Salt Lake City wants to offer a better place for residents and visitors to plop spare change than a panhandler's hand, cup, box or bucket.
It's not to be miserly. Rather, the motive is to redirect handouts to curb homelessness.
So, beginning Thursday, Utah's capital will unveil a downtown string of refurbished parking meters painted bright red and placed along sidewalks designed to collect coins for the city's social-service providers.
The pilot program, called Homeless Outreach Service Team (HOST), is a hybrid of similar efforts in cities such as Baltimore, Minneapolis and especially Denver which has collected $100,000 a year from its 86 meters, mostly through business sponsorships.
Businesses agreeing to "host" a meter must pay the $500 installation cost plus a $1,000 donation to the program.
"The meters end up being the education piece because it's visible," said Salt Lake City police spokeswoman Laura Jones. "The coinage is really secondary to the sponsorships."
For months, Police Chief Chris Burbank, Mayor Ralph Becker, the Downtown Alliance and homeless-service leaders have brainstormed to create HOST. Jones says one hope is to pinpoint what prompts panhandling, then provide solutions in the form of housing, shelters, health care and job counseling.
"Giving to verified organizations," she said, "is more productive than giving to panhandlers."
So far, nine businesses, which all get their new meters Thursday, have signed on. The city has 13 total meters, including two that are portable for downtown concerts, Utah Jazz games and other events.
"We haven't really set a goal," Bianca Shreeve, assistant to the city's chief of staff, said about an annual donation total. "But the appetite out there seems pretty large for getting meters. It could snowball."
If different commercial areas in the city express interest, Shreeve says City Hall could provide even more meters.
Longtime homeless advocate Pamela Atkinson hopes so. All panhandlers and homeless people, she says, are not congregated in downtown Salt Lake City. "It's a pilot project," she said. "If it's successful, we'll talk with our counterparts in the county and see if we can widen it."
The HOST money will be placed in the new Pamela J. Atkinson Foundation, then divided between service agencies based on recommendations from an advisory committee.
Still, what's to stop aggressive panhandlers from camping by the new meters to prey on charitable passers-by? Technically, nothing. But part of the program includes training for beat cops, who will regularly engage panhandlers to inform them about the city's social-service opportunities.
"Not that officers are now case workers, but they have information," Jones added. "And information is power."
Last year, the City Council walked away from Mayor Ralph Becker's proposed crackdown on aggressive panhandlers, declining to vote. The ordinance would have created time, place and manner restrictions on aggressive beggars. It was endorsed by the downtown business community but blasted by advocates for the homeless, civil libertarians and faith-based groups as excessive.
Becker's spokesman says HOST is not intended as a substitute, but is another approach that is "part of the outreach that was already in place."
The meters, which will be branded with the tag line "Turn spare change into real change," also will be turned inward so drivers don't mistake them for parking pay stations.
Zions Bank, which will host three Main Street meters, wants to be a "good corporate partner," according to senior vice president Brian Garrett. "Part of the reason we are involved in this is the city's approach," Garrett said. "In particular, Chief Burbank's goal to create a program that is very proactive, very humane, and in the best interest of helping those folks that need it the most."
Atkinson cautions that HOST is still an experiment, but says if there are quantifiable results, the meters should be expanded.
"In the end, it's the outcomes that count."
'Turn spare change into real change'
P The slogan will be placed on more than a dozen refurbished parking meters painted bright red that soon will dot the downtown Salt Lake City business district. The meters are designed to collect donations that, in turn, will be used by social-service providers aiming to curb panhandling and homelessness.
City officials, business leaders and service providers will unveil the first new "meter" Thursday at 10 a.m. in front of the Zions Bank branch on the corner of South Temple and Main Street.