Panhandlers at the Intersection of Civil Rights and Public Safety

Jan 22, 2018

Maybe you’ve been seeing more of them: panhandlers out asking for money from drivers stopped at red lights in Harrisonburg, Charlottesville, elsewhere. They often stand on medians at busy intersections – and embody an intersection of first amendment rights, public safety and social isolation, as WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz reports.

Harold Walker said that when he moved to Harrisonburg in 2002, something made him want to stay here:

HAROLD WALKER: I fell in love with the mountains and all that stuff.

He’s originally from near Philadelphia, and came here to a residential, transitional facility after serving time.

WALKER: I looked out the window, and all I saw was like, layers of mountains, and I said, “Oh man, this is where I need to be.”

Walker said he’s been homeless since 2008. I found him on the East Market Street median at the intersection with Burgess Road. It’s just off Interstate 81, with the new Olive Garden, plus other restaurants, a gas station, and lots of shopping plazas nearby, where Market street is six busy lanes. It’s one of the busiest corners in Harrisonburg.

Like the woman on the opposite median – she didn’t want to go on record – Walker was flying a sign – panhandling.

WALKER: I get enough for a room and sometimes I get enough for eating. I smoke cigarettes, so I make a choice, either I smoke or I eat. Or just go ahead and get a room and get out of the cold at night.

CLYMER KURTZ: What’s the response from people here?

WALKER: Some people are being generous, some give to us, and we have the ones that ride past and say, “Get a job!” but they don’t understand, I’m 61 years old, and I’m not saying that I can’t work, but I’ve got a lot of mental issues and stuff. But I just deal with it day by day. Whatever the Lord bless me with, that’s what I go with.

RON HOWARD: It’s definitely grown, so to speak, I don’t want to say gotten out of hand, but they’re out there  a whole lot more than they ever once were.

Ron Howard is a Harrisonburg Police Department Sergeant. As things stand now in the city, the police can only remove a panhandler when there’s a problem, for example if one goes out into traffic.

DISPATCH: 1770 East Market Street, panhandling in progress, a white male in a toboggan is obstructing traffic.

RON HOWARD: We can’t really do anything from the enforcement aspect as long as they’re abiding by staying out of the roadway, not being belligerent and violent or threatening to do harm to somebody or whatnot. At face value what they’re doing – crazy as it may seem – it’s legal.

In fact, court rulings in recent years have affirmed that panhandling is protected free speech that can be limited only to achieve what Harrisonburg City Attorney Chris Brown calls “legitimate government interests” – such as public safety.

CHRIS BROWN: You can’t just use, in effect, common sense, and say a person standing in the median soliciting funds or handing out political flyers or something like that is going to interfere with traffic. I think the courts understand that, but you still have to produce some evidence that that’s happening, and then you have to tailor your ordinance very narrowly. You can’t have an ordinance in the city that says, “No solicitation in the roadway.” You really have to figure out where is it a danger, and where is that legitimate government interest of protecting pedestrians, protecting traffic, where does that come into play.

Brown said the city is working on an ordinance that will prohibit median activities including panhandling at certain intersections – probably the one where I’d talked to Harold Walker, plus where Martin Luther King, Jr. Way crosses South Main Street.

He also said that panhandling is not just a Harrisonburg problem, even though he’s heard that people think it suddenly is.

BROWN: This is something that everyone around the state is dealing with.

That includes Charlottesville, defendant in one of those free speech court rulings. Currently solicitation is restricted at four intersections and in certain areas on the Downtown Mall.

Stephen Hitchcock is the executive director of The Haven, a multi-resource day shelter in Charlottesville for homeless people.

STEPHEN HITCHCOCK: In every community that I’ve either worked in or visited, people say, “We’re a magnet for the homeless.”

He said that’s not generally the case, although small cities such as Charlottesville and Harrisonburg both might draw people in need of services from surrounding counties. He also doesn’t buy the notion that flying signs is a sort of industry.

HITCHCOCK: I hear from people how they see folks pull in in nice cars and park somewhere and get out and start flying signs. That’s an easy way to think. I don’t think that there’s a van that is busing people in to fly signs, make money, and then picking them up and, like, that’s an industry. I don’t think that’s true.

Panhandling is a result of “disconnection and isolation,” he said. “If someone was completely integrated into the social fabric of their community, with a supportive network, they wouldn’t need to be exposing themselves to the elements, to the public eye, asking for money.”

Back at that busy Harrisonburg intersection, Harold Walker knows a potential ordinance could be numbering his days on that median. When it gets cold, he said, he can stay with friends, but panhandling allows him some measure of independence.

WALKER: I’m going to do what it takes to do for me to not put a burden on them so much.

Here's a link to a 2014 longform report from WMRA’s Jordy Yager about Charlottesville panhandlers.