“Donation Meters” to Address Homelessness and Panhandling

See how some cities are taking an innovative approach to deter panhandling while promoting donations to bolster services for homeless populations.

ARTICLE | Nov 26, 2019
by Regan Jepson, Alliance for Innovation
Re-purposed parking meters used in Downtown Phoenix, Arizona https://ktar.com/story/2665161/phoenix-debuts-giving-meters-public-art-benefiting-the-homeless/

          Cities across the nation have been repurposing their old parking meters into “giving meters” to help promote donating to homeless services and nonprofits.  

          These special meters are found in areas that are bustling and receive a lot of foot traffic, including downtown areas and tourist attraction. The meters are set apart from normal parking meters with colorful art, attractive signs, and encouraging language, which help “nudge” citizens to donate.  

          Some cities permit organizations to sponsor a meter, or upgrade meters to take both card and cash. Additionally, cities have also used the meters to deter panhandling by encouraging citizens to donate their spare change and dollars to an organization that is better able to provide services, and can meet the needs of more people in a comprehensive way than by giving money to panhandlers. 

          Known outcomes from programs like these include City of Denver’s Road Home Program which started in 2007 raising $2000 dollars from 36 meters in its first year, and went on to raise more than $100,000 annually from 86 donation meters. They were able to achieve this by supplementing the meters with collection boxes near security checkpoints at the airport and allowing people to text donations (Eaton-Robb, 2016; Associated Press, 2013).They use these funds toward their 10 Year Strategic Plan to End Homelessness.  

          Other cities like City of San Antonio, Texas had started a program in 2011, but ended it in 2015. They started out with 25 reconditioned parking meters downtown, and allowed private companies to sponsor a meter for $500, which those funds would go to used Haven for Hope (Huddleston, 2011). However, a year after putting the donation meters up, 20 of the meters were found to be “inoperable” and the city was criticized for not maintaining the meters. The meters were subjected to vandalism and items jammed inside the coin slots, making the program a “missed opportunity” for the city, as theyonly made $311 dollars from the meters after a year (Molina, 2012). 

          Not all people agree with the strategy to use repurposed parking meters to decrease panhandling. For example, the National Coalition for the Homeless argues that although donating to homeless organizations is encouraged, programs that prohibit or decrease panhandling can also discourage engagement and personal interactions that are humanizing, inclusive, and promote greater understanding of each other (National Coalition for the Homeless, 2011) This program is also controversial since it assumes that all panhandlers are homeless or that all homeless individuals are panhandlers (Eaton-Robb, 2016). However, cities are promoting this program in a way that promotes awareness of homelessness, allows citizens to directly and easily donate to a cause, and increases overall “civic engagement” (The Homeless Initiative Task Group of Univercity Connections, 2008). 

          This innovative program first began in 2006 in Baltimore City, MD with the primary purposed of decreasing panhandling. At this time, 9 meters were installed in Harborplace in 2006 (Rosen, 2006). Since then, approximately 50 cities across the United States (and 2 in Canada) have implemented or considered implementing programs that convert old parking meters into “giving meters”. These cities include Denver, CO; Colorado Springs, CO; New Haven, CT; West Palm Beach, FL; Virginia Beach, VA; Los Angeles, CA; Las Vegas, NV; and Phoenix, AZ. A few of these cities took the time to share the who, how, and early results of their programs. 

Virginia Beach, VA 

          Taryn Walker with Housing Resource Center for Homelessness in Virginia Beach shared that the City of Virginia Beach introduced their own repurposed parking meters for homeless service programs in 2012. 

          According to Taryn, their Resort Advisory Committee introduced this project to the city and was active in helping the city brainstorm the sign’s content. The city used their old parking meters, painted and manufactured the signs, and installed them with minimal costs. 


Source: https://wtkr.com/2017/03/01/virginia-beach-retired-parking-meters-collect-5k-for-homeless/  

          Initially the city used the meters as a way to curb panhandling, which was illegal at the time. Panhandling was legalized once again in 2018 however, and they have since used the parking meters as part of an awareness campaign to help people experiencing homelessness identify resources, and help citizens identify resources to make charitable donations to.  

          Currently, they have over 8 donation meters in their resort areas which see a lot of traffic from tourists, and are looking at options to expand into downtown. There is also talk of utilizing parking garages as placement options for the meters, and they are working with traffic engineers to see if meters could be placed at intersections. 

          In terms of where donations go, the city brings in two types of funds for homeless services. The city solicits sponsorships for signage on parking meters for $1,000 dollars per sign annually, and these funds go to the nonprofit VB Home Now. Additionally, the city’s Public Works department maintains the meters, and the Housing Crises and Stabilization Fund are the recipients of donated change collected by the meters. These funds are used flexibly by the organizations to eliminate barriers for homeless persons, such as getting documentation, security deposits, and addressing rental and emergency housing fees. In addition, they receive $12,000 a year in sponsorships from churches and hotels.  

          Regarding donations received from meters, she says they are declining in revenues because they only take change, and people jam and vandalize the meters. They are now working to revamp their program to bring more meters into other parts of the city, add credit card capability, and drive traffic to their website. 

Phoenix, Arizona 

          Tamyra Spendley, Deputy Director for Human Services in Phoenix City Manager’s office in Phoenix, Arizona says that City of Phoenix installed their meters July 2019 as a pilot program. They are starting with 4 meters in the downtown area, and plan to evaluate the program before expanding. 
 Image result for donation parking meters phoenix

Source: https://www.phoenix.gov/phxcares 

          The donations, she says, go to support PHX C.A.R.E.S. program, a program who “leads with services to help those experiencing homelessness find long term solutions”. The program is a collaboration that started in 2017 between heavily impacted departments including Human Services, Neighborhood Services, Public Works, Parks, Street Transportation, Police and the Prosecutor's Office. 

          Something unique about their program is the colorful art on the meters painted by local artists to attract attention and encourage donations. She said the start-up costs were minimal for a program like this, since IPS Group donated he parking meters, and DPI installed the meters. 

          While it’s too soon to predict the outcomes of the program and if the program will continue to expand, as of October 31st they had raised $233.85. They are hopeful this program will provide the extra funding needed to meet the needs of homeless individuals in Phoenix. 

The Takeaway

          Whether it be to decrease panhandling, support homelessness awareness and resources, or provide opportunities for civic engagement, cities who want to implement “donation meters” should consider the resources they have available, identify where funding would best be used, pilot a program to evaluate its effectiveness, track outcomes, and continue to monitor the program to understand opportunities for growth in terms of marketing strategies and innovative ways of collecting donations. 


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