In St. Pete, parking meters for the homeless?

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The city of St. Pete will implement a program designed to cut back on panhandling while raising money for homeless charities. Beginning this week, 12 refurbished parking meters will be installed throughout downtown, but instead of feeding the meters to avoid a pesky parking ticket, users will have the option of throwing some spare change in to support homeless outreach efforts.

The first meter is being installed near St. Vincent De Paul with others expected to go up along Beach Drive and Central Avenue.

The bright yellow meters are easily distinguished from the normal, bland, brown roadside machines. Written on the front of the “Power of Change” meter is a message to St. Pete residents and visitors. “Help provide for homeless families and individuals,” a sticker reads along with graffics depicting transportation, housing and meals. Where the meter would normally indicate for meter maids expired time, there’s a half yellow sun connotating Mayor Rick Kriseman’s favorite line, “the sun shines here.”

On the back another message explains the program. “This donation station is an opportunity to use your spare change to make a real change in ending homelessness in St. Petersburg.”

Kriseman claims a similar program in Denver brings in more than $100,000 in additional revenue for homeless programs through 100 meters. However, an article from last month in Time Magazine points out Denver only uses 50 meters with annual revenue of less than $5,000. City officials do acknowledge the meters aren’t likely to be a huge source of revenue.

“It’s not so much about money,” said Manager of Veterans, Social and Homeless Services Cliff Smith. “It’s about education. We really want to discourage panhandling in our city.”

So, much like removing benches is thought to discourage sleeping in parks, painting meters for the sake of homeless charity is meant to give an alternative means of donation to those who assume the spare change they reluctantly throw at panhandlers will be used on booze, drugs and cigarettes.

“Residents and visitors who want to help a homeless person are encouraged to suppot the agencies and programs that serve the homeless by depositing their change in these meters rather than giving money directly to panhandlers,” Kriseman said.

What additional revenue the meters bring in will be used to support an initiative through the city to provide outreach to homeless individuals to connect them with resources and education. Expanding that program was one of five identified needs in Pinellas County to thwart homelessness.

And jumping on board the refurbished parking meter bandwagon isn’t the only thing the city has done to either reduce homelessness or look like they are. They’ve dumped more money into charity programs like St. Vincent De Paul. Beginning on April 1 this year, St. Vincent De Paul began opening a center during the day where homeless individuals and families could spend time enjoying supervised recreational activities, free meals and access to social workers. That took people who were forced from emergency shelters at 6 a.m. every morning out of downtown parks and put them out of sight.

Other recommendations to improve the city’s homeless problem included reinstating a shuttered Pinellas County Sheriff’s diversion program and repurposing parks to discourage loitering by people living on the streets.

“There are police bicycles and a police cart available for officers to patrol the park,” Kriseman said. “[An officer] has been assigned to lead the Williams Park police initiative and he works with the downtown deployment team to ensure that there is a police presence in the park as much as possible from sunrise to sunset.”

The press conference announcing new homeless initiatives today was well attended by city staff and several homeless outreach groups as well as local business leaders. Not present at the meeting though were people who will likely take issue with some of the efforts being outlined.

The National Coalition for the Homeless notes programs including St. Pete’s increased patrolling of places frequented by homeless populations as well as programs like Pinellas Safe Harbor that transport homeless from public places to a far off shelter are additional ways of criminalizing poverty. The organization has conducted several studies over the years indicating that shuffling the problem does not solve it.

A 2012 study by that group found that 33% of cities analyzed prohibit “camping” in particular public places in the city and 17% have citywide prohibitions on “camping.” 30% prohibit sitting or lying in certain public places while 47% prohibit loitering in particular public areas and 19% prohibit loitering citywide and 49% prohibit aggressive panhandling.

However, when asked about the city not doing enough to provide adequate shelter and permanent housing options for both the homeless community and those who are at-risk, Smith acknowledges that is the key problem.

“We agree that permanent housing is the ultimate answer,” Smith said. “We’re very supportive of that and we do fund programs.”

The only permanent housing program in St Pete Smith referenced was the one operated by Boley Centers.

The St. Petersburg Police Department was also on hand during the press conference at St. Vincent De Paul. They handed out 30 bicycle locks to people waiting for lunch at the charity located on Fifth Avenue North near St. Anthony’s hospital. A spokesperson for the agency, Yolanda Fernandez, pointed out many homeless people have a hard time getting to services because their bikes, often their only means of transportation, frequently get stolen. Dozens of people rushed the doors to collect locks from two officers.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.