Montgomery County Can Do Better Than Criminalizing Homelessness

Last year a motorist struck and killed Richard Lee Cooper, who was asking for money on a median in Germantown, Maryland. If the court records are accurate, they paid a fine of a little over $700 for killing Mr. Cooper. Unfortunately, Montgomery County Councilmembers are using the tragedy as an opportunity to further criminalize the already marginalized homeless community.

Councilmember Craig Rice has revived his bill that turns panhandling on street medians into a crime. He is supported by the Council’s lead on the homeless and vulnerable populations, George Leventhal (At-Large). 

Leventhal recently earned his PhD in Public Policy, writing his thesis paper on solving homelessness, but according to the actual people experiencing homelessness his solutions aren’t enough.

During a January forum on homelessness hosted by Councilmember Leventhal and a panel of the county’s homeless outreach partners, an organized contingent of people experiencing homelessness discussed their daily struggles with the existing system.

The group accused the panel of not listening to their complaints or concerns, not addressing the shortage of services, and listed their demands of the panelists. Speakers cited rampant staff abuse at shelters, a lack of basic services (unless one is enrolled in larger programs), police abuse and targeting of the homeless, and apathy on behalf of staffers and councilmembers alike.

Councilmember Leventhal responded saying they tackle homelessness by utilizing data analysis but also programs tailored to the individual. 

Montgomery County may do well on the data-side of homelessness, but it comes at the cost of dehumanizing the very target of their efforts. One member of the group lamented, “I am not a statistic!” Another women said she had been trying for three weeks to access a locker at a local shelter to store her belongings but was rejected each time. A man said he was from the same shelter for a year because he had lost his temper one time.

Montgomery County has a homelessness problem. No, it’s not that in this fabulously wealthy county we still hear complaints about the quality of service at shelters. No, it’s not that people are literally freezing to death in the streets, in their cars, and in the woods.

It’s that our county councilors seek solutions for homelessness in poor-shaming propaganda campaigns and laws that reinforce the prison industrial complex. How, in a wealthy and ostensibly progressive county, did we get here? 

January’s meeting on homelessness is one way; the people in charge of the initiatives on homelessness and vulnerable populations are not in good dialogue with the homeless themselves.

Another way is with laws that criminalize poverty, such as Councilmember Rice’s proposal to ban panhandling on road medians. This proposal goes hand-in-hand with the standing county policy towards the homeless of “giving a hand-up, not a hand-out.” 

While the sentiment is a valid liberal sentiment – focus on ways to lift populations out of poverty – it envokes 1980s Republican racist tropes of the “well-fare quean,” who takes money and spends it superfluously. The County posts gaudy signs discouraging “hand-outs” in public buildings, particularly public libraries which is a common place for the homeless to access resources free of charge. 

Councilmember Rice did not attend the January meeting on homelessness. Had he done so, he would have heard from the homeless directly that panhandling is used to supplement travel needs, or to get a bit of food. One explicit request by the group of homeless was the shelters did not provide enough bus tokens and thus people could take the bus in one direction, but have to panhandle for enough money to make their return bus trip.

The group of homeless who intervened at January’s meeting had three general demands of those in power:

  1. free Ride-On services
  2. no police in shelter spaces
  3. 24/7 shelter services

Criminalizing panhandling is thus a backwards step. It imposes criminal punishment on a person who has no other choice but to engage panhandling because the system itself has short-changed them.

Rather than add fuel to the fire of jailing or fining the homeless, we can work to expand their opportunities with services that will empower, rather than encumber them.

It is the least a wealth, progressive community like Montgomery County can do. 

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