Friday Question of the Day – Panhandling a Problem in DC?

Over the holidays there was an interesting discussion on the MPD-1D listserv that started off with the following request:

“Please resolve the issue of panhandlers sitting in front of SW New Safeway!”

MPD responded:

First District members will use some of their persuasive talents to encourage these folks to go elsewhere; however, “panhandling” and loitering are not illegal in the District of Columbia. Aggressive Panhandling is a violation of the law, but this would involve an activity like using tactics that are meant to intimidate people. The City Council purposely did not make the mere act of panhandling a violation, so while it may not be conducive to the promotion of the area, we are limited in what action we can take. If the law was to change and panhandling did become illegal, we would enforce.

In addition to our persuasive tactics, it would help if the community not give money to these panhandlers. I stopped at Safeway myself the other night on my way home and saw at least 3 people give money to a subject panhandling. As long as people continue to give money to the panhandlers, they will keep coming back. The community could urge people that want to help the homeless to give money to organization that provide services to the homeless rather than to panhandlers.

A resident included this secton from DC Code for reference:

D.C. Code s.22-2301-2306 (Panhandling Control Act of 1993), specifically s.2302(a)-(h) which states:

(a) No person may ask, beg, or solicit alms, including money and other things of value, in an aggressive manner in any place open to the general public, including sidewalks, streets, alleys, driveways, parking lots, parks, plazas, buildings, doorways and entrances to buildings, and gasoline service stations, and the grounds enclosing buildings.

As stated the key words in the above code are “in an aggressive manner”. The Downtown BID shares a primer on aggressive panhandling here.

When I was in San Fransisco over the holidays I happened to notice the following plaque in front of a downtown building (see photo above as well):

So for the Friday Question of the Day – do you think DC Code/laws need to be updated to deal with panhandling? Do you think panhandling in DC is a significant problem in general? Do you think an MPD officer responding “First District members will use some of their persuasive talents to encourage these folks to go elsewhere” is a satisfactory way to deal with this problem (if you do consider it a problem)?

72 Comment

  • I have a big problem with MPD officers using their “persuasive talents” to disperse people who are not breaking any laws. First and foremost, MPD has far more important issues on which to focus its collective attention, but second, being told by a cop to move from public property because he or she doesn’t like the way you look is tantamount to harassment by the police. They’re not private security for businesses. If Safeway has a problem, they should persuade people on their own dime and their own time.

    • Exactly. Imagine if the police proudly proclaimed their use of their “persuasive talents” to prevent individuals from engaging in some other lawful activity like, say, voting.

      • Point taken, but surely voting is different than panhandling. The former is constitutionally protected; the latter is not.

        • Actually, a number of local ordinances with blanket bans on panhandling have been stuck down by courts over the years, so there is some constitutional protection for panhandling. Of course, localities can put reasonable restrictions on the time (such as no begging after dark) or manner (such as no agressive panhandling) of panhandling.

          Interestingly, I think some city in the NW (Portland maybe?) got around a court striking down a panhandling statute by retooling it as a traffic violation statute. Clever hippies, they are up there…

        • No, actually voting is not constitionally protected. It is not a fundamental right, as surprising as that might be.

  • It’s been pretty cold the past couple of days. Do people think panhandlers are outside because they got bored of what’s on cable? DC cut funding to the homeless. Now people complain about homeless people spending time in libraries or panhandling for money. Somehow, my sympathies are not with the residents complaining about panhandlers.

  • The problem with panhandling are the people who give them money. Panhandlers need to juggle or sing or play drums or write poems…..anything at all that shows some ambition. I am from a poor country myself (from a poor but proud family), and I have been hassled by enough people in enough countries to learn the power of the 1000-yard stare, to treat street people as if they were invisible and mute….it may even have saved my life once or twice. No joking.

  • I do have a problem with the guys standing in front of the METRO fare machines that are there all day and almost daily asking for $. Some people dont know that they are being scammed. They think that they really helping the guy buy a farecard.

    • Whenever someone asks for spare change to buy something to eat, I always offer to take them someplace to buy them some food. In twenty years, I’ve never been taken up on this offer.

