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In late September, the Downtown Little Rock Partnership program “Change for the Better” will install 25 orange donation boxes around downtown to collect funds for the homeless. The idea is that the boxes will let people averse to panhandlers contribute money in a way that will alleviate their plight, rather than their desire for a cold beer.
Reaction to the idea has been mixed. Some homeless advocates argue that the boxes won't do enough to assist the city's homeless and could potentially do more harm than good.
Michael Stoops, executive director of the National Homeless Coalition, a group that ranked Little Rock the No. 1 “meanest” city to the homeless in 2004 and No. 3 in 2007, said the boxes create a convenient way for citizens to donate, but they should not become a substitute for giving to individuals. The coalition used Hunger-Free Arkansas reports of police officers' unfair treatment of the homeless and the closing of the Saint Francis House day center in 2005 in giving Little Rock its low ranking.
“I just hope they don't use it as a stepping stone to criminalization,” Stoops said. “I predict that in a year from now, the boxes will not have solved the issue and [the city will have] come up with tougher laws like requiring permits to panhandle or outlawing it all together.”
The donation boxes may take the human face off homelessness, says Sandra Wilson, executive director of the Arkansas Supportive Housing Network. The boxes themselves may serve as a reminder of the problem, but perhaps not as effectively as an individual reaching out for help. “I'd hate for people to think, ‘Ok, if I just put money in the box then I've taken care of any need I have to help the homeless,' ” Wilson said. “I give to the homeless. Not every time, but you need to see the person in front of you.”
Those in favor of using the locked steel boxes, which parking meter manufacturer Duncan Industries created to collect traffic tickets, insist that giving to panhandlers only feeds the problem. “Panhandlers are often not using the money for food but to buy alcohol and/or drugs. Even though we want to do something good, we are actually becoming enablers,” said Sharon Priest, executive director of the partnership. The group tentatively plans to have the boxes installed by Sept. 22 and will distribute pamphlets detailing the city's homeless services that citizens can hand out instead of money. “If people don't give the money, [panhandlers will] quit asking,” Priest said. She added that the partnership regularly hears complaints about panhandlers following and harassing passersby.
Stoops agreed that aggressive panhandling is a problem in Little Rock and elsewhere, but said that there are separate laws for that type of behavior. “No one should be obnoxious or scaring people or asking for money by ATM machines, but in some cities you say, ‘Brother, can you spare a dime?' twice, and it's considered harassment.”
In Arkansas, it's illegal to ask for money on the street, but the Little Rock Police Department rarely enforces the “loitering for begging” law unless a panhandler gets pushy, spokesman Lt. Terry Hastings said. “If a person comes up and says, ‘Hey can I have a dollar for a cup of coffee?' that's fine,” Hastings said. But if he starts making threats or refuses to take “no” for an answer, “that borders on robbery,” he said. “Some of our homeless people have figured out that by being a little aggressive they can get what they want from people.” Hastings said he hopes that the boxes will reduce panhandling but doubts they'll have much effect: “People want their money and they want it now.”
Several other U.S. cities, including Baltimore, Albuquerque, Portland and Denver, have instituted similar donation-box programs. In Baltimore, money can be put into one of nine recycled parking meters set up downtown. “We're not under the illusion that it eliminates homelessness or panhandling,” said Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore. “But it reduces the amount of money being put to non-productive uses.”
Baltimore has only raised about $1,000 since the program was launched in December 2006, Fowler said. But before the end of its first year, Asheville, N.C., collected about $1,500 from five meters. Portland, Ore., also raised $1,500 during its first year, but added more meters and raised that to a total of $10,000 over the last three years.
The number of homeless people in Central Arkansas increased from 1,300 in 2005 to 1,822 in 2007, according to a U.S. Housing and Urban Development report released this summer.
Stoops cited Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola's 10-year plan to end homelessness and the River City Ministries' contract to open up a new temporary day center in North Little Rock, which will provide an air-conditioned escape as well as job training and counseling, as indications of progress in the area.
Will Little Rock find itself on the next “meanest” list the coalition is working on this fall?
“I doubt it,” Stoops said. “That ranking stirred things up in Little Rock and I think it's caused positive change. We'll probably mention Little Rock in our report, but I don't think it will make the ‘meanest.' ”