. In cities across the country, parking-style meters collect loose change from donors in an attempt to cut down on panhandling — a strategy critics argue is wrongheaded and in vain.
New Haven is among the latest to install the meters, which sit curbside and collect donations in the form of cash or credit cards for programs that benefit the homeless. The city has four brightly colored meters in areas where panhandling has been a problem and plans to install six more to support local, nonprofit organizations that help the homeless.
“It’s meant to generate supplemental funds for homeless services and steer well-meaning, generously donated cash away from the business of panhandling,” Mayor Toni Harp said.
The first meters went up in 2007 in Denver, and other cities have followed suit. They were recently installed in Pasadena, Calif.; Indianapolis; and Corpus Christi.
“We get at least one call a month from cities who are looking to replicate the program,” said Julie Smith, a spokeswoman for Denver’s Road Home, which runs the meter program in that city.
But some advocates for the homeless say the meters do little to stop the needy from requesting handouts and question whether it’s worth the cost to install and maintain them.
Panhandling is not illegal, and people who need money will still ask for it, meters or no, said Mark Horvath, a national advocate for the homeless and founder of the advocacy group Invisible People. The meters, he said, reinforce the stereotype that all panhandlers are bums who want money for either drugs or booze.
“It’s a false stereotype. A huge percentage of people who are panhandling are in housing, but they can’t afford to make ends meet,” he said. “There are so many better solutions than putting up meters, like the permanent support of affordable housing and a living wage.”
Panhandling is a tough issue in many American cities. In Fort Worth, the city council is looking at a tougher panhandling ordinance.
City staff told the council earlier this month that a new ordinance will likely contain language that prohibits panhandling within 50 feet of areas where a person would feel vulnerable, such as an automated teller machine, at a parking meter or at the entrance to a restaurant.
Smith and others acknowledge they have no data or studies to show the meters have reduced panhandling, but say they are still worth installing as part of larger efforts to stem homelessness.
In Dade County, Fla., a food and beverage tax provides about $24 million a year as part of a $61 million budget for programs to help the homeless. Meters, by comparison, bring in about $50,000 a year, said Ron Book, the chairman of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust.
The program began a decade ago, and there are more than 700 meters, many paid for by local businesses and supplemented by larger donation boxes inside many buildings. All of them, he said, help reinforce the message that there is a better way to address homelessness than throwing money into a panhandler’s cup.
Denver has supplemented the meters with collection boxes near security checkpoints at the airport and recently began a program that allows people to text donations. Those programs combined bring in more than $100,000 annually.
Cities can increase the money raised by the meters by making them visible and recognizable, Book said. In Miami, an artist volunteered to design its colorful meters to make them visible.
“And I can tell you that panhandlers don’t like my meters because it gives people an alternative to dumping money into their buckets, cups and hats,” he said.
This story contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.