Drivers urged to stop giving cash to panhandlers

By Jordan Janis, Features Editor

Montgomery County recently began its “Hand Up, Not a Handout” campaign, an educational program to discourage drivers from giving money directly to panhandlers because of moral and safety concerns.

Instead, the county is urging residents to text the word “SHARE” to 80077 to donate $5 to the Community Foundation for Montgomery County (CFMC), a nonprofit, non-government organization that then donates money to grassroots efforts to give the homeless food, shelter and other necessities.

“The goal of this program is two-fold,” said George Leventhal, County Councilmember and chair of the County Council Health and Human Services Committee. “While we encourage residents to text ‘SHARE,’ we also want the public to be aware that if they don’t want to see panhandlers on the street or in the roadways, the best thing to do is to not give them money.”

Leventhal, along with County Executive Isaiah Leggett, Montgomery County police chief Tom Manger, Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless executive director Susie Sinclair-Smith and Shepherd’s Table Executive Jacki Coyle, began this program to educate people about the dangers of roadside panhandling, both for panhandlers and drivers.

In addition to causing distracted driving and threats to people rolling down their windows to strangers, panhandling can injure the panhandlers themselves. In May, a car jumping the median during an accident hit and killed panhandler Mary Josephine Fish. Leventhal and Leggett announced the Campaign Sept. 9 at the site of her death.

“The County’s role in this program is to educate our constituents, to let them know that giving money to panhandlers is not only unproductive, but it is also very dangerous,” Leventhal said.

After years of complaints from drivers, the county formed a task force in 2011 to look into resolutions for the panhandling problem.

According to a September 2013 Washington Post article, officials initially considered making panhandling illegal, but this would have conflicted with the First Amendment. Officials also considered parking meter-style machines to which drivers could donate money, and restricting panhandlers through a permitting system, but they felt the most effective method was this educational campaign.

The county has placed messages on buses, made public service announcements, put signs in county facilities, sent emails and used other social media to promote the program.

“This program is to alert people that putting the dollar in the cup does not necessarily lead to the change they think it’s going to,” said Susan Kirk, executive director of Bethesda Cares, one of the grassroots organizations working with CFMC.

According to CFMC administrative assistant Zahra Bokhari, over 1,000 people in Montgomery County are homeless.

According to Kirk, however, about 75 percent of the roadside panhandlers are not homeless.

“The people at the intersections tend to be more outgoing, who are supporting what they need and are done for the day,” Kirk said. “There are people living in the woods, in the Metros, who are in the shadows, and they need help. They’re in the back seat, and we want to move them up front. Those are the people we want to help.”