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County board again rejects proposed ban on giving money to people on street medians

A median on Route 123 at International Drive in Tysons (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Fairfax County is once again discussing how to discourage “panhandling” while also declining — at least for the moment — to make it illegal to engage with anyone in a county-owned road or median.

The subject was revived at last week’s board meeting by Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity after cropping up a number of times over the last several years.

Herrity’s board matter argued that people in the road or median asking for money not only “generates considerable public complaint,” but is a safety risk for both those individuals and motorists.

“Anyone who stands in the median of our busy intersections trying to engage with motorists puts themselves in danger and presents a dangerous distraction to motorists,” Herrity’s board matter said. “This applies to panhandlers, fundraisers, marketers, and anyone else in the medians.”

However, a recent study by the county somewhat disputes this assertion. At Herrity’s urging, the board directed staff in May to conduct a study into if there are “public safety risks” in relation to people being in roads asking for money.

Sent to the board in July, the study results concluded that staff was “unable to find a significant public safety risk related to or stemming from panhandling,” mostly because that data wasn’t being collected at that level of specificity.

“While panhandling appears dangerous and generates considerable public complaint, available FCPD 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,” the study said.

Nonetheless, Herrity disagreed with the assessment by saying a study shouldn’t replace “commonsense.”

“With as many tragic pedestrian fatalities as we have had in this County, including one panhandler, I am frankly appalled that we have not done more to protect our residents on this issue. We should not need a study to determine what is commonsense,” Herrity wrote in the board matter.

At the board’s Oct. 11 meeting, Herrity proposed directing staff to “draft a curb-to-curb safety ordinance that would restrict anyone from engaging with motorists between the curbs of a road with the exception of recognized public safety entities,” including for the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department’s annual “Fill the Boot” campaign.

A similar ordinance has been in place in Loudoun County since 2013 but has since been tweaked.

The motion, however, did not receive a second and died before going to a vote.

Board Chairman Jeff McKay said he’s not opposed to continuing the discussion in a closed session but cautioned that courts have already ruled against the proposal’s legality.

“I don’t object to having that conversation, but I do think that conversation should happen before the staff goes about drafting an ordinance to the benefit of your colleagues who weren’t on the last board, knowing that the last board soundly rejected this,” McKay told Herrity.

Herrity had a bit more luck with a request for a public information campaign to let community members know there are better ways to help those in need other than physically handing out cash. It also looked to inform business owners of their rights in restricting the act on their property.

That motion passed without objection from any supervisors.

As noted by the county’s public information officer Tony Castrilli during the meeting, the county has put out materials in the past that discouraged “panhandling” and shared best practices to help folks who are in need.

As part of the passed motion, the Board directed staff to update those materials.

McKay advised residents to donate money to nonprofits and community organizations, as opposed to handing out cash to those standing in roads or on sidewalks.

“The best way to stop this is for residents to stop giving money to panhandlers. That’s a difficult task to accomplish,” McKay said. “If we are really going to make a dent in this…it’s for people to give money to legitimate organizations that can help deal with the homelessness problem in the county. The folks that are giving money are doing what they think is the right thing, but they are creating even larger challenges.”

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