Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington


Glen Hilbrand, the ever-present panhandler on duty at Sycamore Street and Washington Blvd., was being handcuffed by Arlington police the morning I walked by him last month.

When I asked—after he was released—he told me there was a warrant on him from Fairfax County because of a fistfight with a rival panhandler. Seems there’s an ongoing turf war among that small but persistent population.

Panhandling at intersections, technically legal but monitored by policy for safety, occurs all over Arlington. Most weekdays you can find practitioners at Lee Highway and I-66, at N. Glebe Road and Fairfax Drive, and N. Glebe at Lee Highway.

They bear signs reading “Combat veteran, always faithful,” or “Lost our house, two kids, Help!” In recent years, Arlingtonians have also seen firefighters on the median strips carrying boots into which they hope you’ll deposit donations to fight muscular dystrophy.

“Panhandling is a constitutionally protected right, free speech,” I was told by Captain Pat Donahue of the Arlington County Police Department. “The police are not against the panhandlers. Unfortunately, people don’t like the sight of it, and we get frequent complaints from citizens.”

Where the spare-changing becomes a problem is when it starts affecting the flow of traffic, “a safety issue for them and for drivers if panhandlers hold up traffic or walk into the travel lanes where they might get clipped,” he says. “Some use the funds for drugs or alcohol or both,” obviously law enforcement issues.

Donahue confirms that “no one can claim public property such as roadway medians or shoulders. But panhandlers do come back to the same plot of land and take ownership because it’s lucrative,” he says. “This is another problem, because they get into fights in front of everyone,” which draws intervention by the county’s cultural services.

Glen, who has a public defender attorney, told me the turf war started a few years ago when Montgomery County, Md., outlawed panhandling, sending “out-of-towners” into Arlington. The 57-year-old recovering drug addict who’s in continuing treatment thinks a lot of the sad stories described on begging signs are phony—he sees the people in motels and rehab.

“I watch the doors of the Metro Station and every bus that comes by,” Glen wrote in a long statement he gave me. “Who can spot another panhandler better than another panhandler?” he says, adding that he taps information from bus drivers.

One day he saw five potential rivals waiting for him to leave. To defend his domain, Glen has “a business rule–I’m not leaving until two hours after they do. I don’t care if I have to sleep here,” he says. He’s been in fights and had his “ass beat three really good times.”

Glen protects a female panhandler Helen, or “the cat lady,” a 66-year-old artist who works the site on weekends and lives in nearby woods. They share food and water stashed in bushes. A male outsider tried to upstage her on the median, which led to a clash. “Find your own corner!” Glen likes to shout, sometimes after cleaning up the rivals’ empty liquor bottles.

“I’ve been here for 20 years, with an eight-month break for rehab,” Glen says. “I come almost every day even if I know I’m not going to make any money. But I believe consistency is the key.”

* * *

It was a fine first anniversary celebration June 4 for the Arlington Neighborhood Villages, for which some 100 of a certain age gathered for cake at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association auditorium.

The community service designed to help elderly members continue living in their homes has recruited 112 paid members and 72 volunteers who provide everything from light-bulb-changing to checkbook balancing.

President Carol Paquette announced a $2,290 donation from the Womenade supper club of ad hoc donors.