Life on the Median

Sept. 20, 2011, 3:17 p.m. | By Sebastian Medina-Tayac | 9 years, 1 month ago

They come earlier and stay later than any student. They work weekends and summers. While we sit in our climate-controlled school, building our futures, they stand in the heat or cold, begging to maintain their present.

Just across the intersection of Colesville Road and University Boulevard, the "panhandlers" pace sidewalks and medians for hours every day, holding cardboard signs and jingling coins in plastic cups. Many different panhandlers visit the intersection, but some "regulars" have been coming to Four Corners for decades. The intersection and small commercial center surrounding Blair attracts many panhandlers, often five in a day.

According to Susan Kirk, director of Bethesda Cares, a local charity that provides services for the poor and homeless, most panhandlers are not homeless, and most homeless are not panhandlers. They merely use panhandling, soliciting donations on the side of the road, as an easy source of income.

The panhandlers, whether drifting between intersections or remaining loyal to one neighborhood, have become a permanent fixture in Four Corners — a harsh reality that faces Blazers as they walk to the bus stop, drive to school, or cross the street for a snack.

From Boulevard to Boulevard

Blair students encounter them every day, but their interaction is limited. Senior Arthur Tsapdong says that he does not notice them and has become somewhat desensitized toward them through his time at Blair. "I don't really think that much of them because I see them every day," he says.

Kirk says that frequent exposure to panhandlers can have this unfortunate effect on peoples' view of the homeless, even though most panhandlers are not homeless. "A lot of people can become invisible. After a while, people just step around people who look like [panhandlers]."

Kevin Moose, however, a social studies teacher who has been teaching at Blair for almost a decade, approaches the needy differently. One day, four years ago, as an experiment encouraged by his church group, he decided to greet one of the panhandlers on his way to work, a man named Kevin. "We always sidestep them, but we could just say ‘hi'; they're people, too," Moose says.

They originally began talking about sports, but their daily conversations developed into more profound discussions about their thoughts and lives, and they soon became friends. As they became closer, Moose learned that Kevin was not homeless, but rather lives in a government-subsidized apartment in Wheaton. Though he does it less these days, Kevin made the commute to Four Corners every day to panhandle.

Business is good

Though the area surrounding the Colesville-University intersection, Woodmoor, is relatively wealthy, according to Census data, its conditions encourage poor and homeless people from other places to come panhandle.

The first reason is money, as it usually is for panhandlers. At the large nine- by four-lane intersection, with a median running though it, panhandlers can easily corner a wide range of driving commuters stuck at the red light, according to Kirk.

The panhandlers also benefit from their proximity to Blair and the high traffic of student pedestrians crossing the street to get to Four Corners businesses. The U.S Department of Justice (USDJ) reports that 50-60 percent of students give money to panhandlers, more than adults.

Montgomery County, as a whole, may also attract more panhandlers because of the relatively relaxed laws against the practice, according to Kirk and George Leventhal (D-At large), a Montgomery County councilman.

In Montgomery County, unlike in surrounding Washington, D.C., Virginia and seven other Maryland counties, including Anne Arundel, Frederick and Prince George's, it is currently legal for people to stand by the road and ask for money, as long as they do not threaten or harass people for money.

Leventhal says that this may contribute to the disproportionately large number of out-of-county people coming to panhandle in Montgomery County. Kirk says that the county attracts a certain number of people from surrounding areas seeking "easy money."

The ban

This reputation may not last. The legality of panhandling in the county was challenged last month as county and state legislators fought for a bill that would put an outright ban on roadside solicitation.

The bill would have allowed the County Council to create a permitting system for roadside solicitors, requiring them to present a permit to police. But, according to Leventhal, who supported the bill, panhandlers begging for cash like those around Four Corners would not receive permits.

Leventhal says that the eventual goal of the bill is to move beyond the permitting system to a blanket ban on panhandling because implementing the permit system would put additional strain on the County's already struggling budget.

The bill's sponsor, Delegate Anne Kaiser (D-Dist. 14), withdrew at the last minute, facing a political burn from the Montgomery County Career Firefighter's Association, who thought the bill would threaten their charity campaign in which they raise money from roadside donations.

Leventhal thinks that criminalizing panhandling would be the best way to get them off the streets and into support systems. He says that if people really want to fix the issue, they should donate to social services that help feed, educate and house the poor and homeless. "People giving money to panhandlers should give it to homeless services… to get to the root of the problem," he says.

Legislators promise constituents further attempts to instate the ban, but for now, panhandlers can still walk the median unrestricted.

Back to society

But according to a USDJ report, the median is not a safe place to be. Panhandlers are more likely to be victims of crimes; half of panhandlers report being mugged every year. Their income, ranging anywhere from $3-$300 every day, is as unpredictable as their next meal.

They do not continue to take these risks for lack of resources, though — Kirk, Leventhal, and Shepherd's Table director of social services John Eckenrode insist that services for the poor and homeless are widely available to those who need them.

There are over 18 other shelters and organizations within 20 miles of Four Corners that help the poor and homeless, like Bethesda Cares and Shepherd's Table, which provide fresh food, a warm place to stay in the winter months, resume writing and career preparation, emotional support, and rehabilitation. "We help people trying to find a toehold to connect them back to society," Kirk says.

Despite the number of options available to them, Kirk says that most panhandlers just aren't willing to pay the price: sobriety and commitment to a program to keep them off the streets.

The reason there are so many people out on the street asking for money, according to Eckenrode, is that they have other needs for which organizations do not provide. Shelters do not give out cigarettes, alcohol or other illicit drugs, so many panhandlers will sustain these bad habits with the money they make off of begging.

Moose says that though he has never pried, he knows that there is something, possibly a criminal record or an addiction, that makes Kevin unhirable, making Kevin's only available source of income panhandling.

Eckenode and Kirk say that the best way to help panhandlers is to hand out cards with service information or point them in the direction of the nearest shelter or aid organization. But Moose tries a less formal approach to making a difference in Kevin's life — acts of simple, though thoughtful, kindness. Though he says Kevin has never asked him for anything, Moose gives him whatever bills he happens to have available at the moment, whether it's a one or a twenty. Moose also brings Kevin more than just money, such as warm clothes during winter months, food and a friendly face. Moose even brings Kevin a Christmas card and gift every year.

He knows this cannot fix the problem of poverty or begging, but believes that with small acts of compassion and generosity, a real positive change can be made in the lives of these individuals. "I really enjoy doing what little I can," Moose says. "If everyone took care of one person, we could make a huge difference."

Sebastian Medina-Tayac. More »

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