Ravell Call, Ravell Call, Deseret News
Pamela Atkinson makes a donation at the announcement of the Homeless Outreach Service Team (HOST) Program and unveiling of HOST donation meters in Salt Lake City, Thursday, April 21, 2011.

For a year and a half, a dozen revamped parking meters painted red and scattered around downtown Salt Lake City have made it possible for people to make small contributions to programs that service the homeless. Those in charge say the project appears to be catching on, having raised more than $16,000 in the past year.

We say, that's a good start.

The cash extracted from the meters will be put to good use, but given the realities of the homeless problem in Utah, it will go only so far. While a healthy sum, the amount raised represents only about $1 for each person in Utah currently without permanent shelter.

The meter program is managed by the Homeless Outreach Service Team, which has used donations and sponsorship money from various individuals, businesses and institutions to locate the meters throughout the core downtown area. Many are in places where homeless people congregate, and where panhandlers are frequently seen.

Advocates for the homeless say a few coins in a meter helps give people a "hand up" as opposed to a "handout." The money supports vital services, including those provided by the 4th Street Clinic, Catholic Community Services, the Volunteers of America, and others.

Salt Lake City is now among several metropolitan areas that support similar efforts, and other cities have found that as people become familiar with the program, more coins are dropped in the meters. In Denver, the program nets more than $100,000 a year.

The meters offer a clever and convenient way to donate, and provide an alternative for those who wish to offer assistance but feel uncomfortable when personally confronted by someone seeking spare change.

It has gotten off the ground because of the generosity of its sponsors, including small businesses in the downtown area whose owners and employees are keenly aware of the size of the homeless population. The beauty of the program is in its simplicity — the meters are eye-catching and when people walk by and learn what they are for, it's no big deal to reach into a pocket for a few dimes and quarters.

Over time, those dimes and quarters add up. In other cities, it's estimated that the average contribution is less then 50 cents. If that's the case here, then each meter was plugged several thousand times in the last year — as much, if not more, than when they took coins in exchange for a parking spot.

The colorful meters give notice that we live in a place of compassion and generosity. We expect the project's early success will offer a platform for expansion, meaning more meters in more places, and increased public familiarity with how they work.

In its early stages, the program has shown that when the opportunity presents itself to make a donation, people will seize it, recognizing that for those struggling to get off the streets, even small change can make a big difference.