      • ah

        I once did that (actually the guy suggested it – “buy me something to eat?”). Went into the nearby popeyes and bought him some meal. Pretty sure he never got it and the cashier gave him the cash I paid, less a take.

      • I do this too, and I’ve been taken up on my offer twice. For what it’s worth, both were women, and were extremely grateful that I bought them food.

      • dt

        On rare occasion I have had people accept food, gratefully and gracefully. Usually it’s just a ‘no thanks’ though.

  • Whoever wrote on the list-serve complaining about panhandlers in front of Safeway is probably new to DC and just moved into one of those nice new condos for a ton of money and expected Disney world. Well, Tadaaaa…welcome to DC a-hole, deal with it.

    • Prince Of Petworth

      The original complaint was made by a long term resident.

      • yes, but a grumpy one who is frequently misinformed or makes requests to the police that are either far outside of their purview or a waste of their time.

        There are not a ton of panhandlers outside of that Safeway. I was actually surprised to see this email because I’m there often and couldn’t remember ever being asked for change or anything. I agree with folks that offering food or donating to homeless service agencies are generally a better way to go, or just simply saying “no, sorry” to the person asking. If someone keeps bothering you, touches you, gets up in your face, etc. then I think it’s perfectly reasonable to call the police.

    • Exactly. DC ain’t gonna change just for you, so if you don’t like things like panhandling and homeless people all over the place, move to some country that takes care of their mentally ill. DC is crime-ridden, and that’s how we like it!


    Can we start by clearing out the bum at Federal Triangle that has been there every morning for the last three years.

    Or the panhandlers/fake charity kids on Metro? if it’s a crime in NYC, why do we allow the harassing behavior?

  • I have never had a problem with someone on Capitol Hill “aggressively” asking for money. If I may be judgmental, I will assume that this is more to do with people feeling uncomfortable at the face of poverty. Since, well, if you don’t like it, don’t give them money! Was it really that awful to see someone asking for it?

  • Compared to San Francisco, Seattle or other west coast cities – I actually think DC isn’t as bad. There are a lot less kids on heroin on the District’s streets than those cities.
    As others said – pan handling should be a very low priority. Once we can get closer to Arlington County’s murder rate – then we cand deal with this issue.

    • I echo this sentiment. Even Denver has more panhandling than here.

      Also, considering how difficult the past few years have been economically and socially, is it really a surprise that needy people are showing up on the more affluent people’s radars more and more frequently? The lack of sympathy that some posters show is disconcerting.

    • In San Fran, at least the panhandling is creative. There are some great signs that the pan handlers carry.

      I personally find the pan handling annoying and I can see how it would be disruptive to a business. However, I just say no usually and I have never had anyone be aggressive with me after that. When it is left at that I really have no issue with it. If it was to the level of the people trying to sell you little nick nacks outside of the the Eiffel Tower in Paris I might feel a little differently.

    • I agree. I am from Seattle and there are a lot more panhandlers there than here. I am actually surprised there are so few here.

    • I agree too. I’m from Seattle and lived in San Francisco. Panhandling is way worse in both those cities than in DC, which may have more to do with the moderate climate than anything else. I just don’t consider panhandling to be a very big deal in DC. What drove me crazy on the West Coast was healthy middle class twenty-somethings who thought it was cool to ask other people for money. Here, most panhandlers I encounter really do seem to be down on their luck, whether through misfortune or mental health issues. They are far more worthy of support, in my opinion.

  • Panhandling is a problem for people with a conscience with concern for the poor. Here’s someone poor, probably destitute, asking you for an amount of money you can afford to give them. But you doubt they’re going to use the money to help themselves out, you think they’re going to use it for alcohol or drugs.

    Do you give them money or not? No one seems to be able to draw bright moral or practical lines about when to give money to bums.

    Moral arbiters and liberals (like me), spare me the alternative courses of action like sandwiches or working Saturdays in soup kitchens. Just give me a rule I can live by when I’ve got change in my pocket, a bum asking for it, and no time to hang around. Do I drop change or not?

