If giving money to panhandlers makes you queasy but refusing them makes you feel like Ebeneezer Scrooge, one California city thinks it has a solution for you. There are now 14 bright orange parking meters scattered around Pasadena that will collect money for organizations that help the homeless, the Los Angeles Times reports.
The goal of the group behind the meters — the Real Change Movement — is “to help provide homes for the homeless through small change and credit card donations,” according to a release on the organization’s website. It hopes the meters will become “symbols of help and hope.”
But one local activist called the meters “asinine” and told the Times he is skeptical they will help the city’s homeless on balance. “If we would get serious about addressing the actual economic and social issues that we find so offputting, we wouldn’t need meters,” anti-homelessness advocate Paul Boden told the newspaper.
Compared to other cities that have criminalized panhandling, the meters are a mild response to taxpayer discomfort with the indigent. But the reality for beggars doesn’t square with the stereotypes. A Pasadena official interviewed by the Times cited a San Francisco panhandler survey that found 44 percent of those soliciting handouts admitted to buying drugs or alcohol with the money, and suggested that the survey supports the city’s belief that the meters will help raise money for the homeless. But as ThinkProgress’ Scott Keyes detailed last year, that survey disproves many popular myths about panhandlers: 94 percent used their money to buy food, fewer than one in three are drug addicts or alcoholics, most make less than $25 a day, and a quarter are military veterans.
By discouraging panhandling, Pasadena’s meters could end up pushing homeless people into other parts of town or over the city line into other communities. That is not the intention of the Real Change Movement, according to its website, and the movement’s stated goal of funding housing puts it in line with the expert consensus about what works to rehabilitate the homeless. Activists and federal housing officials alike have shifted their focus in recent years to prioritize putting homeless people in permanent housing. A shelter bed can provide food, safety, and rare opportunities for social contact and community for a night or two. But a permanent place to live is the springboard that homeless people need to start rebuilding stable lives and finding gainful employment. It costs three times more to leave someone on the street for a year than it does to simply give them a house, given the medical and incarceration costs homeless people incur on the many cities that treat them as a criminal nuissance.
Combined with support services and social workers, permanent housing is the key to helping homeless people turn their lives around. Despite the consensus around that tactic, however, funding is often lacking. Washington, D.C.’s anti-homelessness working group announced earlier this month that it expects a 16 percent surge in homeless families seeking shelter this winter but has not been able to increase its bed capacity by nearly enough to keep up. Even in cities where permanent housing programs take root and thrive, like Atlanta, a small bureaucratic dispute over funding can dissolve years of rehabilitative work. Homelessness mitigation efforts nationwide took a hit from the federal budget cuts known as sequestration last year, which squeezed funding to one of the most effective federal anti-homelessness programs.
The success or failure of Pasadena’s well-intentioned parking meters effort will depend on how much money it actually produces for housing the homeless. Examples from similar campaigns in other cities suggest that the campaign could thrive or flop. A similar effort in Denver reportedly raised $30,000 a year for the city’s advocacy organizations, according to the Times, but Orlando’s meters took three years to raise enough money to even offset the $2,000 the city spent installing the things.