Do you give money to panhandlers on the street? It can be an uncomfortable decision, when someone who seems in need asks for a handout and you have cash in your wallet. Now cities around the country are trying to give you an alternative; the donation meter. New Haven is the latest to adopt the system.
Mark S., 56, who didn’t want to give his last name, has been panhandling on the streets of New Haven for some four years. He said he has a medical condition that prevents him from working.
“Believe it or not, Connecticut should be proud," he said. "It seems like a tough state, but there’s a lot of nice people out here who are willing to feed you and willing to help you.”
But about a block away from the empty storefront he’s sheltering in, stands Mark’s new competition for your spare change.
The City of New Haven now has four brightly colored installations that look just like parking meters, but which accept your cash or credit card donation in an initiative called Give Change to Make Change.
“We thought for the kindhearted people who really want to help people who are in need, who are homeless, that we would have a way for them to give dollars,” said New Haven Mayor Toni Harp.
Harp worked on the idea with downtown merchants who want to cut down on panhandling.
“What we’ve learned is that many of these people are professionals," she said. "They come in, they have a certain earning target that they want to meet, and it’s something that we believe detracts from our city.”
The donations will go to a homelessness outreach initiative housed at New Haven’s library, and run by non-profit Liberty Community Services.
“I think the principal issue behind it is really education.” said executive director John Bradley. Liberty provides a range of help for the homeless. He said the revenue from the meters will likely be modest, but he does want the initiative to make people think. “If you’re seeking to end homelessness, giving money to panhandlers may not be the solution to that.”
“How you educate the public is listening to that person on the street, giving them a voice,” said Mark Horvath. He's experienced homelessness and addiction in his own past, and he now runs the advocacy group Invisible People.
Horvath is dead against the meter idea. “The meters are not going to end panhandling, they’re not going to raise any significant amount of money for homeless services, and they reinforce wrong stereotypes that all homeless people are bums and are lazy, and oh my gosh that’s so wrong.”
And what of New Haven’s panhandlers? Some don't mind the donation meter idea, but back at his stance on Church Street, Mark S is skeptical about how the cash will be used. “I’m telling you right now. I’m no rocket scientist, but I’m telling you, that is nothing but another revenue-making system for the city. I don’t trust them,” he said.
Just how much revenue is still a question. Orlando, Florida, which put up a dozen meters some five years ago reports having generated around $2,500 from its program in that time.