    • I say give change if you have change but also recognize that half the times it is being used for drugs or alcohol and not food. If you really want to help, some of the direct outreach services in the city could use your financial support. Bread for the City, Martha’s Table, Legal Aid (which helps people steer through the system with landlords, benefits, abusive living situations etc.) all could use your help and support. There are scores of others as well.

      • Bread for the City via CFC. I have a lot of trouble volunteering being a parent to a toddler. Just so much harder to find time to love my neighbors.

        • Nice work. I have volunteered at the Bread for the City legal clinic a handful of times over the years. It is a great organization.

    • My sentiments EXACTLY! I worked at a shelter for four years and had multiple clients tell me that I should NOT give money. And yes, most of the time I am wondering if they’re just going to use it for drugs. But I feel horrible every time I walk past someone asking for money and DON’T give. Especially the guy outside of Starbucks that I pass every Sunday on my way to church! If I see a woman with children I will give 95% of the time, even if the chance is she’s just using them to make money.

      It’s the eternal struggle.

      I did have a guy actually ask me to buy him breakfast at McDonald’s once. He ordered a sausage McMuffin and asked to have jelly on it, thanked me, and we went our separate ways.

  • Panhandling in DC is nowhere as near as bad as it is in other cities but homelessness seems to be right on par, if not worse (at least in the downtown area). I have lived in other cities and in DC back in the 90’s and what is going on here now doesn’t compare. In other cities they are far more agressive and often times work in crews. I have been in many restaurants/lounges where they bodly walk in and start asking for money or stand right next to your table begging/staring at you while you dine al fresco. In fact in some cities it is so bad that you have to have a license to panhandle. But in DC, they seem pretty harmless though some are more agressive than others. What I really hate seeing is the homelessness and despair. It really is sad that this is happening in the shadows of the executive offices of the capital of the most powerful nation in the world.

  • The other thing that pisses me off is seeing able body men ask for money but yet they are wearing Jordans and a North Face. It is like a subculture for some people and the kids see it and emulate it. I will never forget one day when I went to the gas station and kids were begging for money while I tried to pump gas. Not that I doubted them having a harder way to go but I know (yes I am assuming but it was a group of them so it is what it is) this was something learned/ a quick hustle and not out of neccesity, hell I wouldn’t even have been surprised if a hour later their parents came and picked up the money they had earned. Truly sad.

    • Unfortunately, I’ve had that restaurant experience happen to me in DC. It was not comfortable, and I did not give him any money, but others did. I couldn’t believe none of the employees tried to do anything.

  • DC’s problem is not panhandling, it is homelessness. Stricter panhandling laws won’t make a difference, and will cost our law enforcement, courts, and prisons money that we should be spending on helping people.

    If you are looking for a good organization to donate to, I’d recommend N Street Village –

  • I once bought a meal for the guy outside my office building. He was always really friendly and when he asked for a meal, not money, I had a hard time saying no. I went into the restaurant and got him exactly what he wanted. He was most grateful. So grateful that the next day he asked me to be his girlfriend. He was kind about it, asking me to wear my seat belt because he didn’t want anything to happen to me. This persisted for weeks and it became rather uncomfortable. Some of my colleagues who were around thought I should notify security; one smartly suggested I call Martha’s Table and ask how best to handle the situation. I didn’t want to get him in trouble but it was getting to be a little much. They strongly recommended that I not buy or give him anything except information on how to get help from a local service agency. I’ve taken that advice to heart, especially considering the source.

  • I’ve lived in this city for more years than I’d like to admit and my overall impression of most (not all) panhandling is that it is just a shakedown, designed to intimidate or pressure people into giving money. As long as there are bleeding hearts out there and people afraid of the “city folk,” there will be a thriving business in panhandling. Unfortunately, that money is indeed used for drugs/alcohol, hence why they throw away your banana or look at you like you’re crazy if you give them a granola bar. Want to help the homeless? Give to your local homeless shelter or other worthy organization. The more you give to the panhandlers, the more you encourage them. Don’t fool yourself- you’re not doing them any favors in the long run.

