Town Hall addresses ways to curb panhandling

August 25, 2023

Fairfax Times

By Taneika Duhaney

Last Thursday, leaders from Fairfax and Prince William County hosted a joint town hall to discuss the growing panhandling issue–begging people on the street for food or money. 

The discussion, titled “What Should Northern Virginia Be Doing About Panhandling’’ was hosted by Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity and featured Prince William Supervisor Jeannine Lawson, Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office Maj. Greg Ahlemann, and Director of Fairfax County Department of Public Works Chris Herrington. The 90-minute exchange was broadcast on Channel 16 and Facebook Live.

Herrity and Lawson, sole Republican contenders for their respective seats in the Nov. 7 general election, framed panhandling as a nuisance and a growing public safety issue. Herrity said, “In 2023, 236 panhandlers were reported for suspicious behavior, and 58 criminal acts were found.” In the absence of other qualifying data, Lawson speculated that the reasons people panhandle are as varied as where they panhandle. The most common reasons include economic challenges, addiction, organized panhandling, mental health struggles, and homelessness. 

Resident frustration with panhandlers was palpable. One resident expressed how a panhandler damaged his car to the tune of approximately $7,000. Other residents expressed concerns about panhandlers becoming increasingly aggressive with commuters, going to the bathroom in public spaces like commuter lots, indecent exposure at traffic medians, and shoplifting from small businesses. 

“I have personally witnessed some panhandlers that are very aggressive,” said Lawson. “I’ve felt uncomfortable as my car is sitting at a light, and they’re like two feet from my door. I can relate exactly to your frustration.”

Residents were equally frustrated with the Fairfax County Police Department’s limited ability to curb this growing problem since both Fairfax and Prince William counties lack laws that make panhandling illegal. In the absence of any statute directly addressing panhandling, FCPD’s response leaves much to be desired. This issue is a stark contrast to Loudoun County.

According to Ahlemann, Loudoun County adopted an ordinance prohibiting panhandling in 2013. As a result, Loudoun has fewer incidents of panhandling. With an education-first approach, Loudoun County law enforcement works to inform panhandlers of the county’s rules and offer resources. When such recourse fails, panhandlers and drivers exchanging goods or money are issued a summons for breaking the law. 

Loudoun County’s panhandling ordinance, similar to that of numerous cities and states across the country, seemed like a practical next step for Fairfax and Prince William counties. However, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted not to advance Herrity’s draft ordinance and sign program in 2022. Instead, the Board adopted Herrity’s public education campaign to curb panhandling. In the May letter, the Board clearly stated that “courts have maintained repeatedly that panhandling is protected speech.”

Other solutions are desperately needed if Thursday’s town hall was a barometer of the campaign’s success. Herrity and Lawson expressed support for re-engaging law enforcement in their respective jurisdictions and elevating the issue with the state delegation in Richmond to make panhandling illegal on a larger scale. 

Herrity and Lawson also discussed successful non-punitive options to address panhandling, including the 2019 Fairfax County Stormwater partnership with local shelters that gave rise to Operation Stream Shield. This work program employed panhandlers and some homeless people to remove invasive plants and litter from streams across the county. 

Herrington touted the program’s success, and a Fairfax resident echoed similar sentiments. 

“Without that program (Operation Stream Shield), there would be so much more illegally dumped garbage in Springfield, especially the Hechinger Drive area and Loisdale Court,” said Nicole from Springfield. 

In addition to job partnerships, both counties offer wrap-around resources. Herrity mentioned Fairfax County’s numerous public safety net programs from organizations like the Fairfax Falls Church Community Services Board, Fairfax County Homeless Healthcare Program, and Fairfax County Domestic Violence Hotline and Helpline. The County also partners with local nonprofits that operate shelters, food banks, and community closets and offer other assistance programs. Lawson highlighted the Prince William County PATH (project and assistance towards transitioning the homeless community) program to help residents struggling to find long-term housing solutions. 

Despite these services, panhandling persists. Residents from both jurisdictions continually stressed the need to curb panhandling because the status quo adversely impacts drivers, pedestrians, and panhandlers.