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Washington, D.C., Suburb Pushes Regulations on Panhandlers

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Vanita Smith sat in the grassy median of a busy road in Montgomery County, Md., her body balled-up underneath her blue poncho to keep warm.

When the traffic light turned red, she uncoiled herself and showed drivers her sign -- "Homeless. Hungry." -- and walked past their cars.

Over four hours, she said, she usually makes between $20 and $25. But there's a cost, too.

"You lose your self-esteem out here," she said.

If three state legislators get their way, it will be harder for homeless people like Smith, 40, to earn money panhandling in Montgomery County, Md.

Following the failure of a move to restrict the practice in the state legislature earlier this year, three Democratic Dels. Anne Kaiser and Aruna Miller and Sen. Jamie B. Raskin plan to file bills during next year's session to crack down on panhandling in the wealthy county outside Washington, D.C.

Kaiser's bill would allow the Montgomery County Council to implement a system requiring anyone asking for money on local streets -- including homeless people, youth sports teams and police and firefighters -- to obtain a permit. Miller and Raskin's bills would leave it up to the council to either require permits or ban panhandling outright.

"(I'm) giving the county council the flexibility to create a permit system to train panhandlers," Kaiser said, adding that regulations were needed to ensure the safety of panhandlers on busy roads. Miller and Raskin could not be reached for comment.

In February, Kaiser and Raskin introduced a bill to regulate panhandling, but withdrew the legislation before it was put to a final vote.

The issue has divided organizations that help the homeless in Montgomery County.

Some advocates said banning panhandling or requiring a permit would criminalize homelessness.

"If you dig deep enough, (banning panhandling is) a thinly veiled attempt to try to control the behavior of homeless people and ultimately lessen the number of them in your community," said Neil Donovan, the executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Homeless people will have a harder time obtaining a panhandling permit than police, firefighters or charitable organizations, he said.

But homeless advocates who support panhandling restrictions said that limiting the practice would force homeless people to obtain a more sustainable means of support.

"Giving money to a panhandler keeps them in one place," said Susan Kirk, executive direction of Bethesda Cares, a non-profit that provides services to the homeless. "It does nothing to help them move forward."

Kirk also said drivers often assume panhandlers are homeless when they are just pretending to be.

"A lot of panhandlers do have homes and are preying on people's view of the homeless," she said. "You feel good, but there's no way in knowing what the person's needs are."

Julie Maltzman, deputy director for programs at the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless, said there's an easier way for citizens to combat panhandling.

"To end panhandling, don't give people money on the streets," she said. "Criminalizing it -- what does that achieve? ... Is that a great use of our police resources?"

If panhandling is banned in Montgomery County, it would follow in the footsteps of seven other counties in Maryland that have banned the practice, including neighboring Frederick County and Prince George's County.

Capital News Service contributed to this report.