyone’s human needs. I work a lot with lower income people on the [Route 1] corridor and that’s simply not true.”

It’s unclear how the rest of the Fairfax board will metabolize Herrity’s proposal. The chairman of Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors, Jeffrey McKay, told DCist/WAMU in an emailed statement that an anti-panhandling ordinance “does nothing to get at the root causes” of its target. He added that an ongoing effort by the county to help connect people who panhandle with social services “is a more substantive solution than giving out cash on our roadways.”

“Our entire Board has been advised on multiple occasions that there are significant legal and constitutional challenges with creating an ordinance,” McKay said. “Previous Boards grappled with this issue over many years and have always come to the same conclusion.”

Federal courts across the country, including those in Illinois, Colorado, Florida, and Maine have struck down anti-panhandling laws in recent years, in the wake of a 2015 decision from the Supreme Court ruling that laws curtailing speech must be as narrow as possible. (“Each jurisdiction, as you can imagine, has a slightly different flavor with prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges,” Maj. Greg Ahlemann of the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office said at the town hall. “So, you know, it would really be unfair for me to comment on what might work specifically [in other counties] and the intricacies there, but this has really been effective for us.”)

The revived conversation about implementing anti-panhandling ordinances across the county comes shortly after the publication of region-wide data indicating that homelessness and economic instability is spiking almost universally across the D.C. region. Loudoun County, which currently has an anti-panhandling ordinance in place, saw a 122% increase in homelessness over the last year; Prince William County saw a 35% increase in homelessness. And roughly one in every thousand Fairfax County residents is now unhoused, per the report from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governors. 

“People who panhandle are people who need money, right? And panhandling can make people in the community feel uncomfortable because it’s a reminder that there are people in our community that are in need,” says Joe Fay, executive director of human services nonprofit FACETS, which runs a family homeless shelter on behalf of the county along Route 1. 

“For many of us, the economic impact of the pandemic has passed. But for many people in our community, it’s in some ways gotten tougher,” Fay says. “There really is a real need in the community. And at the levels where you’re really just on the edge of making it or not, it’s even more challenging than it’s been.”

Fay tells DCist/WAMU that, pre-pandemic, FACETS served about 70 hot meals per night at distribution centers in Fairfax County. That jumped to 250 meals per night during the pandemic, then petered out again. But after expanded federal food assistance came to an end, the demand for meals from FACETS jumped once more, Fay says, rising again to about 200 meals per night – not just from unhoused people, but from families with children facing food insecurity, too. 

“We’d like to see the community decide that having shelter is a right[.] That everybody should have shelter; everybody should have food. And right now, we have a waiting list for a single shelter,” Fay says. “And once we do that, I think then maybe it’s an appropriate time to talk about whether panhandling should be allowed or not. But I think we should really challenge ourselves to step up [until then].”