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SLO's homeless meters don't bring in much, but supporters hope to keep them around anyway 

It’s a balmy Thursday afternoon and Higuera Street is clogged with crowds for the farmers’ market. A young man in dingy clothes stands on the sidewalk panhandling. He calls out to a gray-haired man in cargo shorts and polo shirt.

“Do you have a few bucks?” he asks. “I need it for the bus.” 

The man reaches in his pocket and pulls out a handful of change. He walks past the panhandler and places the money in a white meter not more than 3 feet away. The young man curses, shakes his head. The gray-haired guy walks on.

The interaction’s exactly the result that some in the city were looking for with the implementation of the city’s Make Change Count Program. The program was the brainchild of the city’s Directed Giving Campaign Committee, and part of SLO’s efforts to reduce homelessness and panhandling in the city. The two-year pilot program began in April 2014, when seven of the meters debuted at various downtown SLO locations. The meters take coins and credit/debit card donations and were meant to offer the public an option to donate money to local organizations that assist the homeless rather than put money directly in their hands, where some feared it might be used to feed addictions.

But just how well is the program working? The meters aren’t exactly raking in the money for the local homeless population. They grossed about $12,178 as of May 31, according to United Way of San Luis Obispo County, which serves as the fiscal agent for the program. A little more than $9,218, or roughly 75 percent, of that total comes from program sponsorships, leaving cash and card donations made directly to meters totaling only $2,440.

The money has mostly gone to organizations that help the homeless in SLO. More than $1,000 went to the United Way’s 2-1-1 program, which provides a telephone hotline to help individuals connect with services such as food banks and drug and alcohol treatment centers. Another $8,500 was donated to the Friends of the Prado Day Center. 

While a report from the SLO County grand jury released this month called the use of the meters a “fresh approach,” it also questioned the results of the program and raised doubts about the program’s future after the two-year pilot period is up.

“The meters themselves have not been a huge success as a fundraising tool, partly because the committee has been unable to effectively promote public awareness of the program due to limited funds,” the report concludes. “Make Change Count may be discontinued after the trial period if the public does not become more supportive.”

But the amount of donations shouldn’t be the measure of the program’s success, according to Rick London, CEO of United Way of SLO County. 

“I don’t judge it by how much money raises,” London told New Times. “I think it’s necessary as a public awareness campaign.” 

London said the meters essentially are asking residents and visitors in SLO to change their behavior: to choose the meters over a person who might be right there, looking them in the face and asking them for help.

“We don’t want to demonize people who need help,” he said. “It can be challenging to try and change behavior and stay compassionate.”

Even though the future of the donation meters in SLO is uncertain, at least one other Central Coast city is giving it a shot. In February, the city of Santa Maria launched a similar program, installing four donation meters in front of heavily trafficked stores where panhandling was a problem.

City spokesman Mark van de Kamp said the meters had brought in roughly $1,000 in donations since February. 

He said the city had the ability to install an additional four meters, but doing so would require approval from the businesses they’d be in front of. So far, none of the businesses the city has approached have been willing to cooperate. 

To find a similar program that has stood the test of time, both SLO and Santa Maria need to look more than 1,100 miles East to Denver, Colo.

Denver’s program—used as a model for SLO’s—began in 2007 when the city installed 36 meters in downtown locations known for heavy foot traffic and panhandling. Today, Denver has nearly 90 meters throughout the city, including stations located at the city’s airport, and is expected to generate more than $100,000 through sponsorships and donations.

Denver Department of Human Services Spokeswoman Julie Smith characterized the meters as something more than a way to collect donations.

“It’s a tool for education,” she said. “They make the issue of homelessness visible.”

Whether or not SLO, a much smaller city, will be able to replicate Denver’s success remains to be seen, but local United Way’s London was insistent that the meters should stay operational and the program should continue.

“For me it’s imperative to keep it going,” London said. “We need to be continuously reminded about it. We need to direct our compassion toward prevention and responsibility, and encourage [the homeless] to go to the agencies that will help them get on their feet.”

Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at cmcguinness@newtimesslo.com, or on Twitter @CWMcGuinness.

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