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]


Mark

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.

Marin

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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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.

Caitlyn

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.

Geets

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?

sighthndman

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?

Kelly

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.

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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.

Jay

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

Joshua Northey

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.

Jay

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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Clancy

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.

Asaf

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.

Jesse

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.

Joshua Northey

I have volunteered working with the homeless on occasion, and interacted with them through my work.

I hate to be hugely politically incorrect, but laziness and a complete lack of self-discipline rank right up there with mental illness and addiction as reasons people find themselves homeless (unless you want to classify those things as mental illnesses I guess).

Granted they typically end up this way due to bad experiences and/or crappy parenting, but I had terrible parenting and a lot of screwed up crap happened to me (I was once as a child traded for a TV) and after a lot of mistakes and dumb decisions in my late teens early twenties I managed to claw my way up from the bottom of the second quintile to the top of the fourth.

Not saying that is common, but I get very sick of people writing off the entire problem to mental illness addiction et cetera. It is one large factor among many and it is often used as an exculpatory excuse.

Sometimes human beings just fail. My father used drugs and ran out on his family when I was 4. Did he do that "because of addiction"? No he did it because he was an irresponsible screw up who never should have gotten married. My wife's father came back from Vietnam and has lived off VA benefits since then. He is perfectly capable of supporting himself and has a degree from a great college. But he was a little screwed up when he got back, didn't find a job right away, and then eased into a lifestyle where he just lives off his benefits instead of making something of his life. If his benefits were somehow cut off I have no doubt he would end up homeless but he is not more mentally ill then most people I know, he just found out he could get paid for it.

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Caleb B

Joshua has a great point. I was homeless for about a year as a kid and I can say that the vast majority of homeless people (that I dealt with) are just lazy/screw ups. My mom was.

Being homeless wasn't all that bad. I didn't have to go to school, there were other kids to play with, I played cards all day with adults. One benefit is that no one was making fun of me for being poor, which is why I always hated school.

My take-away from the whole experience is this, it's not all that bad to be homeless. Now that I am an adult, I have never once given money to a panhandler or to a homeless charity. Why? Because I know that by doing so, I'm keeping people on the streets. Wanna know the fastest way to INCREASE your city’s homeless population, build a homeless shelter. Just ask Portland, OR.

Brad

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.

Nick

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.

Bill

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.

Jennifer

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?

LB

Washington DC is already doing this (not to support the homeless but to help clean up the rivers) to what seems like a lot of success: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2011/jan/5/nickel-bag-tax-dissuades-dc-shoppers/

Swintah

Hmmm, good alternatives to panhandling....

1) How about a low unemployment rate so those that are able-bodied and capable of work can become employed and get off the street?

2) How about a robust social safety net so that those that aren't able-bodied or capable of work are able to have a safe, dry, warm place to sleep and food and medical care?

3) How about a robust mental health system so that those with mental health issues are protected from themselves. (Fun fact: the mentally ill aren't capable of deciding if they should be in or out of a hospital. That's 'cause they're not rational.)

Now cue the rabid capitalist ideologues telling me why I'm a pinko-commie-feminazi-socialist who wants to destroy the foundations of America, blah, blah, blah...

Enter your name...

To give, or to not give?--is more a matter of who I am, then who they are (drug addict, mentally ill, destitute, down-and-out for whatever reason). What I know about them is that for whatever reason they are on the street asking for a buck? I have the option to ignore them; I can assume that they will squander whatever I give, so don't; I can condescend and ridicule; I can get angry; I can regard them as a nuisance, or fail to see them as myself. Of course, not me now, self-sufficient, as I am now. But, will I always have money, will I always be strong, and healthy, will I never get too old to need others if the "others" even in my family can't, or won't, help? Is there a cozy arrogance in being dismissive? If I give, and thereby reduce the coin in my pile, does it weaken my ability to take care of myself? So what fear do I attend to? The get as much for myself so I can make a fortress around me to keep out evils that will do me in-fear,
challenges the theory that what I give, is what I get, or give to myself. The act is either connecting to myself, my strengths and vulnerabilities, or disconnecting, separating myself from the possibility that beggars are nothing like me. So is the heart of world saying anything to me? Is it saying that the systems we live in and those we observe that others live in promote the dignity of man, encourage him to flourish? How sick with greed can we get before there is a reckoning? So for me, I choose to give, and for me I realize, it must be more than self-interest, but simply to do it if for no other reason than to feel an antidote in me working against the greed I am drinking and eating and consuming every moment of every day.

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Rishi Arora

I would postulate that most people who give money to panhandlers are those that get compelled to do so based on physical appearances and situation of the homeless person. If these conditions are removed, these people won't donate at all. Why would I put money in a meter when I can already donate to the local soup kitchen or homeless shelter directly by writing a check every year, and get a tax deduction from it?

assumo

I don't think the meters would get people to stop "spanging".

If someone told you, "I'll collect a trivial amount of money for you so you don't have to work", would you quit your job? I think a smart, plugged-in homeless person would see the city's purchase of necessities as icing on the cake. A melancholy, detached homeless person, or an aggressive, distainful homeless person might never know tht the program exists, therefore wouldn't change their behavior.

If anything, designated zones and a higher police presence would have a major effect.

thomas

I think here in Atlanta this has cost the city more money than it has brought in. While virtuous in design it is unpopular in practice.

Cañada Kid

I don't like this. I am against donating money to nonprofit organizations, as they tend to not know what the homeless people want. The panhandlers avoid those organizations, at least in San Francisco, because they enjoy doing what they do, says them (I've actually asked before). The organizations will use the money for their buildings, stock, and to benefit those who actually stay in or go to their organizations for help, NOT those who actually are on the street.

Jen

They enjoy panhandling (or so you say they say). I enjoy writing checks to organizations that provide at least the bare necessities to people who have little or nothing.

I always make eye contact if given it and always say "Sorry" but I never give to panhandlers. I don't think people sitting on sidewalks begging is a sign of a healthy society. No matter how you parse it, giving to people panhandling rewards the behavior.

More giving on the street = more people asking for money.

Mike

Here's my new word of the day - Charity Theatre

A city like Orlando or Las Vegas gets to put up parking meters, red and visible, and say "look how much we care about the homeless". Maybe a city councillor gets their picture in the paper at the grand unveiling. And people get to stick a nickel in now and then without actually having to interact with a homeless person.

At the same time, Orlando and Las Vegas have both criminalized giving food to homeless people. And Orlando has actively enforced their law, arresting activists in a downtown park.

Its more important to appear to do something helpful than to actually do something helpful.

So

sighthndman

That's interesting. You'd think that giving food and shelter to the homeless (what they profess to want) would be at least as useful as giving them money.

I'm sure the current Supreme Court will protect my First Amendment right to freely express my religion by giving food to whomever I wish, whenever I wish. It's (apparently) the most important right. (That's why it's first, right?)