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Fairfax County revives effort to look at ‘panhandling’ issues, but leaders disagree on approach

A Fairfax County Fire and Rescue worker accepts change for the department’s annual “Fill the Boot” campaign (via FCFRD)

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors directed county staff yesterday (Tuesday) to study potential safety risks when people ask for help on street medians, following concerns from the public.

A memo will be delivered to the board by July 31 from a group of county staff, including representatives from the Fairfax County Police Department, the county’s transportation department, the Office of the County Attorney, and the Office to Prevent and End Homelessness.

Staff will include data-driven analyses about “whether or not there is a specific safety risk related to or stemming from panhandling” and recommend solutions if necessary, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said during a board meeting yesterday.

In a newsletter, McKay reiterated the county’s advice against donating to individual recipients, instead suggesting people give money to nonprofits that provide support services for those individuals.

During the board meeting, McKay added that passersby could also share their generosity in other ways to help people.

“We know that many of the people who are panhandling are not homeless individuals but rather are preying on the extraordinary generosity of our residents in Fairfax County,” McKay said.

He further recommended that motorists give people a piece of paper that lists available resources, such as social service centers.

“Small gifts of cash do not solve the issue of panhandling, but further exacerbate the matter,” McKay said in the newsletter.

McKay acknowledged that courts have ruled in favor of people asking for money on public property due to the First Amendment and that free speech must be protected. But he says he’s increasingly concerned about safety for all.

The move led to quarreling between McKay and Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity, who said he’s been trying to get the board to address the issue for years.

In a newsletter, Herrity said county staff previously collected data and identified over 40 panhandling spots “where there is a public safety issue.”

Led by Herrity and then-Braddock District Supervisor John Cook, the county board directed staff to draft an ordinance disincentivizing panhandling in 2019. Later that year, the board considered putting up anti-panhandling signs, but that effort never came to fruition.

“For us to move forward so far only to start back at square one is a disservice to our residents and to every motorist and panhandler whose life is in danger in our medians each day we delay,” Herrity said in a statement. “We live in an increasingly urban suburb with very busy intersections where it isn’t safe for anyone to be interacting with motorists.”

Despite that statement, Herrity said he is fine with public safety groups using medians and intersections to conduct donations, as in the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department’s “Fill the Boot” campaigns, which support the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

Officials noted that private property owners, such as malls, can restrict people from asking for donations.

Photo via Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department

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