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]

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  1. Mark says:

    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?

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    • Marine Won says:

      Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • BWare says:

      So your point is that all homeless people are mentally disabled, and the health care system is the only way that they could’ve ended up in that position? Have you ever taken the time to meet and talk to any homeless people?

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      • ThatMattGuy says:

        Do you always see the word “all” when “most” is what is printed? As in, “…the thing that got most homeless people…”

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  2. Marin says:

    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.

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  3. Eric M. Jones. says:

    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.

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  4. Caitlyn says:

    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.

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    • Brian Salerni says:

      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.

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    • Joshua Northey says:

      One of the major detriments to getting your life back together is lack of transportation. Hard to have a job interview if you cannot get there. Hard to get free treatment or food if it closes before you can get back.

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    • Enter your name says:

      Food and clothing are provided directly, through ‘soup kitchens’ (usually all at the same location, which is also where bus tickets are distributed), and these are also funded by the same sources.

      Bus tickets are often given as the example for two reasons:

      The ‘enlightened’ people realize that homeless people need to get to the location of these and other services, and sometimes think that feeding someone sounds demeaning and anachronistic (as if homeless people quit needing to eat after the 1930s).

      The ‘mean’ people hear “bus ticket” and think “out of town” rather than “to the local welfare office”.

      All of these people forget that a sizable proportion of homeless people are living in their cars (or couch surfing), and thus don’t necessarily need a bus ticket, but it still seems to be a decent advertising approach.

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    • Oracle69 says:

      The bus tickets are so the homeless will go somewhere else and be homeless there.

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  5. Geets says:

    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?

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    • sighthndman says:

      And do you audit all your charitable donees? Personally? How do you know the auditors aren’t in bed with the charity, ala Arthur Anderson and Enron?

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  6. Kelly says:

    What about simply banning panhandling?

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  7. Mike B says:

    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.

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    • Joshua Northey says:

      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.

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      • Jay says:

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

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      • Joshua Northey says:

        Well when they have mostly cleanish clothes other then their coat and pants (new shoes are often a giveaway). Also when they start smiling and laughing and acting like a normal person the second after they get their money. I once gave money to someone on crutches, who threw the crutches down and ran back to his bag to stuff money in it after I gave it to him.

        I have always had the very strong impression that at least half and probably most panhandlers do not really “need” the money. It is a job to them. When we were licensing it in our city I also heard that incomes from panhandling at freeway off-ramps were in the $200/day range. I barely make $200 a day.

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      • Jay says:

        If you know FOR A FACT that someone is begging on the street that absolutely does not need the money (i.e.; they’re a high school kid that lives in the suburbs and you know their family) , then don’t give them money. But don’t use a few personal experiences you’ve had to dismiss the sad and difficult fact that a large majority of people in one of the richest nations in the world are living in utter destitution.

        P.S. “new shoes” and “acting normal” aren’t exactly signs that someone is not in need. Maybe they found the shoes in the dumpster of a shoe store, maybe they just got enough money for their next fix, so now they’re happy and acting “normal.” As to your experience with the person on crutches, drug addiction is an affliction that necessarily entails doing ANYTHING to ward off withdrawal symptoms. This means doing tricky things like coaxing sympathy from people by pretending to be disabled. This may seem immoral, but it is a reality of addiction.

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      • Mike B says:

        I don’t actually resent people who panhandle to make a living. A job is a job and it is no better or worse than any other sort of performance artist. You give them money and gain utility from their act or from feeling superior for giving.

        The whole paradox is that most people give to “homeless” because they in theory have nothing, but by giving to the homeless you and everyone else might actually be putting them in a position where the conditions for the gift are invalidated. However if people stop giving to them they will be back in the position of having nothing. This is why I think the best solution is not to give to people on the street and instead support a tax and spending policy that delivers targeted assistance to those that actually need it.

