2021 | Government

Rice says solicitation permit bill to be amended after enforcement concerns

Nonprofits have mixed reactions, want more details

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Montgomery County Council Member Craig Rice

Photo from Montgomery County

Montgomery County Council Member Craig Rice plans to amend his bill requiring permits for soliciting.

After Rice proposed the measure last week, community concerns about further criminalizing the actions of low-income and homeless individuals began to pour in, especially on social media.

The proposed legislation would require people to obtain a year-long free permit to collect money or donations from vehicles stopped on high-speed roadways.

Permits would be conditioned on complying with safety laws, such as following traffic control signals and soliciting on high-speed roadways only during daylight hours.

Part of the bill’s goal is to reduce the chances of traffic-related injuries or fatalities, Rice has said.

The biggest question that kept popping up online and with several nonprofits that work with affected individuals was who would enforce the proposed program.

In the initial bill, Rice proposed that a county police officer be able to tell people that they need a permit to solicit on a high-speed roadway, defined as having speed limits exceeding 25 miles per hour.

What the pending legislation didn’t immediately address was what would happen if people did not listen to the officer.

Rice is removing any reference to police involvement from the bill.

Betsy Bowman, the director of adult and community services for nonprofit EveryMind in Rockville, said in an interview on Thursday that there are good intentions in the bill with increasing road safety.

But it also might end up targeting homeless and low-income residents, she said.

Being stopped and asked for a permit could lead to other questions and further criminalization for other things, she said.

In a phone interview on Monday evening, Rice said he has already instructed staff members to remove references to police involvement and enforcement. The bill cannot legally be amended until after a public hearing at 1:30 p.m. on May 11.

Instead, enforcement would be handled by the county’s nonprofit partners who work directly with low-income and homeless individuals who are panhandling in medians and roadways, he said. That enforcement would include simply telling people who don’t have a permit that they need one and where to get it.

Not having a permit would not lead to an arrest or fine, he said.

The purpose of requiring a permit is to not only provide solicitors with information on traffic safety, but also connect anyone who needs help to the county’s social services, Rice said. He noted that not everyone soliciting on the roadways has a low income or is homeless.

Rice said he decided to cut the reference to police involvement and enforcement to avoid any potential adversarial relationship with police.

“We don’t want that. This is about help,” he said.

By coming to a homeless shelter or a heating and cooling center to get a permit, people might learn about available services they didn’t know existed, Rice said.

Rice wants to add other elements to the bill, including providing safety kits with safety reflective vests and a brochure on traffic safety to permit holders. He has heard suggestions of wearable glow lights, he said.

Giving someone money when they are soliciting in or along a street is not enough to help them get their life back on track and connect to support services, he said.

“Leaving them alone is not getting them the help that we know they need and deserve,” he said.

Several nonprofits noted that the majority of people who are soliciting money from vehicles are not homeless, but rather, low-income. Many of them don’t live in the county or are in permanent housing.

John Mendez, executive director of Bethesda Cares, an outreach organizationm said in a phone interview on Monday that panhandling isn’t a homelessness issue and that 90% of the people soliciting money along roads are low-income.

“Most of the people who are panhandling do need the money in some way,” he said. “However, they do not participate in the services that are available to them. … Many of them can’t because they aren’t residents of Montgomery County.”

Mendez said a focus on traffic safety education is sorely needed. Not only is soliciting dangerous for people standing in medians, but also for nonprofit workers who stand in the same medians to talk to them about available services.

“When we go out to check on these scenarios, our staff members could be placed in danger,” he said. “It’s extremely dangerous for these folks to be in the median and cars whipping by at 50 miles per hour.”

Courtney Hall, the CEO of the Rockville-based nonprofit Interfaith Works, said in a phone interview on Monday that there is a problem with traffic safety. But he also voiced concerns with enforcement.

He said he worries about the gap between the legislation and how it’s actually enforced.

“I do think that this is a good opportunity for the council to extend the community outreach. These are people with a social services background who have experience in engaging people who are experiencing homelessness and who are in need for financial support and helping them to get the resources that they need,” he said. “I would say that in general, we are interested in helping people to get off of the street and not just helping them get off of the median.”

A permit and safety vests will not cause fewer traffic crashes by out-of-control drivers, EveryMind’s Bowman said.

Bowman said it could be more effective to have no permit process, but instead, a traffic safety education program at shelters and other providers.

Rice said applicants would get a permit on the spot from nonprofits and homeless shelters.

He also is looking at additional resources for nonprofit partners to increase staffing helping them reach low-income and homeless people .

Hall said he worries about capacity for handling the permit process and what it would look like for staff members and volunteers.

“I do also worry about the people who don’t access the shelter, the people who don’t access the day centers, but who do, in fact, solicit on the street,” he said.

He is interested to see whether people take the time to apply for the permit.

Bowman said that handling permits could burden for staff members, depending on the process. The application process and enforcement could jeopardize relationships with people the nonprofits serve, she said.

“We have a hard enough time to get people to fill out information for things we need to get them to be housed,” she said. Some people do not want their person information on file with organizations.

Mendez said that if the county charged for the permit, that money could help cover expenses for services for low-income or homeless people, public education, or other needs.

But Hall said that it’s counterintuitive to ask people who are experiencing homelessness or who have limited income to pay for a service.

“That could serve as another barrier,” he said. “We’re looking to have people readily access these permits. Attaching a fee would just serve as one more barrier.”

Rice said his team looked into a permit fee, but it would be unconstitutional because solicitation is tied to free speech. Even if a fee were allowed, Rice said he would not have one in the bill.

“The money isn’t the issue. The real issue is continuing to do the outreach and we let as many people know as possible that the support and housing is there if they are ready to receive it,” he said.

Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at briana.adhikusuma@bethesdamagazine.com.