Montgomery County's efforts to purge panhandlers not so effective

(WJLA) - In September, Montgomery County leaders, including Executive Ike Leggett and Council Vice President George Leventhal, announced a costly effort to purge panhandlers from busy streets.

In theory, the plan would direct donations from beggars on the curb to homeless shelters and food banks. Now more than three months later, the public is getting an early glimpse at the program's success ---or lack thereof.

Today the initiative, which boasts the slogan, "Give a hand up. Not a hand out," can be found plastered inside county buildings, on the sides of bus shelters and within dozens of Ride-On buses. On each piece of panhandling propaganda, residents are directed to text "SHARE" to 80077 to donate $5 to the Community Foundation for Montgomery County. The agency is tasked with distributing the donated funds to a handful of verified not-for-profits across Montgomery County, including Interfaith Works' Silver Spring day program and seasonal shelter.

"Although we want the public to give, we want the public to give to charity. So I think this is a quick and easy way to help," Council Vice President George Leventhal said.

Only problem, the idea, which cost the county $10,000 to publicize, hasn't netted much money, and panhandling continues at dozens of street corners.

According to the Denver technology company which manages the anti-panhandling text program, Montgomery County has raised $1,055 --- $670 from mailed donations and $385 from text donations.

"I never expected there to be a flood of donations. This program also has a lot to do with safety. Standing outside day-after-day, begging for spare change doesn't help the client and it's not safe," Leventhal said. "We don't want beggars standing in traffic, we discourage it."

In May, Mary Josephine Fish, 52, of Beltsville, was hit and killed by a van at the corner of Veirs Mill Road and Georgia Avenue in Wheaton. Fish, a well-known panhandler, was holding a cardboard sign when a chain reaction sent the van barreling toward the curb, ending her life before she could react.

So why don't police run panhandlers from the street corner? It's not that easy, or legal for that matter. So long as a beggar doesn't engage in "aggressive" panhandling or interfere with traffic flow, walking the concrete median or sidewalk is their First Amendment right.

With that knowledge, a line of panhandlers can be seen daily, begging for driver's spare change (and dollar bills) along major roadways like Rockville Pike. ABC7 found Heather Ryan, 22, and her boyfriend, who didn't want to share his name, at the corner of Rockville Pike and Bou Avenue on a rainy December Friday. Ryan, who was born and raised in Maryland, said she hasn't noticed a decline in donations since the county tried to nix her livelihood.

"A good day is when you get, between 12 p.m. and 3:30 p.m., you get $50," Ryan, who says she's been homeless for four years, said.

A few blocks away, at the corner of Rockville Pike and Twinbrook Parkway, Lincoln Conway could be seen sharing his life story on a cardboard sign.

"I couldn't find work. I have a driver's license, I don't use drugs. I'm experienced in landscaping and tree work, I know how to use a computer. What else am I supposed to do," Conway asked rhetorically.

Conway, who took to begging in May after losing his job, admittedly couch surfs because he feels the local homeless shelters are too dangerous and "political."

"I'm safer begging on the street and sleeping where I can to find some heat. I refuse to sleep in the shelters because you don't know what's going to happen there," Conway added. "This idea by the county though is nuts. It sure doesn't help us."

"Is it a surprise they're not happy? No," Lenventhal said. "Most homeless are not panhandlers and most panhandlers are not homeless. They persist in behavior day-after-day that ultimately does not improve their condition, and certainly is not productive for Montgomery County. I think there's a better choice, and that's texting to our campaign."

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