Spare a dime? Parking meters collect money for homeless in downtown Orlando

'Donation stations' aren't intended to run off panhandlers, mayor says
It may look like a parking meter and take coins like a parking meter, but don't mistake it for one.

It's a "donation station" for the homeless. Within the past two weeks, the city of Orlando has installed 15 of the red, orange and blue digital meters in high-traffic downtown areas, such as at Amway Center and Lake Eola Park, where panhandlers typically operate.

Mayor Buddy Dyer, who pushed for the meters, said they're not intended to run off panhandlers, however.

"The donation station is giving people an alternative opportunity to contribute," Dyer said.

Donors drop coins into the meters, which are used only to collect contributions, not to regulate parking. City workers collect the change, which is given to the Central Florida Commission for Homelessness, a nonprofit group partly funded by the city.

The money will go to the commission's Ten2End initiative, which aims to end homelessness in Central Florida within the decade by helping people become self-sufficient.

Dyer got the idea from Denver and Indianapolis, which have similar donation programs.

"Both cities had positive things to say," Dyer said. "We like to borrow good ideas."

In Denver, where 86 meters are scattered throughout the city, panhandling has decreased by more than 80 percent. Jaime Glennon of the city's Department of Human Services said the reduction is a result of the meter program, an awareness campaign and heightened community involvement.

"The meters are just one of the many initiatives to address homelessness," Glennon said.

Baltimore, Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Miami, Virginia Beach and Cleveland also have the meters.

Installing donation stations is Orlando's latest attempt to address its homeless population. For years, the city has had a strained relationship with its poorest people.

The city has made it illegal to panhandle after dark. In the daytime, begging is restricted to 27 "panhandling zones" blue boxes painted on sidewalks downtown. And last week, Orlando decided against for now a clash with Food Not Bombs, an anti-poverty group that feeds the homeless in Lake Eola Park.

The City Council approved the meters in October and initially planned to pay $10,000 for 20 of them. But Duncan Solutions, a parking-meter manufacturer, donated them, so the city spent less than $2,000 to paint and install 15 stations on city sidewalks. Five will be kept as spares.

How much money will the meters bring in each year? City officials couldn't say.

Indianapolis has raised $12,000 in three years. Denver brings in almost $100,000 annually, though about $70,000 of it comes from corporate sponsorships.

There are no plans to start a sponsorship program for the meters in Orlando, officials said.

Cathy Jackson, executive director of the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida, a nonprofit that finds permanent housing for those in need, said the meters should be part of a bigger plan to help the homeless.

The meters alone, she said, send a message that wrongly equates homelessness with panhandling. Fewer than 20 percent of all panhandlers are homeless, she said.

Few residents or workers had heard about the donation stations last week, and even fewer had put money in them. Figures were unavailable because the city has yet to collect from the meters.

"It's not very well advertised," said Ashley Buchsbaum, 26, who both lives and works downtown.

Her friend and co-worker Brie McInerney, 27, liked the concept but called the execution poor.

"The city didn't do a good job of marketing it," McInerney said.

Panhandler Keith Watkins, 49, who isn't homeless, stood on the corner of Central Boulevard and Orange Avenue. Although the meters may cut into his earnings, Watkins welcomed them.

"It helps out the homeless," he said, adding that he hopes the money goes toward job programs for the poor.

But Sean Rogers, who is homeless and spends his days panhandling near the Seaside Bank building, said he doesn't think the meters will help.

"They're ridiculous," said Rogers, who wore an "I Jesus" hat and a wooden cross around his neck while asking for money Thursday morning. "I don't see how they think they're going to get enough money to make a difference."
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