Tuesday, September 27, 2022

James City County looks to motorists to curb panhandling

The signs tell motorists not give money to panhandlers, and a phone number at the bottom of each sign connects to the regional crisis housing hotline. (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)
The signs tell motorists not give money to panhandlers, and a phone number at the bottom of each sign connects to the regional crisis housing hotline. (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)

James City County is looking to curb a national trend–with signs. County officials put up signs at five intersections discouraging drivers from giving money to panhandlers.

The signs look to address growing concerns about the balance of public safety and freedom of speech.

“These signs are being placed to discourage interactions between pedestrians, panhandlers and automobiles in roadways,” Assistant County Administrator Jason Purse wrote in an email.

The signs tell motorists to not give money to panhandlers and include a phone number at the bottom to the regional crisis housing hotline.

“Do not encourage panhandling by giving money from vehicle,” the street signs state.

While five signs have been installed so far, the county is looking to install two more after it determines where they might be “needed,” Purse wrote.

All seven signs cost county taxpayers a total of $495, according to Purse.

National trend against panhandling

After anti-panhandling ordinances across the nation have been struck down numerous times by the judicial system, signs discouraging motorists from giving money to panhandlers are becoming more popular.

In Manchester, New Hampshire, signs dissuade drivers from giving to panhandlers, according to a report from New Hampshire Public Radio.

“Your generosity could lead to a fatality,” one sign states.

Manchester Police Chief Enoch Willard was not immediately available for comment.

Instead, the signs encourage drivers to “donate to a local charity,” with several charities’ phone numbers and addresses listed.

While the signs discouraging panhandling have popped up across the country, including at least one other locality in Virginia, other municipal governments have taken a different approach.

In Manchester, New Hampshire, signs dissuade drivers from giving to panhandlers, according to a report from New Hampshire Public Radio. (Courtesy NHPR)
In Manchester, New Hampshire, signs dissuade drivers from giving to panhandlers, according to a report from New Hampshire Public Radio. (Courtesy NHPR)

According to the Omaha World-Herald, the city of Omaha, Nebraska is looking to ban people from standing in some medians unless they’re crossing the street or performing construction at the site.

Despite Omaha looking to make a ban on panhandling, prohibiting people from standing in medians isn’t something James City County can do, according to County Attorney Adam Kinsman.

Finding the balance

While the signs do not legally prohibit panhandling, they are an attempt to curb a practice that can be dangerous, said James City County Deputy Police Chief Steve Rubino.

“It can be a distraction to other drivers,” Rubino said of motorists giving money to panhandlers. “Anytime pedestrians are out on the roadway, there’s always the danger of them getting hit.”

While the county says it’s looking to mitigate potential vehicle or vehicle-pedestrian accidents, there have been no reported cases of panhandling indirectly causing accidents, according to Rubino.

“As far as I know, we haven’t had any accidents caused by panhandling,” Rubino said.

Although the signs are new and haven’t all been installed as of Thursday, the county said it hopes people in need can find the help they need by calling the hotline on the sign.

“James City County recognizes that finding adequate shelter is often the most pressing issue for those in need, which is why we chose to include that information,” Purse wrote. “The best way for the community to make the most difference in the lives of those in need is to work with our wonderful charities.”

Protected by the constitution

The Virginia Department of Transportation owns most roadways in most counties in the commonwealth, so it would take legislation from the General Assembly to put a stopper to people standing in medians in the county, according to Kinsman.

Protesters, religious groups, and political campaigners are protected under the first amendment to the United States Constitution in the same way signs and solicitations by panhandlers are protected.

“There are large hurdles to legally suppress speech in medians,” Kinsman said. “I think it’s probably why you’re seeing more signage.”

The Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union did not return a request for comment by the time of publication.

For Kinsman, it’s about striking a balance between public safety and freedom of speech.

“When there’s a conflict you fall to the side of free speech,” Kinsman said. “You have to respect that.”

Do you know someone in need? Call the Regional Housing Crisis Hotline, 1-866-750-4431 for housing help. For information regarding other resources for those in need, call the James City County Department of Social Services at 757-259-3100.

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