    • +1.

      It usually looks to me like the homeless people most in need of help are NOT the ones panhandling. And wasn’t there a City Paper story years ago about many panhandlers being professionals who weren’t even homeless, just opportunists out to make some money?

    • There is always the same man offering to open the door for me at my local 7-11 and asking for change when I walk out. Once, I bought him a banana. When I went back out 20 minutes later, I noticed he threw the banana peel on the ground not 10 feet from the garbage can.

  • The “bigger problems” that the cops have to deal with certainly are important… but, maybe I’m in the minority (which is fine, I usually am), I subscribe to the ‘broken windows” theory. While not windows, unfortunately people assign a negative value to neighborhoods with high concentrations of panhandlers (or broken windows) – often keeping it in a negative cycle – and encouraging other bad behaviour.

    I know idealists will say ‘so what,” and jump on me for a heartless comparison between people and broken windows. Or come up with a whole list of things I (or we) should do to combat homelessess. Well, I’m sorry if I’m not comfortable embracing a complete stranger, buying them food, or taking them home with me. Or whatever. I give money privately – to organizations trained to deal with these issues. This does not mean I don’t care.

    I do care. But I’m sorry if I just think at times enough is enough. I have been walking past the same panhandler now for FOUR YEARS. This isn’t someone just down on their luck…they have made a living out of it.

    • Well-said. This captures how I feel about the situation.

    • Why do you care so much who other people give their money to?

      • dt

        Did you even read the post you’re replying to? The point is that people panhandle because they can get money doing it. If everybody stopped giving them money, they wouldn’t be out panhandling.

        Of course, the question then is where do they go. The ones that are doing it because it’s easy will find something else to do. The ones that are truly down & out will flood the services designed to help them. Hopefully people will give their money to these services and they will be able to cope. In the long run, we should strive for a more equitable society and a healthier middle class, with greater chances for class mobility. But just throwing money at panhandlers with no strings attached does nothing helpful in the long run.

  • I dont have a problem with panhandlers in general. I do have a problem with people who stand around with fake reasons and ask for money using the same fake reason to everyone that walks by…i do have a problem with someone asking for free money right outside a 7-11 that has a help wanted sign hanging out front…or the guy begging a block from the bar…gets enough for a drink, then goes to said bar, rinse-repeat…or the guy on metro that says he is a disabled vet ..gets money in one car while limping…then walks out fine into the next car …limps again and begs…what i want to know is what are they doing with the money? why cant they get jobs like everyone else, at mentioned 7-11 or mcdonalds or where ever?? (and dont tell me there arent jobs, because i see signs all the time for help wanted at fast food and stop and shops). I feel like if an illegal immigrant can get a job with no papers, a homeless american can get a job too…just sayin…

    • Many homeless people have an invisible mental or physical disability that prevents them from getting and/or holding down a job. There are also a lot of other obstacles: no address and no phone number, to name two.

      • always an excuse….i believe that if someone wants a job, someone can get a job…again…if someone with no official documents that they are a citizen of this country can get a job…so can someone that is “homeless”…it is all about the desire to go out and do that…if they can live for free on the ignorance or kindness of others then they will….

        • Your friends and family must be very lucky, as you appear not to know anyone with a disability. And I’ll add that, in addition to the other problems they face in finding employment, many homeless people also don’t have the papers proving they are citizens of this country. (When you have no where to live, those things can easily get lost in the shuffle.)

          There are truly so many obstacles to finding employment that the would never even occur to the average person.

    • I think saying a panhandler can just waltz into a job is a little obtuse. Whether they are trying or not is a different issue, but you can’t honestly believe even a 7-11 would hire most of these people.

      • well yes, when you put it that way it may be obtuse, but if they go to the shelter and take a shower and clean their clothes etc, then, yes, they could just walk in and at the very least TRY….

