Fairfax County funds survey of people who engage in ‘panhandling’

A person can be seen panhandling on the median of International Drive in Tysons (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

After years of debating the issue of “panhandling” in board rooms, Fairfax County will now actually talk to the people asking for money, often from sidewalks and street medians.

At Chairman Jeff McKay’s request, the Board of Supervisors approved $75,000 for a survey of people engaged in panhandling as part of a budget carryover package adopted on Tuesday (Sept. 26).

“Understanding that asking for money is a protected act under the First Amendment, it is imperative that the County better understand the needs of the people who are panhandling and explore innovative approaches to responding to panhandling,” McKay wrote in his request that the item be added to the package, which allocated $203 million in leftover funds from fiscal year 2023.

Per the memo, the survey will be conducted by a contracted firm that should have experience surveying “marginalized populations” and “a proven track record of producing high-quality data.”

Collected data could include:

Demographics; reasons for panhandling; how long they have been panhandling; experiences with employment, poverty, and homelessness; panhandling income and spending patterns; possible coercion and collaboration among people panhandling; and opinions on what it would take to stop panhandling.

The memo notes that the surveys “must be conducted safely and confidentially.”

A start date hasn’t been determined yet, but the survey is expected to take six months. The results will be presented to the board at a future committee meeting.

The planned survey will be the county’s latest effort to address panhandling, following rejected attempts to prohibit the practice or install anti-panhandling signage. The county did launch a clean-up program in 2019 that gives temporary work to people experiencing homelessness.

While panhandling is protected as free speech, the county discourages community members from giving money to people on the streets who ask for it, arguing that it’s more effective to connect them with long-term assistance.

Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity, who has led the charge against panhandling, said earlier in Tuesday’s meeting that he’s reviewing “ordinances involving prohibiting the exchange of objects in the roadway that have been successful in other jurisdictions,” including Loudoun County.

In the meantime, he proposed that the board consider advocating for Virginia to let police charge pedestrians, including people who are panhandling, for jaywalking. The state adopted a law in 2021 that downgraded jaywalking to a secondary offense, meaning police can’t stop someone just because they’re not in a crosswalk.

“Understanding the critical needs of people in our community is essential when dealing with this multi-faceted issue,” Herrity said. “However, I believe it is also critical to address the public safety component of panhandling, not just to understand the service issues.”

Braddock District Supervisor James Walkinshaw suggested the board instead look at jaywalking as part of a larger conversation on pedestrian safety, which has been a top priority for the county after fatalities surged last year.

One of those killed was a man who was panhandling in a Springfield median, but that three-vehicle crash was started by a driver who ran a red light, the Fairfax County Police Department said in a 2022 report. Police said there were no records of any other fatal incidents involving panhandling in at least the past nine years.

“I don’t know that we have evidence of incidents or interactions between panhandlers and cars creating safety issues for panhandlers who are, quote-unquote, jaywalking,” Walkinshaw said. “We’ve got speeding, we’ve got distracted driving, we’ve got speed limits that are too high in some places, we have bad road design that we’re working hard and investing money to address.”

Herrity agreed to have a broader conversation, which will come at a future legislative committee meeting as the board finalizes its priorities for the 2024 General Assembly.

McKay said he agrees there’s a “safety component” to panhandling, but he hopes the survey will give the county a better understanding of “the root causes and challenges.”

“Many of us have heard the rumors in the past about this being a business enterprise more than it is a concentration of people who are homeless,” McKay said. “We also heard from people in our homeless community who rely on panhandling, so there seems to be mixed data out there. I think we need to understand what the challenge is and the root causes of it, including what the effects are on public safety.”