The latest effort out of Lawrence City Hall to curtail downtown panhandling: Feed the meter if you want to feed somebody in need.
Lawrence city commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting will consider a new program that makes it easier to donate spare change to local social service agencies rather than giving the money to downtown panhandlers.
“It seems like it is a chance to do something good without promoting panhandling,” City Commissioner Mike Dever said.
The program centers on the idea of “donation meters.” City crews would install old parking meters that the city currently has in inventory. The meters would be installed at strategic locations throughout downtown — perhaps near midblock crossings and breezeways — and would carry a different color scheme from ordinary meters. The meters would include signs that urge people to place their spare change in the meter rather than giving to a panhandler. The money from the meters then would be donated to social service agencies that serve the homeless.
“When I heard the idea, I just loved it,” said Cathy Hamilton, director of Downtown Lawrence Inc. “I couldn’t really see a downside to it.”
Downtown merchants have frequently expressed concerns that the amount of panhandling in the area has made many shoppers uncomfortable.
The leader of the city’s lone homeless shelter said he also supported the program. Loring Henderson, director of the Lawrence Community Shelter, said the shelter’s staff discourages panhandling.
“If you have a way for folks to donate to the program right then and there, then they can tell the person seeking money that they’ve given to a program instead,” Henderson said.
The idea of donation meters has been implemented in several cities across the country, including Atlanta, Cleveland, Denver, Las Vegas, Miami and Nashville.
The city is estimating that it would cost about $300 per meter to install the devices downtown. Staff members are asking commissioners for feedback on how many meters would be appropriate and where they should be located.
In the past, the city has contemplated banning panhandling in the downtown area, but city attorneys have said that likely would run afoul of the First Amendment. The city does have an aggressive-panhandling law, which makes it illegal to ask for money in certain hostile or persistent ways. But merchants have complained that the law is difficult to enforce.
Hamilton said she thinks the donation meter program has a chance to discourage panhandlers from being downtown by cutting down on the amount of donations they receive. But she said the program would require a significant public education campaign.
“I think we really need to reach out to students who come to the community in the fall,” Hamilton said. “Those are the people who are new and they want to do good. I’ve heard, percentage-wise, a lot of panhandlers get a bigger payback from students.”
City Commissioner Mike Amyx — a downtown barber shop owner — said he agreed that the city has to make it clear that aggressive panhandling won’t be tolerated. But he said he wants to hear more about the meter program before committing to it.
“I think we still have to look at the big picture here,” Amyx said. “People are going through a time that they need help.”