  • Ahhh.. reminds me of one of my favorite stories of when I first came to DC. It was the fall of 1996 and I walked past the Foggy Bottom Metro every morning and evening to walk to work in Georgetown. There was a perennial panhandler at the metro and his commute coincided with mine. I shit you not, I caught him at least once a week getting his stuff together and climbing into a 1-2 year old Lexus with Maryland plates and closing up shop for the night. And no, he wasn’t living in it. I’m sure he made up a very small minority of panhandlers, but I still chuckle when I saw it and had a “you have got to be shitting me” moment when I realized that I, the broke ass student, had given him money every few days. The next time he asked for change, I looked him dead in the eye and asked if it was for gas for his new Lexus around the corner.

    • But gas is pretty expensive though…I’m just saying. LOL!

    • yes, I remember reading an article or something around 19990 when I moved to DC about a guy who was panhandling and then riding home in his limo. I’m pretty sure it was an urban myth, but Snopes wasn’t around back then to verify. The past few years I’ve been noticing a Roma (gypsy) looking family asking for money on K Street. I remember her children were very young when I first noticed her but I just saw them the other day and the kids look like to be in their early teens now.

    • My favorite story is while my brother was in college, he and his bleeding heart friend were walking around. A homeless man asked for money. His friend said, “let me buy you a meal.” The three of them walked into a sandwich shop and enjoyed a meal together. As they walked out, the man said, “that was delicious, but what I really want is ice cream.” The friend nodded his head and said, “let’s go get some ice cream.” After polishing off a sundae, the man said, “you’ve been so generous, how about bus fare?” My brother’s friend replied, “Sir, all I have left is a $20, no change.” at this point, the man whips out a stack of money and said, “that’s ok, I can make change!” NO JOKE.

  • I had an experience once at Chipotle in Chinatown when a homeless man demanded, in the restaurant, that I give him my burrito. He made a huge scene and I was really shaken. I tend to just steer clear of panhandlers because I don’t know if my attention to them will grow “aggressive.” That said, if a panhandler is hanging around the entrance to a business, I’ll likely go somewhere else. I also don’t buy flowers on the street, for example, because I’ve had people insist they know I have cash in my pocket to give them.

  • Some food for thought:

    Panhandlers and guilt: Dealing with uncomfortable truths and lies
    By Petula Dvorak
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, November 29, 2010; 9:17 PM

    Spare Some Change?
    By Sherri Dalphonse
    An expert on the homeless [Craig Keller, team leader of the Homeless Services Office in the DC Department of Mental Health] addresses this question: Should passersby give panhandlers money?

    [City Paper article on a particularly successful panhandler who wasn’t actually homeless]
    Flash in the Panhandle Blaise Bartosavage will tell you about his illness, his abusive childhood, and his family problems. He won’t say much about his bank account.
    By Garance Franke-Ruta • September 13, 2002

  • pennyworth

    its absolutely a problem. i hate it. i do give them money … but only because they don’t have working arms or legs … and cant get jobs — ever — anywhere #trollsworth

  • Always appreciate the “concierge” service at 7-11. Ugh.

  • I have lived the last 25 years in either Baltimore or DC and have been panhandled in every way imaginable.

    I feel deeply for many panhandlers because they obviously suffer from addiction and/or mental health issues.

    I have found, however, that permitting panhandling (aggressive or not) generally compromises community safety.

    One time I was panhandled only to realize a few seconds later, that I was actually mugged. Someone asked me for a dollar for bus fare, I pulled out my wallet to help him out and he snatched it and ran.

    Another time, I had to have a man arrested because he followed me to my apartment and stood outside my building masturbating. He was mentally unstable and thought such behavior was O.K. because I regularly gave him him the change from my daily purchase of coffee. He told the police he knew me.

    Also, I have found that where there are a lot of panhandlers in a community (not the tourist spots), you’ll also see the ground littered with drug baggies/tubes.

    So, if you give to panhandlers, you’re likely inviting drug dealers to your neighborhood.

    Those of you in doubt, try a little experiment. Next time a panhandler asks for money, give him $10 and watch how quickly disappears. Where do you think he goes? How far do you think he goes? Who do you think is selling him what he wants and how far is that person from your home?

