'Real change' meters raise funds for homeless services, increase awareness

Published: Friday, Nov. 16 2012 1:01 a.m. MST

Parking meters like this one, sponsored by local merchants, are at various downtown locations for visitors to utilize in lieu of handouts to panhandlers in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Lucy Cardenas has long wanted a red parking meter to be placed in front of her Red Iguana restaurant.

Cardenas wanted a constructive means to help homeless people in Salt Lake City, and the distinctive red meter fit the bill. Instead of giving cash to panhandlers, Salt Lake residents are encouraged to feed the meters.

Money collected from the meters — more than $16,500 this past year — will be split among homeless service providers such as the 4th Street Clinic, Volunteers of America and Catholic Community Services, among others.

There are 12 meters scattered about Salt Lake City, plus a mobile meter that has made regular appearances at the Downtown Farmers Market and Gallivan Center.

The meters are part of Homeless Outreach Service Team, a collaboration among government and community partners to connect homeless people with social services and resources. 

As a business owner and a person who wants to help homeless people in the community, the parking meter seemed a good solution, Cardenas said.

Some customers tell her they do not appreciate being hassled by panhandlers while they're walking into her restaurant. Others want to buy them a meal or help in some other way.

"I hope this sends a good message and people will start feeding these meters," Cardenas said.

Jeff Stokes, whose family sponsors the mobile HOST meter for $1,500 a year, said the sponsorship enables others to easily contribute to agencies that are direct service providers.

"I've worked downtown most of my career, and I've seen a lot of people on the streets. I always had this temptation to do handouts, but that's probably not the best way to help," he said.

Stokes said he grew up on a farm under humble circumstances. But he was also aware of the struggles of migrant farm workers employed by his family.

"They struggled to make ends meet. My parents instilled in me we should try to give back," he said.

Other sponsors include The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Utah Jazz, Ray Quinney & Nebeker, American West Bank, Gastronomy Inc., Zions Bank, Visit Salt Lake, GSBS Architects and Squatters Pubs.

HOST is a collaboration of helping agencies and the Salt Lake City Police Department. Chief Chris Burbank said officers are making a concerted effort to refer homeless men, women and families to services and resources that can assist them.

Police have encountered 600 homeless people in the past year, half of whom have been referred to service providers, Burbank said.

One was a young woman who was a victim of domestic violence and was living on the streets. She was referred to the YWCA for assistance.

Another was a homeless veteran, whom officers helped access services through the Veterans Administration. "Now he's no longer panhandling. He's no longer living on the streets," Burbank said.

Homeless advocate Pamela Atkinson said one person's spare change added to another's literally accumulates into thousands of dollars to help support the efforts of service providers.

"This really is a wonderful program. It actually has changed people's lives. It has given them an opportunity to see that help is there," she said.

Atkinson, who distributes socks, blankets and coats to people on the streets through her outreach volunteer service with Volunteers of America, said those efforts help in a limited way.

"They need more. That 'more' is the resources all these providers give," she said. 

Contributions to HOST, which is part of the Pamela J. Atkinson Foundation, can also be made at any Zions Bank location.

For more information, visit www.slcpd.com/HOST. A video of a public service announcement about HOST and the meters also is available online.

E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com

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