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Money from Meters to Help Homeless Sits Unspent

This giving meter sits off Courtland Street in downtown Atlanta. Although monies are collected monthly from the meters, city records show none of the money has gone to help homelessness or aggressive panhandling. In fact, it's gone nowhere.
This giving meter sits off Courtland Street in downtown Atlanta. Although monies are collected monthly from the meters, city records show none of the money has gone to help homelessness or aggressive panhandling. In fact, it's gone nowhere.
Credit / Central Atlanta Progress

When Marti Blackstock started her job downtown as manager at Peachtree Center nine years ago, panhandlers hit her up daily. Some refused to take “no” for an answer. She says the requests became more “aggressive.”An audio version of this story

“That’s a very descriptive word for it – aggressive. It was folks that would chase visitors, tenants, guests.”

Her company was among the first to place the so-called “giving meters” downtown. And she says they’re effective.

But Blackstock was surprised to learn not a penny collected through the meter program goes to stop either aggressive panhandling or homelessness.

“I’ve been told differently,” she says, adding the she understand the money goes to the Gateway Center nearby.

At least some of the money is supposed to go to the Gateway Center, a non-profit tasked to “impact chronic homelessness.” Executive director Vince Smith confirms the Gateway Center has never seen a cent from the meters.

In fact, no one’s benefited.

WABE used the Georgia Open Records Act to obtain financial statements going back to 2010. Documents show the city has collected nearly $3,500 from the meters.  But those funds just sit in a bank account. Valerie Bell-Smith, spokeswoman for the city’s Dept. of Public Works, confirms the account has seen no expenditures. 

“I’m not disappointed,” says Wilma Southern, head of marketing for Central Atlanta Progress. The non-profit was responsible for initial marketing of the giving meter program.

Southern says the meters weren’t designed to collect large amounts of cash, or solve aggressive panhandling alone.

“We set our expectations to know it wouldn’t generate hundreds of thousands of dollars.  But it would be a way for someone to put in their pocket change.  But also, and more importantly, they served as a reminder,” — a reminder that giving to aggressive panhandlers only  furthers the problem.

But the meters are just a small part of the city’s overall strategy.

Atlanta’s plan also calls for enhanced education and stepped-up law enforcement.

For example, undercover officers often throw on lanyards and pose as convention-goers. Panhandlers who won’t take no for an answer are carted off to jail.

Atlanta Police Deputy Chief Joseph Spillane says APD made 121 of these arrests in 2009.

“Last year, in 2013, we did 750,” he said.

Spillane admits the meters haven’t solved the problem. But he welcomes them as one tool in the fight.

  “I wear a gun belt that has a gun, a Taser, and ASP batons and OC gas. Those are all tools I use to combat an actively-resisting person.”

Back downtown at Peachtree Center, passers-by pay the red meter little attention. “Amy” and friend “Precious” (they only give their first names) were unaware of what the meters were for.

Once the idea was explained, Amy had an initial positive reaction.  

“I think it’s very helpful actually,” she says. “Walking down the street, people want money. But you don’t want to give them money because you don’t know what they’re going to do with it. So stuff like this is actually giving back to the community, I think.”

Precious has a different take when she learns the money hasn’t gone to the homeless.

“I think that’s really unfair, and a waste of our time. We think we’re giving back to the community when we’re actually just putting it in a bank to sit there.”

Public works spokeswoman Valerie Bell-Smith says it’s up to the Atlanta City Council to divvy up the funds. That’s news to council president Caesar Mitchell. Even though no charity has directly benefited from the giving meters, Mitchell stops short of dismissing the program. 

“No, it has not failed.  But do we have more work to do? We absolutely have more work to do,” he says.  

Mitchell says now that he knows the money’s just sitting there, not helping the homeless, the council will look into how to put the money to its intended use.

(VOX Teen Communications staff writer Michael Foster contributed to this story.)