Richard Willis strolled up and down the thin median strip in Bethesda, following the ebb and flow of traffic as the lights changed.
Monday was one of the first days Willis had come to the intersection of Democracy Boulevard and Old Georgetown Road in months, but he said he’s been coming to the area off and on for nearly 10 years.
His small cardboard sign said he needed money for prescriptions, but Willis said he was actually trying to raise money to stay at a motel because there was no room in the homeless shelter where he had been staying.
Drivers’ reaction to his presence is mostly good, although occasionally someone will tell him to get a job, Willis said.
He said sometimes people will bring him a soda or a sandwich. Other times, a driver will say they are on their way to the grocery store across the street, and they’ll bring him something on the way back. In the winter, people will bring gloves, hats or an umbrella if it’s raining, he said.
Earlier Monday morning in Wheaton, Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), County Councilman George Leventhal and other officials announced an initiative to discourage drivers and other county residents from giving money to panhandlers such as Willis and instead direct their money toward county programs that work with the poor and homeless.
“We want people to give. We don’t want people to give to panhandlers,” Leventhal said at a press conference.
People who want to help panhandlers can text SHARE to the number 80077 to donate $5 to the Community Foundation of Montgomery County, which helps coordinate charitable giving in the county.
Kim Ball, administrator of homeless services for the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, said her department goes out to try and interview panhandlers. Some agree and some refuse, and others just take the information the workers provide, Ball said.
Panhandling is a complex, complicated issue, said Susan Sinclair-Smith, executive director of the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless, who spoke at the press conference.
Montgomery County’s affluence, with a median household income listed by the U.S. Census Bureau of $95,660 from 2007-2011, adds to the problem.
“I think the disparities between rich and poor are even more stark here,” Sinclair-Smith said.
Most people feel compassion and a desire to help when they see someone struggling, she said.
But giving the person cash isn’t really the best way to help them; a county service might be, officials said.
“We know what works, so we just need to get people into the programs that work,” Sinclair-Smith said.
The press conference was held at Veirs Mill Road and Georgia Avenue in Wheaton, the site of a May 16 crash that killed Mary Fish, 52, who had been known to panhandle in the area.
A collision between two vehicles at the intersection pushed one of them onto the curb and into the median, where it hit Fish, according to Montgomery County police.
Officials on Monday seemed particularly concerned about panhandlers who enter into traffic to ask drivers for money or to accept a donation that’s offered.
Any time someone is on the roadside or the median, it creates a dangerous situation because it impedes traffic, distracts drivers and causes them to make bad decisions, said Capt. Thomas Didone, director of the Montgomery County Police Department’s Traffic Division.
Panhandling is generally not illegal in Montgomery County, unless the panhandler is aggressive or walking in the roadway, he said.
As someone who has stood in the roadway to direct traffic, Didone can attest to the danger of it.
“People voluntarily doing this for money is insane,” he said.
On Democracy Boulevard, Willis said there are rules that panhandlers need to follow.
He said he’s careful to stay in the median strip and is careful never to touch cars or people or wander into the street.
People who don’t follow those rules have no business being out there, he said.
He said he’s all for the county’s initiative to encourage people to give to organizations to help people who need it.
Ball said giving money at intersections helps panhandlers address their immediate problems.
But many have more long-term issues that need to be dealt with to truly help them, she said.
“Giving them money is not going to help that situation,” she said.