Advancements in Panhandling: Don't Forget to Feed the Meter

Back in 2006, I wrote a Newsweek article about the problems that warm-weather cities like Orlando and Las Vegas were having with their homeless populations, and the rather creative methods they were using to control them — namely banning public feedings and consigning all panhandling to 3-by-15-foot “panhandling zones” painted on sidewalks.

Turns out the solutions have only gotten more creative in the last few years. The newest innovation are “homeless meters,” repurposed parking meters — painted a different color and set back from the street — that people can deposit coins into rather than give spare change to panhandlers. Cities then donate the collected money to nonprofit groups, which in turn use the funds to buy things like bus tickets. Advocates say this cuts down on the abuse of funds, and ensures that donations are put to the best use.

Homeless meters have cropped up in a number of cities over the last few years including Indianapolis, San Francisco, Atlanta, Cleveland, Baltimore, Virginia Beach, Denver and Las Vegas. Last fall, Orlando’s city council voted to install 15 of them in its downtown district. It’s also reduced the city’s number of panhandling zones from 36 to 27.

This week, Lawrence, Kansas, became the latest city to vote to install homeless meters. Collecting data on the effect that homeless meters have on donations is probably next to impossible, as we’ll never know how much the homeless collected by panhandling. But it does seem like a good solution in that it addresses the fear that many potential donors have that their spare change gets spent on things that got the homeless person into trouble to begin with, namely alcohol or drugs. Still, there’s something coldly detached about homeless meters, and of addressing homelessness the same way you pay for a parking spot: by feeding the meter.

What do you readers think? Is this a good alternative to panhandling?

[HT: Brad Wilson]


I would like to think that most people realize the thing that got most homeless people into trouble is mental illness and a health care system that abandoned them. But what do I know?

Marine Won

I'm with you, Mark. There’s something coldly detached about this post.


I can't imagine it is, but that's based on personal experience. I heard about this when they installed them in Denver and looked for them for a couple of days as I was going about my normal downtown Denver business, but never saw one. I have since noticed a couple, but they're not very visible. I don't know what the numbers are on how much money is being generated for non-profits, but it hasn't decreased the panhandling at all.

One theory I've heard on panhandlers is many of them can't or don't want to get in the system that would afford them the benefits of the many non-profits set up to help homeless and poverty-stricken people. The buzz from those who are more involved than I is that once someone is in the system, they get assistance from numerous quarters, but a goodly percentage of those who might qualify never get in that system. If this is true, I doubt the meters aren't going to touch the panhandling issue.


Eric M. Jones.

I hate parking meters. I much prefer the personal service afforded by panhandlers. Parking meters could be re-purposed as "Four Sledge-Hammer Swings for a Dollar" amusement concessions.

Why don't we have those E-ZPass toll collectors for the homeless? Then you wouldn't have to stop.


bus tickets? I can see reasons why a homeless person might need a bus ticket (if they've got friends or relatives who can help the out or something) but I would think food and other basic necessities would be higher on the purchase list. Whatever. Minor issue.

I think I'd be more inclined to put a donation in the meter than to give to a person, but I'm not certain. As long as the overhead costs aren't too high, this is probably a good system.

Brian Salerni

It seems to me bus tickets make the most sense. With free tickets, panhandlers are free to roam anywhere...anywhere besides the city they're panhandling in, of course.


Well atleast we know that by this way my spare change will not b used to buy alocohol or drugs. but how do we know that this money is really being used by non-profit organisations?


What about simply banning panhandling?

Mike B

Most panhandlers aren't homeless or even destitute. They are basically performance artists with costumes and props that entice good intentioned pedestrians to give them money and in the process lets them earn much more than any low wage service sector job. So if you ever give money to someone on the street or at an intersection, the good news is that it probably won't be spent on drugs, but the bad news is you are basically just making a donation to support a street artist. Sure, some panhandlers are legitimately homeless, but usually those who are in most need of help are too far out there to develop a shtick and then work at it full time.

If that isn't enough the next big group of panhandlers are what I call beggars of opportunity. These people are legitimately poor, but not homeless and when they see someone who looks wealthy or gullible they'll try to engage them in some conversation about how they need a dollar for bus fare or a train ticket or whatever. The cost of their time and dignity is low to non-existent so they have nothing to lose hitting up ripe targets while engaged in their normal daily activities.

Occasionally you might find someone who is truly homeless and in need, but they are very hard to distinguish from the actors and the opportunists. In theory those they don't seem to be trying very hard might be legit, but again that could just be part of the act. Anyway, the best response is to just not give let them know that you are onto their scam. If you realize that the majority of the panhandlers out there are essentially scan artists it makes it much easier to ignore them and if everyone ignores them then they'll go away.


Joshua Northey

Why is this comment getting down-voted so much? In my experience the "pretenders" or "artists" are definitely just as numerous as the people who look like they have actual issues.


What exactly IS the line between an "pretender" and an "authentically" homeless person?


Why is it such a problem if a homeless person uses the dollar I give him to buy drugs or booze? I’m certainly not saying homeless people are necessarily rational-maximizers, but they are going to use the money for whatever their most pressing need is. Helping someone avoid the crushing pain of withdrawal is still helping them. Helping them from getting the money by stealing or mugging someone is helping them and any potential crime victim. It’s not going to help them overcome their problem by withholding money, only they can make the choice to quit.


Homeless meters will fail to address the root causes of homelessness. That is assuming, of course, that that was an intended purpose of this new found program. Monies raised will go to local non profits who in turn will spend money on treating symptoms (bus tickets, food etc...) not causes (mental health services, addiction treatment etc...) as a result panhandling and homelessness will continue.


Let's be honest...facing a panhandler forces one to consider their living conditions and their needs. There is a connection that occurs when some money is exchanged. It's an opportunity to teach children empathy and how lucky they are.

No one sees a homeless man and immediately walks a block to feed a collection meter. So little is deposited in these things that it actually costs the city more to empty and maintain them than it brings in. Think of it--an overpaid city worker has to go around and collect these meter collections. Then it has to go through cash-handling procedures, deposit, and eventually passed out to a free lunch kitchen.

But the politicians feel better about themselves, even though they did nothing.


One point people are failing to overlook is the "Sorry pal" factor. Many of the reasons why people end up giving to homeless people is they've been guilted into giving change when asked for it. While many lie and say "Sorry pal," some feel guilty by the sad human interaction. Parking meters won't be as effective. I'll pass by a meter every time compared to a face-to-face encounter.


Just a way to add bureaucracy into the mix. If I want to donate to the homeless I can go directly to the charity or give it to the panhandler.


I think it's an idea that could work, a definite advantage imo is the fact that it adds transparency to the process and ensures that the money is not spent on drugs / booze. I don't know if it's just a prejudice, but I believe many people are reluctant to give to panhandlers for just that reason. What would be great imo is if the money collected were put into programs to help the homeless change their situation for the better or for medical treatment that is needed etc.

Brian Salerni

Here is another alternative to preventing panhandling -- how about initiating a tax on plastic bags at the grocery store. Say for every plastic bag used, $.05 is added to your bill. This way citizens have the option to donate to the homeless; meters force people to do so. Not to mention the economic value of cutting the use of plastic bags (many of which are thrown away) by utilizing reusable ones. Thoughts?