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    • Jay says:

      It would seem to me that a theory of homelessness in the US that dismisses the majority of beggars on the street as “not legitimately poor” is not only dangerous, but inaccurate. If we assume that most people who appear to be in need are just trying to “trick” us, then those who actually are in need (and there are many) will continue to be ignored. One of the biggest problems with the massive disparity of wealth in the US is that those of us fortunate enough to live in nice houses, go to nice jobs, and have healthy lives HAVE NO IDEA what a life of drug addicted destitution in the United States is actually like.

      Mike B; Read this book, and tell me if your theory of homelessness in the US changes:

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      • Enter your name says:

        “Poor person sitting on the street corner” does not mean “homeless”. We have several in our community who have been housed every single day of their lives — but they are still poor people with problems.

        These tend to be people with mental illnesses or various sorts of congenital brain damage. Most of them were born and raised in our area, and have family members who made sure that they received necessary services and who check in on them regularly. They are typically loosely supervised via group homes or assisted living programs, but a few of them like to spend their days trying to cadge a few coins from people (usually to buy sweets from a bakery; a couple of downtown bakeries have a policy that they can buy anything at all off the day-old rack for whatever amount of money they happen to have).

        To give one example, we have a man everyone calls “Dancing Man”. He’s poor, and you will find him dancing or practicing Tai Chi on a street corner almost every day of the year, and sometimes people give him a little money, but he’s not actually homeless. If you knew him well enough to know his name and something about his circumstances to know that he’s not homeless — but most people who see him dancing on the same street corner all day long wrongly assume that he is “homeless” rather than “housed, but with some problems”.

        “Looks okay” does not mean “housed”. We have literally hundreds of homeless people in our community who are truly homeless — but who are clean, properly dressed, and frequently both sober and employed (or were very recently). They may be sleeping in a car or couch surfing rather than in an alley or under a bush. These people are homeless, but you’d never guess if you saw them. Many of these are the short-term homeless: they lost a job and their home, but as soon as they get another job, they’ll be back in their own homes.

        The rule of thumb is that homelessness has three causes, equally divided: mental illness, substance abuse, and economic dislocation. The last category is almost always temporary: you’re sleeping in your old car for a month or two, and then you’re back in funds again. The other two are harder to solve. (Many people are in both of the first two categories.)

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      • Enter your name says:

        I’ll add one more thing:

        My wealthy area is considered friendly to homeless people. So we do see some definitely non-homeless, non-poor people who are begging simply because it seems like an effective way of getting money. It is something of a shock to walk downtown and see a high-school-age student whose family you know slightly, sitting on the sidewalk and cheerfully panhandling in front of the music store. Apparently he’d already spent his allowance, and he thought that he really “needed” this new CD.

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      • Mike B says:

        Oh I certainly think they are legitimately poor, but should panhandling be acceptable as a legitimate profession? I don’t think so, so in response I give to the truly needy through legitimate charities and my tax dollars.

        Perhaps the issue is that while a majority of people who beg non-opportunistically might not be making a living from it, getting only enough for their essentials, people are more likely to encounter someone who puts their full effort into begging. They are, after all, working full time in high traffic areas. Therefore while the majority of beggars are in need the majority of begging interactions are not legitimate.

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    • Dee says:

      The fact is that most homeless are not addicts or street artists; most of them are just people who were one paycheck away from the streets and then lost that paycheck. I know, because I used to be one of them. You remember the homeless who are smelly, seem deranged and who frighten you. You don’t notice the people who go to the social service agencies and non-profits, get what day-jobs we can, and whatever food aid is available. A lot of us look like all the other people walking past you down the street.

      Having a parking meter system, on the surface, seems like a good idea. However, I personally have doubts as to how much of money is going to aid the non-profits in helping the homeless; as has been said, they’re hard to notice. As a fund-raising tool, they seem ineffective in raising much money.

      No municipality wants visible homeless — if they can deter them from panhandling, everyone feels more comfortable. An envelope included in the municipal utility bill, that can hold a check for the non-profits, would also help. It would be visible, and every little bit helps.

