What should NoVa do about panhandling?

September 1, 2023

Fairfax County Times

By Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity

Although this is an election year, you won’t see any (legal) signs in the medians this fall. However, you will likely see a much more dangerous distraction: panhandling. 

Back in 2011, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to ban signs in the medians of our roads, a ban I proposed after seeing how even my political signs were distracting for motorists. While it’s illegal to stake a sign in the median, it’s surprisingly legal in Fairfax County to stand or walk around in the median holding one. 

There are no absolutes when it comes to the situations of people who panhandle; some are genuinely in need, while others are preying on the generosity of our residents. Regardless, panhandling is as much a public safety issue as a human services issue.

Our busy roadways are dangerous places for pedestrians to engage with motorists. 

We continue to work to make our roadways safer, but very sadly, there were still 23 pedestrian fatalities in Fairfax County in 2022. Before 2022, one panhandler was tragically killed when a car in an unrelated accident struck them in the median.

From reports about aggressive behavior to service concerns to near accidents when panhandlers have stepped onto the road, many residents are frustrated that the County has not implemented any solutions for panhandling. When I started working to address panhandling in 2017, the Fairfax County Police Department received over 2,100 calls related to panhandling, and district offices have received many more. Nearly 2,000 people participated in a regional panhandling town hall I co-hosted this August with Prince William County Supervisor Jeanine Lawson. 

In 2019, I asked the Board to consider three approaches to address panhandling: a public education campaign to share the services the County and nonprofit partners provide for those in need, a limited sign program to discourage panhandling, and a curb-to-curb ordinance to ban the engagement of motorists and pedestrians. While the last Board approved considering these options, in 2022, the new Board only supported my motion to recommit to addressing this issue, except for a public education campaign. 

While Fairfax punted addressing what is now a rampant problem, Loudoun County has successfully dealt with this issue. Loudoun’s ordinance prohibits the exchange of objects between pedestrians and motorists, and both offenders receive a warning or citation. Although panhandling is protected under the First Amendment, the ordinance has withstood legal challenges as it is in service of public safety. With the goal of safety, the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office often warns offenders before issuing a citation. No citations have been issued this year, but there is no panhandling problem there. Numerous other jurisdictions across the country have similar ordinances.

Fairfax County has great services and work programs to help those in need, like the one I proposed in 2017 called Operation Stream Shield, but we need to take further action to address safety on our roads. In September, I will ask the Board again to consider an ordinance to address this issue. 

If you have feedback, I encourage you to share it with your district Supervisor and the Board by emailing [email protected]

Pat Herrity is the Springfield District Supervisor on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.