Illustration by Joe Lai.
Illustration by Joe Lai.

“Excuse me, could I have one penny that I could split into a thousand pieces and share with all the homeless people on Pacific Avenue?”

This is a creative line one downtown panhandler used on passersby last Friday night. He and his peers may soon have a lot more than a penny, though not in the way they would expect.

Santa Cruz City Council recently approved an idea from the Downtown Association to install meters that will benefit the homeless in a program called “Imagine Positive Change.”

All money donated to the meters will go directly to programs that give homeless people in Santa Cruz the resources they need to get by.

Critics say a critical reason for the program is to discourage giving money to panhandlers, but City Councilmember Don Lane said the new meter brings a new option.

“It just provides an alternative [to panhandling] to people who want to help,” Lane said.

Lane added that the meters are important because programs trying to help the homeless are hurting for cash themselves.

“There’s an outreach social worker in downtown Santa Cruz who has very little funding to help [the homeless people] she works with,” he said.

The meters, soon to be installed, will be refurbished 1950’s parking meters with new designs painted on them.

“We looked at some models in other cities and got the idea from them … but we gave it our own Santa Cruz spin on the design,” said Emily Bernard, Downtown Association Board of Directors Vice President and owner of Dell Williams Jewelers on Pacific Avenue.

Every Pacific Avenue business can sponsor a meter to go in front of their store.

“Any business that is sponsoring a meter is … educating employees and shoppers about an appropriate way to give,” Bernard said.

However, not everyone is optimistic about the program. Homeless advocate Robert Norse, founder of HUFF (Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom), has serious doubts about the true intentions behind the meters.

Norse warns that, similar to programs in Denver and Laguna Beach, the meters will be considered works of public art, and city law will therefore prohibit panhandling within a 14 feet of them.

“[The city council] regards panhandlers as criminals,” Norse said. “No statistics were provided for this meter thing. … This preys on stereotypes of homeless people.”

City law also prohibits panhandling within fourteen feet of any drinking fountain, public telephone, public bench, public trash compactor, directory sign, street corner or intersection, kiosk, vending cart, open air dining area or cafe extension.

Councilmember Don Lane responded to Norse’s criticism by saying, “Robert is always trying to make an issue controversial … how would offering an alternative [to panhandling] criminalize anyone?”

But Norse insists that the city council is trying to decrease panhandling, something he does not think a wise move.

“Panhandling is an important thing because it’s how people make their needs known,” he said. “Santa Cruz has shelters for less than 5 percent of homeless people. … We need to resist the whole set of laws that amount to second-class citizenship [for homeless people].”

Norse’s stance contradicts Downtown Association Board of Directors Vice President Bernard’s statement that panhandling is simply ‘feeding the monster,’ because there is no guarantee of what people will buy with the money.

Bernard says the money from the meters will go to a more worthwhile cause than ordinary handouts do.

“[When people put money in one of the meters], their dollar is going to get to an organization that is going to have a real impact, rather than just giving someone change that will get them through the next hour or day,” she said.

It remains to be seen how much the new meters will benefit the homeless. But Norse doesn’t foresee much “Positive Change” coming from the plan.

He said, “This is a business tactic to put a pretty smile on a nasty face.”