      A better system is having an envelope in the city utility bill, for donations to the agencies directly, and a hope that those funds will go to the charity intended.

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      • Jen says:

        I’m not sure why you’d trust that money given in an envelope to the city to be redistributed would be more likely to be used wisely than money from these meters given to the city to be redistributed?

        Either of those options OR having a well-publicized safety net that informs those in need AND those likely to give to panhandlers are all ways to decrease the numbers of people panhandling and the availability of resources to people who need them.

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      • Mike B says:

        Once someone makes as much as they world in actual employment from begging, begging has become their job. They have become a self-employed service industry WORKER that uses a similar business model to street musicians and webcomic artists. You are giving someone a donation or tip for looking an acting a certain way.

        On and don’t tell me that I can’t notice when someone walking down the street going about their business stops and tries to hit me up for money just because I look wealthy. Do I look like a ATM to you?? Buzz off!

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      • Davis says:

        As a “homeless” person, I’ll tell you why my shoes are new, and I don’t smell. The first $25 I make each month affords me a gym membership so I can shower and rinse some clothes in the shower. The next $15 goes to laundry. The next $100 or so goes to gas money for looking for jobs. And yes when my clothes wear out I have to get other clothes. None of this means I should run to my nearest shelter just so I can further judged. I prefer to hide out in the open. I beg from tourists, and no one else in my daily life knows my secret.

        Yes I live in a car, no you would never know

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    • NDC says:

      After working at a homeless shelter for a little over a year offering therapy services to homeless, recovering addicts, and displaced victims of domestic violence, I gotta say, this is not a bad idea. There are so many opportunities available for the homeless, most of which they are very aware of, but they choose to remain homeless because they don’t want to change. Give your money to places that support homeless getting off the street. If we stopped paying them, stopped giving them food, stopped giving them clothes, and stopped giving them handouts UNLESS they were in a program, the homeless problem would be gone.
      It may sound cold to say it, but the truth of the matter is that if a stray is fed, why would they leave? Every single homeless person I’ve ever spoken with said they never had to go hungry and it wasn’t until things got “really” rough that they decided to get in a program and actually change their lives. I say, let’s help them get that motivation.

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    • Steve Bennett says:

      I’d like to whack a great big blue [citation needed] next to the first word in your post.

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      • Mike B says:

        A couple of guys in New York City wrote a book on how they were able to beg professionally for several several years in the City before improving their circumstances. I heard them on NPR, probably Fresh Air, but for the life of me I couldn’t remember the title and Google didn’t help. They talked bout how many others like themselves beg for a living, how plentiful food is (from charities or dumpsters) and how if anyone says they are hungry and need food they are basically putting on an act. After hearing that I decided to no longer give to homeless unless I was trying to get rid of some pennies from my pocket.

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      • Steve Bennett says:

        Sure, everyone has heard tales of “professional beggars”, and I suspect they appeal to us because they provide us with an excuse for not donating. But what proportion of beggars are pros? This would be a great topic for Freakonomics analysis, just like the drug dealers and prostitutes, if they could get their hands on some data.

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  8. Clancy says:

    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.

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    • Asaf says:

      Because you are enabling his homelessness by doing so. He stays on the street, for the most part, because no shelter will let him in with drugs or booze and no official charity will fund his habits.

      So if YOU fund his habits, you’re encouraging him to stay in them. If he didn’t find suckers to help him, he’d be forced to get clean and go to a shelter.

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    • Enter your name says:

      When you provide the means for someone to remain severely addicted — especially for a person whose addiction has resulted in homelessness — you are directly giving them the means of dying young and being the victim of many crimes.

      Setting a homeless addict so drunk or high that he is unable to protect himself is not an act of kindness. A housed person whom you set falling-down drunk will usually fall down in his bed or on his sofa, or at worst on the floor. A homeless person whom you set falling-down drunk will often fall underneath the wheels of a car, off a bridge, or under the eyes of a violent criminal — and thereby onto the obituary page of the newspaper.

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