Everyone has seen them. The poor souls standing in the traffic medians looking for a handout from motorists stopped at lights. In Germantown, a resident can’t go anywhere without encountering at least on panhandler with sign or story. They are popping up at more and more intersections throughout town.
While seeing these folks on the streets is a daily occurrance, seeing police officers delivering food and supplies to them is not something that many residents notice. However, it has been happening on a regular basis thanks to members of the Montgomery County Police Department’s Fifth District working with a local church group to help those folks to someday get off the median and back on their feet.
In February, Sergeant Mark McCoy, the leader of the District Five MCPD Central Business Unit met with members of the Society of St. Vincent De Paul of Mother Seton Church in Germantown.
At the same time the members of the Society of St. Vincent De Paul were also looking for a way to help folks get off the medians. “We reached out to Sgt. McCoy to find the most effective way to assist the homeless population in our area,” said John Bauhs of the Society of St. Vincent De Paul.
McCoy explained that one of the main points of emphasis of the Central Business Unit was to focus on the panhandlers. “Once we started riding our bikes in April, we went out and spoke the folks out there on the medians. We got to know them, and we learned their stories and how we could help them. What we could do for them to help them get off the medians,” he said.
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is an international organization that was originally founded in 1833 to help impoverished people in Paris. The Society provides assistance programs including: home visits, housing assistance, disaster relief, job training and placement, food pantries, dining halls, clothing, transportation and utility costs, care for the elderly and medicine around the world in 140 countries.
“The Society let me come in to their meeting and speak to them regarding how they could help the homeless and the panhandlers that we have here in Germantown,” said McCoy.
“One of the things they were considering doing was collecting money and bringing it out to those folks who were panhandling,” said McCoy. “I told them that it would be more effective not to give money but other assistance which is in accordance with the County’s Give a Hand Up, Not a Hand Out Campaign.”
Montgomery County’s Give a Hand Up, Not a Hand Out Campaign encourages residents not to give money to panhandlers, but rather donate those funds to organizations that will provide long-term benefits to the homeless population.
“I explained that money is not necessary the best thing to give these individuals,” said McCoy. “We watch them, and we have seen them. They will panhandle, and go to the beer and wine store and be back out there panhandling again. That is not safe and will get somebody hit or killed.”
“In fact,” said McCoy, “about a month after I met with them, we had a lady who was panhandling at Germantown Road and Wisteria Drive and she got struck by a car. Luckily, she lived, I don’t know how. She was not expected to survive. We had the collision reconstruction unit out to investigate.” Police reported a series pedestrian accident at that intersection on March 31.
As a result of the meeting with the St. Vincent de Paul Society, McCoy learned that the organization also creates care packages to give to those in need. “I offered that, since we are out in the community, we could pick them up and put them in our trunks and hand them out to the community.” And that is what McCoy and the five members of his CBU team have been doing. “The packages consist of non-perishable food and toiletry items, in the winter they would include socks and blankets, and stuff,” said McCoy who added that the care packages have been openly accepted by the panhandlers that the MCPD members speak to on a regular basis.
“We value the good work that Sgt. McCoy and the MCPD perform every day for the citizens of Germantown,” said Bauhs. “As helping the poor is central to our mission, collaborating with MCPD is an excellent way to help our community. We are proud to collaborate with MCPD.”
McCoy said that the MCPD tries to work with the panhandlers they encounter on the medians in Germantown. “We have had a few success stories,” said McCoy, “there have been a couple guys that had been panhandling that have gotten jobs and been able to keep them. One actually made a contact while he was panhandling with a local business, and he got hired when the manager stopped and said, ‘Hey I have a job, would you like it.’ And he has been working there ever since.”
He said that many of the folks that the officers deal with and are willing to talk and are just down on their luck and waiting for something to change. “Some are not, some are addicted to drugs and are out there to try to get enough for their next fix. By stopping and talking with these folks, we can try to get to know which of these people are just down on their luck. Generally, the ones that are not willing to speak with us, the ones that walk away from us are just out there looking for their next fix. And the folks that are, don’t like us to talk to them usually stop coming around because they know we are going to stop and talk them.”
McCoy said that working with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul has been a good resource for his officers. “We had a woman who was going through a tough patch, she wasn’t homeless but had gotten behind on bills and payments. We met her when she was setting up, like a flea market table at the transit center. We explained to her that she wasn’t allowed to do that. She gave us her information, and I passed it along to the St. Vincent De Paul Society.”
McCoy said that the Society reached out to the woman and helped her get back on her feet, which resulted in a surprise for the officers one day.
“We were riding our bikes past Five Guys burger place, and she comes running out after us yelling, and at first, I thought there was a problem. But she wanted to thank us for hooking her up with the folks at the St. Vincent De Paul Society because they are helping her get back on her feet.”
“It is great to hear that some of the panhandlers have taken the help that the Society is giving them,” said McCoy. “It gives us a nice place, close-by where we can direct people, rather than down to the Family Crisis Center in Rockville. It is somewhere locally where folks can get some help.”
In Montgomery County, it is not illegal to panhandle if you are 18 and stay on the median, but if you step off the median and into the street police can write a $50.00 fine for jaywalking.
It is because the County takes a more lenient approach to panhandling than surrounding counties which makes Germantown destination for panhandlers to commute to every day.
“In speaking with the panhandlers,” said McCoy. “I have found out that, ironically, most of them are not from the Germantown area. In fact, many commute down to Germantown every day on the MARC trains to panhandle in Germantown and then commute by train back to wherever they are living or camping up in Frederick County.”
In Frederick County, it is illegal to stand on the median and solicit donations. It carries with it a $70.00 fine.
“These folks are making enough money standing on the medians in Germantown that it is worth it to them to buy a $12 train ticket to come down from Frederick County,” said McCoy. “So they have to panhandle at least $12 to make it worth the trip every day.”
McCoy told the story of one man who was panhandling but was arrested for having an outstanding warrant. “When he arrested him he had over $75 in his pocket,” said McCoy.
As long as motorists continue to hand out money, Germantown will continue to be an attractive option for panhandlers. That is why the county initiated the Give a Hand Up, Not a Hand Out campaign. “We have a very caring community, which is a great thing, but, unfortunately, that isn’t for the benefit the community to give money to many of the folks on the medians,” said McCoy.
Residents wanting to get involved in helping homeless and those down on their luck can mail donations to The Society of Saint Vincent de Paul c/o Mother Seton Catholic Church, 19951 Father Hurley Boulevard, Germantown, MD 20874. The phone number for the Society is 301-944-0451. In the United States, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul provides more than $675 million in tangible and in-kind services, serves more than 14 million people in need each year, performs more than 648,000 visits to people in their homes, and delivers more than 7 million service hours to those in need.
For more information about Montgomery County’s Give a Hand Up, Not a Hand Out campaign go to the County’s website.
Photos by Germantown Pulse