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Make change count

SLO's homeless donation meter program is about more than money, it's about cultural change

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This is a response to the July 9 article written by Chris McGuinness, “Spare change: SLO’s homeless meters don’t bring in much money, but supporters hope to keep them around anyway.”

Homelessness is a complex issue. Many communities and organizations struggle with funding, resources, or solutions to address the problem. The city of San Luis Obispo is no different and over the years has experienced the impacts of an increased homeless population. Our temperate climate coupled with a history of a generous citizenry has made San Luis Obispo an attractive destination location. Local social service providers suggest that more than 50 percent of their homeless clients come from outside SLO County. 

Recognizing these impacts, the San Luis Obispo City Council, as part of the 2013-2015 financial plan, identified homelessness as a major city goal and directed city staff to “Implement Comprehensive Strategies to Address Homelessness.” Staff diligently worked together and aligned with others to find ways to develop programs and direct resources toward this goal.

In one effort, SLOPD focused its attention toward individuals that panhandle and the negative impacts this behavior has brought to our community. This population, either homeless or portraying themselves to be homeless, frequently loiters in populated areas to solicit funds from passing pedestrians and motorists. The behavior often elicits calls for service, drains resources, and creates real or perceived feelings of safety [issues] for many in our community.

The reality is that many panhandlers are “program resistant,” meaning they are not willing to commit to the life choices needed to transition out of homelessness or engage in meaningful opportunities to better their condition. Many in this subset have substance abuse dependencies or mental health issues and engage in criminal activity or other adverse behaviors. Cash handouts, in many cases, support their addictions or conditions, creating an enabling environment. These dynamics make our community attractive and can draw even more program-resistant individuals from other places. 

To reduce these impacts, in early 2014, the Police Department, along with staff from Parking, Community Development, and Parks and Recreation collaborated with the San Luis Obispo Downtown Association and the United Way of San Luis Obispo County to form a Directed Giving Campaign to implement a donation station Make Change Count program by using colorful, specially marked and placed parking meters repurposed as “giving” sites. 

Meters as a donation opportunity are not a new idea. There are several successful programs in communities across the country. The concept was born out of the fact that people want to give, sometimes immediately. Giving is rewarding and provides a feeling of instant satisfaction. 

Recently, a San Luis Obispo County grand jury report was released about our donation meter program. This report was highlighted in the article written in the New Times on July 9. Although the report and article provided favorable comments and positive aspects about the program, a conclusion was delivered indicating the donation meters were not financially successful, and the program may be terminated at the end of its two year pilot period in May of 2016.

It should be clarified that as the concept of the donation meters was developed, the main purpose was one of education, with fundraising as a secondary effort. However, with that said, the program is on target to raise more than $10,000 through sponsorships and donations during the first two years of the program. These funds will go directly to support local homeless service efforts. That result is hardly a financial failure. 

As a person close to the project since its inception, I disagree with statements that indicate the program is not successful or even that it may be discontinued at the end of the pilot program. In the first six months of 2015 the meters raised more than $1,250.00 in donations. Because these meters are digital, we know these donations accounted for approximately 1,500 transactions in the form of both coin and credit card donations. 

If 1,500 people can donate in six months, not only is that an affirmation for agreement with the program, but it is also an indication that these supporters will likely tell their friends about their experience and what they learned. The meters have also caused others to donate contributions directly to the United Way on behalf of supporting homeless services. With results like this, the program is meeting both its educational and financial goals.

The donation meter program has received overwhelming public support. However, it would be unreasonable to believe the meters alone would end homelessness or stop panhandling. The power of the program lies with the messaging that we as a community will change the culture and not tolerate or support individuals who choose to engage in criminal or adverse behaviors that are detrimental to our collective well-being. However, we will continue to be a compassionate community that donates money or time to empower those in need to transition away from homelessness toward a life of self-sufficiency. Donation stations are simply one of many creative ways to achieve this objective and Make Change Count.

Keith Storton is a captain with the San Luis Obispo Police Department and chair of the Directed Giving Campaign Committee. Anyone with questions about the program can reach Capt. Storton by email at kstorton@slocity.org or by phone at 781-7118.

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