Imagine Positive Change meters pop up on Pacific Avenue
The City of Santa Cruz calls them Imagine Positive Change meters. To Santa Cruz Vice Mayor Don Lane, the small red receptacles are a chance to educate people. Downtown Association Executive Director Chip believes they’re “providing a way for people to help that’s sustainable and compassionate.” And founder of Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom (HUFF) Robert Norse mockingly calls them “gentrification meters.”
As for Leo Brown, he hasn’t even heard of them.
Brown has been homeless for about a year and a half now. He had a job doing landscaping but lost his employment due to the recession, and has been unable to find new work. Now he can be seen standing on Pacific Avenue, tall and silent, with headphones in his ears and a cardboard sign with only two words on it: “Diabetes” and “Change.”
“Sometimes people mistake me for one of the nutty [homeless people],” says Brown. “They have the right to do that, but most people will start acting more friendly toward me once they get to know me.”
Panhandlers like Brown served as inspiration for the Imagine Positive Change project, which allows different businesses to sponsor meters (similar to parking meters) in which—instead of paying for parking—people can insert money that will go to outreach social workers in Downtown Santa Cruz. The social workers will then make sure that the money is spent on different items for homeless people, such as ID cards and food.
According to Lane, these social workers are “very familiar with the culture on the street, and know what resources are needed to help individuals.” Therefore, he says, it’s a more effective way than giving directly to panhandlers.
Chip has a similar point of view.
“We live in a very generous community. People want to help,” he says. “A lot of people really don’t know the best way to help, and this program provides an alternative.”
About six of a total of eight meters have been erected so far, and they have signs explaining to passersby what they are for. Although no data has been collected yet, the city council is predicting that they will raise a total of around $15,000 a year.
Although the first one went up only about three weeks ago, the meters have already faced some problems. Homeless advocate Norse says that, “these meters have been dismantled by people who are angry by the very sight of them.”
When asked whether this charge was true, Santa Cruz Police Department spokesperson Zach Friend explains that the damage was not necessarily inflicted due to the nature of the meters. “It looks like they were vandalized not just [out of] an attempt to vandalize them, but more of an attempt to get the money out of them,” Friend says.
Regardless of the reason for the defacement, Norse has been vocally opposed to the meters since the idea originated last year because he sees them as a way to put panhandlers out of sight. He tells GT they are another action from a city council that is “spending money on these cosmetic, essentially repressive measures,” such as making loitering within 30 feet of a public work of art illegal—something that’s particular troubling to him given that the meters are considered works of art.
However, Chip says that this is a way that the city council is reaching out beyond simply writing strict laws. “There [are] big complicated issues with panhandling and all the issues around it downtown,” he says. “This is an attempt to address this on multiple levels. The city has, along with the business community, over many years, approached the issues with ordinances. That’s helpful to some degree, but it’s not compassionate.”
Chip goes on to sing the merits of giving people the option of funneling money through the meters and into the hands of social workers, instead of giving directly to homeless.
“I can’t be more emphatic; it’s such a complicated issue,” he says. “There are people downtown today who if they don’t get enough money panhandling, they don’t eat. There are other people who are going to use the money for buying drugs.”
Brown, who panhandles almost every day, doesn’t know what he thinks of the Imagine Positive Change project. But he does know that as far as he’s concerned, Santa Cruz has been good to him—through the Homeless Services Center, he gets a daily shower, clothing, and insulin whenever he needs it. He says that he can see why some Pacific Avenue patrons might give to the meter rather than to him.
“They’re afraid of a homeless person attacking them, which 99 percent of them will never do,” he says.
However, Brown concedes that the meters might help make it easier to give.
“[When I was employed], I used to always give people a lot of money, from $5 to $20, if I thought they were someone who didn’t drink or do drugs,” he says. “So I understand people not giving me money, because they don’t know who I am. Even I’m afraid of homeless people sometimes.”