Making Change With Real Change, Not Spare Change

Steve Smith
Spare Change News

Rather than tossing loose change into a panhandler’s empty cup, Boston’s mayor and City Council may want you instead to slide your spare quarters and nickels into a homeless meter.

At a recent City Council meeting, City Councilor Ayanna Pressley presented a proposal to have these meters installed here in Boston. We were able to ask Pressley about this innovative and unique idea.

Q & A with City Councilor Ayanna Pressley

Spare Change News (SCN):

Where did you get the idea for homeless meters?

Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley (AP): We have made tremendous strides in battling homelessness in Boston and many cities look to our example when designing their own homelessness prevention programs. But we’re not immune to the national financial crisis, which has resulted in the slashing of federal and state aid to the city. In these tough financial times, it’s important we’re exploring every opportunity to raise revenue to support essential social safety net programs.

My staff and I began exploring how other municipalities were safeguarding funding for homelessness prevention programming and several, including Denver, Minneapolis, and Baltimore, had success with this idea. We thought Boston was a very good market for a program like this. Every day, thousands of commuters and visitors drive and park in Boston. We’re a major transportation hub with Logan, the Commuter rail, and Amtrak and the T. We have major venues like the Garden and Fenway Park that attract large crowds. All that adds up to lots of people with lots of spare change. We think people will happily empty their pockets of spare change if they know it’s going to battle homelessness.

SCN How many meters are you planning to install?

AP: We would work closely with the city’s transportation department to determine what’s manageable for them. Initially, we might just install a smaller number as a pilot program of sorts. We want to make sure the program is successful before committing to a large number of meters.
SCN: Where would they be installed?

AP: The meters should be located in high foot traffic areas, along the city’s major thoroughfares, near T and commuter rail stops, around key attractions and venues and close to regular street parking meters.

SCN: What’s the cost to refurbish the meters?

AP: The cost would be minimal considering the potential revenue that could be generated.

SCN: Who would oversee the meters and collect the money?

AP: The meters would be overseen and managed by the city’s transportation department, who already has responsibility over the cities other, more traditional meters.

SCN: How would you hand out the money collected?

AP: The funds will be directed to the appropriate programming within the Boston Public Health Commission, and other city departments related to homelessness prevention, and allocated at their discretion. Ideally, the funding would target three major factors in fighting homelessness:
• Substance abuse services, including prevention and education programs, residential housing and programming for re-entry community
• Mental health services, including assessment, crisis intervention and anticipatory guidance programs, community and family education and support services and enhanced training for city departments such as EMS and Boston police
• Permanent housing, including investment in existing BPHC housing programs and eventual expansion of available stock

SCN: How would you decide what non-profit(s) would get the money? Will you have a lottery? And who can apply for funds from the money raised?

AP: The city would have discretion over how to best use the funding. The city has its own homelessness prevention programs and does partner with outside agencies. We don’t want to set up a situation where an outside group gets money and its agenda is at odds with the cities. This funding is intended to bolster the city’s efforts.

SCN: What effect would this have on homeless people who depend on handouts? And does Boston have any laws on the books regarding panhandling?

AP: Other cities with similar programs have seen a significant drop in panhandling. I have tremendous sympathy for those struggling but aggressive panhandling has the potential to be a public safety issue. The city does have laws and regulations against aggressive panhandling but the police have numerous more pressing issues to deal with on a daily basis.

SCN: Why do you think that this program is a good idea?

AP: The program is a good idea because it potentially offers a reliable revenue stream for the city’s homelessness prevention programs. Even in lean fiscal times, the city would have the funding flexibility necessary to maintain its commendable efforts in reducing homelessness. Finding new revenue streams is always a challenge and we’re heavily reliant on property taxes. This program wouldn’t raise millions but it would provide the city with additional revenue to support substance abuse and mental health programs and grow Boston’s affordable housing stock.

SCN: What is the process to getting this approved by city council?

AP: Ultimately, it will be up to the Mayor to implement this program. The other members of the Council were supportive when I introduced this idea and I’ve had some productive discussions with the Administration about the feasibility of this program. I know the Mayor and his staff is investigating the idea and I’m hopeful we’ll be able to finalize something in the near future.

SCN: What is your opinion of pan handling?

AP: I grew up very poor. Many times my mother struggled to pay the bills and it wasn’t uncommon for the heat or electricity to be shut off. So I have a real world understanding of what it means to live on the margins of society. It can be a terrible, desperate and hopeless situation.

I hate seeing people panhandle because I know how a few bad breaks can throw someone’s entire life off-track. My father was a heroin addict who spent much of my childhood in prison (thankfully, he got clean and sober and is now a college professor) and when I see panhandlers, I can’t help but think of my father. He never lived on the streets but for years he was in the throes of addiction.

But what panhandlers need isn’t money to fund habits or mask real mental health problems. Panhandlers need help. People may think they’re helping someone by giving them some spare change but they’re not. I think the measure of any society is how the most vulnerable are treated. Boston’s homeless, including the panhandlers, are my constituents and I am proud to represent them. But I wouldn’t be doing my job if I wasn’t working to get them the help they need to get back on their feet and reclaim their lives.

SCN: How much will a company be asked to pay to sponsor a meter?

AP: In some cities, companies have annually sponsored the meters for $1000. We’d like local businesses to be supportive of this proposal but we don’t have a sponsorship amount in place yet. For this program to work, we can’t be too dependent on the business sponsorship fees. It’s the individual donors, the folks dropping nickels, dimes and quarters into the meter, who will ultimately determine how successful this program is.

Success In Denver

As mentioned by Pressely, the meter system has already been implemented successfully in Denver. Launched in 2007, the Donation Meter Program was designed to increase community awareness about Denver’s Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness. It has also acted as an effort to redirect the roughly $4 million a year that is given to panhandlers — most of whom are not homeless — into efforts that provide meals, job training, substance abuse counseling, housing and other programs for those in need.

According to Robert Thomson of the Denver’s Mile High United Way the 86 meters in the city have generated almost $70,000 from individual corporate sponsors, along with $30,000 in coins collected from the meters annually. In conjunction with the Donation Meter Program, the city has seen great strides in combating homelessness. Recent accomplishments include:

• Developed 1,900 new units of housing for the homeless.
• Prevented more than 3,200 families from becoming homeless.
• Connected over 5,200 homeless people with employment.
• An 83% reduction in panhandling in downtown Denver.

The meter system is managed and maintained entirely by the Denver Public Works Department. With such overwhelming success, the Donation Meter Program has begun serving as an inspiring model and is being duplicated by other cities around the country, such as Nashville and Chicago.

The Expansion of Homeless Meters

Homeless meters have caught on around the country, with local governments, nonprofits and business groups starting programs in such cities as Portland, Ore., Denver, Baltimore, Tempe, Ariz., Chattanooga, Tenn., and Marysville, north of Sacramento.

They’re also popping up in Canada, where Montreal installed 34 meters last year and Ottawa recently put up six “Kindness Meters.”
Could Boston be the next city to implement a system of meters? When we call the mayors office in regards to this story here is what they replied:

Christopher Loh
Press Office of Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino:

The councilor’s proposal to investigate the possibility of spare change meters in Boston is being researched by the Mayor’s office but it is too soon to say whether or not support will be given to any future ordinance.

Feel free to contact the mayor’s office and let him know what you feel about this idea.

Steve Smith is a writer/vendor for Spare Change News.

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