Imagine Positive Change project will use donations to help local homeless
“Can you spare some change?” Santa Cruz residents are bound to get this question every so often. Those who live or work downtown may even hear it several times a day. It often remains rhetorical, bouncing like an unanswered echo up and down Pacific Avenue. It floats right past pedestrians, eliciting a sympathetic smile or “no, sorry” on the best of days. But if Santa Cruz wasn’t a lucrative location for panhandling, it wouldn’t be a hotspot for the act—and thus there are also those residents who are happy to help, those who can’t say no, and those who fork over a few coins when the mood strikes.
But, when you factor in all of the pros and cons of panhandling, is it really the best way for poor and homeless people to meet their needs? This is the question that birthed the Imagine Positive Change project, a local effort by a coalition of business owners, city council members, the Downtown Association and representatives from neighborhood organizations and the Homeless Services Center.
“This program provides an alternative to supporting panhandling, for those who want it,” says Chip, executive director of the Downtown Association, who goes by one name. “We’re not forcing this on anyone on either side, but it’s clear that we need to try something.”
The first stage of Imagine Positive Change will involve the installation of 12 old parking meters—artistically refurbished to stand apart from real ones—around town. The accrued money will go directly into an account overseen by Santa Cruz’s downtown outreach worker, Danielle Long.
Chip and the rest of the project’s the steering committee hope that these will serve as a comfortable option for many who are hesitant about giving directly to panhandlers.
“When you give somebody money on the street you really don’t know what that is supporting,” he says. “Sometimes it is helping someone get through a very challenging time. Often it’s supporting behavior that is not only harmful to the recipient, but in many cases to the rest of the community.”
The hope is that people will toss their spare change into these creative collection boxes, but also that the meters will raise awareness about the project’s educational campaign (“to inform people about the very complex culture of panhandling,” says Chip) and lead them to the group’s website, currently under construction, where they can donate in larger amounts.
“More money will probably be generated by sponsorship than will actually come in from the meters,” reasons City Councilmember Don Lane. “But they are visual reminders of the project—some people will put money in the meter and some will say ‘oh, this a good idea’ and make a donation.”
The project went before the city council at their April 13 meeting, where, as of press time, they were expected to give permission for the installation of the 12 non-parking-related meters (which they are donating). Lane, who worked for the Homeless Services Center for many years, says that this project came along with the parcel of downtown ordinances passed over the last few years.
“This was part of that package of ideas,” he says. “It emerged at the same time as the later downtown ordinances were brought up at the city council, and there was some interest—I certainly had an interest—in not having our whole downtown strategy be one around law enforcement and just making laws.”
Cost-neutral for the city, Lane says the project will require only “modest costs” that are being covered by the Downtown Association and individual sponsors.
As for the amount they expect to make, only time will tell. “It is just so hard to say how much people are going to donate. There is no way of knowing. The important thing is that the people who are doing this genuinely want to help—they have good intentions,” says Long, who was not involved with developing the program but will be the gatekeeper of the funds. She will use whatever monies are garnered to help homeless and poor persons obtain “basic necessities” such as ID cards, local bus passes, a meal, piece of clothing or first aid.
“Almost everyday someone asks me for an ID,” she says. “If it is enough money that I can get every person that asks me an ID, that will be awesome.”
According to Chip, there is no set spending limit for one person or one item, but the aim is to get people day-to-day items. “We are implementing systems that create absolute accountability and clear reporting on how the money is being spent, without imposing another overwhelming level of bureaucracy,” he says. “The goal is to give the outreach worker resources to do the job she needs to do in order to make a difference for someone.”
For Lane, this project is the first step in building better relations between the city and its homeless population, and a more holistic approach to dealing with the town’s homelessness and associated problems. “If you think about folks who are down there on the street, these are significant things for them,” he says. “Danielle being able to develop a better relationship because she can help them a little bit with a small thing opens a door to even bigger and better things.”