A bill that was recently introduced in the West Virginia Legislature seeks to rein in the common problem of panhandling in the Mountain State.
Under House Bill 2236, which is currently under review in the House Judiciary Committee, the term “panhandling” is described as “any solicitation made in person requesting an immediate donation of money,” according to the bill’s text. If the proposed measure becomes law, no person will be allowed to panhandle at a bus stop or train stop, in a public bus or facility, in a vehicle on the street or on private property unless the owner or occupant has provided written permission.
The bill would also regulate panhandlers’ behavior. On any street, sidewalk, public right-of-way or private property, a panhandler would not be allowed to block the path of a person being asked for a donation. Furthermore, the proposed law states that a panhandler would not be able to follow a person who walks away. Making “any statement, gesture or other communication by which the panhandler knowingly causes another to believe that the panhandler will cause physical harm to the person or property of the other person” would be a violation of the code.
Anyone found in violation of the proposed measure would be guilty of a misdemeanor and fined $100, according to the bill’s text. People found guilty of a second offense or subsequent violations would face a misdemeanor charge again and be fined between $250 to $1,000.
Of course, as most area residents who have been confronted by a panhandler already know, the person asking for money doesn’t normally stick around for long. So locating someone who is accused of panhandling, and actually charging them with a misdemeanor offense, may not be easy.
There are several places locally where panhandling is common. One place is College Avenue in Bluefield, Va. Exit 9 off Interstate 77 in Mercer County is another, and a third one is John Nash Boulevard near Exit 1, according to Craig Hammond, director of the Bluefield Union Mission, a local human service agency that often responds to panhandler calls.
Hammond says the union mission offers area residents an alternative to giving money to panhandlers.
“We have these little cards that we give individuals, and instead of giving them money, they can give them this card that gives our phone number. People can call us if they need assistance,” Hammond said. “It might be food, it might be help with gasoline, it might be whatever the emergency is. We do that quite often. I think we’re averaging about one a week on both sides of the border.”
If someone who is asking for money appears to be in distress, Hammond said the union mission also can respond to the location where the panhandler is and offer assistance.
Hammond is pleased that the proposed bill does address the problem of panhandlers who exhibit aggressive behavior toward people they approach.
“Quite a few times, they said, ‘Boy, we just felt so uncomfortable because they were so aggressive,” Hammond said of area residents who were confronted by panhandlers. “Other times they’ll say they blocked us. They came between us and our car doors. It’s hard for us to get to our vehicle and we feel like it’s so intimidating.”
We can certainly relate to those concerns.
House Bill 2236 is well intended from a public safety standpoint. While we question whether or not the proposed penalties could be effectively enforced, we don’t deny that panhandling is a problem locally.
If the measure gains the backing of Republicans, who now control a so-called “super majority” in the state Legislature, it will likely become law.