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Could Donation Meters Replace Panhandling?

A new Salt Lake City project tries to reduce panhandling and increase donations to social services.

donation meter_web_flickr

Photo: arecknor (Flickr)

A few cities around the U.S. have installed donation meters, with the intent of funneling money to social services rather than individuals.

Salt Lake City is flipping the script on the response to panhandlers in their city. Rather than criminalizing panhandling of certain types or in certain places (e.g. making it illegal to ask for money by yelling, or near an ATM), the Salt Lake City Council opted to take a different approach. In cooperation with a local philanthropist, the Salt Lake City police department and City Council opted to put “donation meters” outside of local businesses, a recent Deseret News article reports. The money collected will go to local service agencies.

Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank says in the article that “oftentimes in society when we encounter a group of people or situations who make us feel uncomfortable, it becomes very easy to say, ‘Let’s draft an ordinance … and prohibit that behavior,’ to marginalize that segment that makes us feel uncomfortable and push them aside.” Rather than jailing or citing panhandlers, police will refer them to local service agencies.

The article quotes Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker encouraging the public “to support the [program] by turning spare change into real change and contributing to meters rather than individuals.” The article also states that the donation meters “will allow people to give spare change to the homeless rather than to those who ask for it on the streets.”

The project raises some questions: will pedestrians choose to bypass people to whom they would ordinarily give money in favor of putting a few coins in the meter? Does a feeling of helping the “greater good” trump the urge to help an individual in that moment?

On the other hand, many people who “feel uncomfortable” about panhandlers, in the words of Salt Lake City’s police chief, may opt to give money whereas before they gave none. This could mean a net gain for participating social service agencies, rather than simply redirecting money that might have been given to individuals. And others may give both to individuals and to the meters, so the outcome truly remains to be seen.

A cursory search turned up similar projects in Denver and Virginia Beach.

And in case you’re wondering, certain types or methods of panhandling — including using abusive language, blocking someone’s path, or approaching someone in a car (unless it’s as part of a group that has prior government approval) — are a Class “C’ misdemeanor under Indiana law.

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