Many panhandlers see a pause in traffic as their green light.
Stepping from car to car in search of loose coins and bills, they risk their own safety walking a dangerous line between protected free speech and being an obstruction, Arlington Police Captain Patrick Donahue explains. They’re the subject of “constant calls” to Donahue’s District 1 from residents who are sympathetic but leery or just plain angry about being approached when they are stopped at a red light and unable to move.
Despite heart-wrenching signs that speak of homelessness or even physical traumas displayed from traffic medians, Donahue says motorists should avoid giving panhandlers money directly. It usually “does not improve their situation” since there’s no telling what the cash will be used for, Donahue says. Officers have even seen those who appear to be indigent drive off in their own cars after working an intersection.
For everyone’s safety and the guaranteed benefit of those in need, police and social services recommend contributing to familiar organizations in the community that help the hungry and the homeless. Two such groups: Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network (A-SPAN) and the Arlington Food Assistance Center (AFAC). The County Department of Human Services can suggest a host of recognized charities.
Although Arlington Police have arrested “quite a few” panhandlers on charges of obstructing traffic, jaywalking and even fighting over choice locations, Donahue says that courts have generally upheld the right of panhandlers to patrol curbs of roadways. It’s an issue of basic constitutional rights.
So panhandlers keep returning to dangerous medians because motorists keep giving. “Never a good mix” in Donahue’s words.
Arlington has better, more proven ways to help those in need. It’s just a matter of giving in the right direction.