    So, instead of donating to a panhandler. Perhaps you can donate to FOOD &FRIENDS–a great charity that feeds thousands of DC residents.

  • I honestly find it more annoying to evade fundraisers (Greenpeace, Democrats, whoever…) in the summer than panhandlers.

    • LMAO. All of them are the worst, clearly it is lunch time, clearly I am in a hurry and clearly I don’t want to talk to you so don’t stick out your hand to shake mine llike I want to touch you. That goes for Greeenpeace, Children’s whatever, gay pride whatever, save the earth and every other organization downtown that I try and ignore EVERYDAY!

    • +1,000,000.

      Can’t they find other places than Dupont Circle? Or spread out the fundraising efforts. Green Peace, Amnesty International, Children’s Fund, Planned Parenthood, Human Rights Campaign, etc., etc. All good causes, but I don’t have that much money!

    • Do you want to help the environment? NO!

      Can you spare some time for human rights? NO!

      Can you help stop animal cruelty? NO!

  • I make a habit to give to Street Sense sellers.

    Once had a gentleman walk into a liquor store the moment I handed him the money.

  • thebear

    Aggressive panhandling in Dupont is nowhere as bad as it was 15-20 years ago but panhandling is still an issue at times.

    The ridiculous PC mindset that always manages to short-circuit common sense and the rights of everyone else will never allow an outright ban on panhandling, or even enforcement against violation of private property. The best way to to deal with it is for *EVERYONE* to just stop giving people money. If the panhandlers can’t make enough to be worth their while, they will eventually either avail themselves of resources that can help break the cycle of homelessness/joblessness, or they will relocate.

  • Random thoughts:
    I think the bigger issue in DC is loitering. Panhandling doesn’t bug me. But five guys standing on the street corner swigging malt liquor does.

    Some sketches of panhandling:
    I once went to an ATM in Adams Morgan to get cash. A woman sat on the step next door, rocking herself and screaming a story about a 14-year-old girl — “her blood was on his fingers.” A well-dressed white dude walked by. “Spare some change, sir?” she asked meekly.

    When we lived in Dupont Circle area, there was a family of panhandlers who worked the 7-11. Yep, go there often enough and you’d see them rotating shifts.

    Homeless is different from panhandling. when I worked late enough on H Street NW, the homeless would roll out their blankets and bedrolls in the alcove of our office building. They’d sit or lay side by side, some chatting, some reading books from the light from the lobby.

    There’s a homeless guy who never asks for change that sits outside the Chevron at Mass Ave and 2nd St NE. He also sweeps the floor of Armand’s. Always says hello to everyone who walks by.

    I always give to the Street Sense vendors. And to Miriam’s Kitchen.

  • Just as bad are the people who solicit signatures and what not for Greenpeace, HRC, etc. the sidewalk on P St near the CVS and Logan Whole Foods either has panhandlers or these folks.I don’t come on their block to solicit cash or for causes, why should they come to ours.

  • Once I was in Chinatown and there was a shriveled old lady hobbling around on crutches asking people for money. Then there was cop on the corner and she literally picked up her crutches, put them under her arm and started running down the street.

    Too many times pan handlers have cursed at me, made sexually inappropriate comments, insulted my boyfriend, insulted me, and have literally walked down the street after me asking for money. I guess these things might constitute aggressive behavior? But I’ve never even thought about calling the police and reporting it or anything. It’s just one of those things that comes along with living here or any city. I would much rather give money to organizations that help people than give change/buy a meal/whatever though.

    • Also..The people who pass out flyers and try to get you to join organizations and give money…SO ANNOYING. Leave me alone! If the money everyone gave them to give people in Africa clean drinking water or whatever actually went to helping them and not paying salaries and making more flyers, the problem might be solved!

  • Late to the party here, but everytime I’ve been asked for money and don’t want to give any (sometimes I do), I just look straight into the person’s face and say, “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you today”, and they move on.

    I think panhandlers often get aggressive because people ignore them. Treat them like humans, tell them you won’t or can’t help, and that’s that. I’ve never had a problem when I’ve done this…

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