In late September, the Downtown Little Rock Partnership program
“Change for the Better” will install 25 orange donation boxes around
downtown to collect funds for the homeless. The idea is that the boxes
will let people averse to panhandlers contribute money in a way that
will alleviate their plight, rather than their desire for a cold beer.

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Reaction to the idea has been mixed. Some homeless advocates argue
that the boxes won’t do enough to assist the city’s homeless and could
potentially do more harm than good.

Michael Stoops, executive director of the National Homeless
Coalition, a group that ranked Little Rock the No. 1 “meanest” city to
the homeless in 2004 and No. 3 in 2007, said the boxes create a
convenient way for citizens to donate, but they should not become a
substitute for giving to individuals. The coalition used Hunger-Free
Arkansas reports of police officers’ unfair treatment of the homeless
and the closing of the Saint Francis House day center in 2005 in giving
Little Rock its low ranking.

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“I just hope they don’t use it as a stepping stone to
criminalization,” Stoops said. “I predict that in a year from now, the
boxes will not have solved the issue and [the city will have] come up
with tougher laws like requiring permits to panhandle or outlawing it
all together.”

The donation boxes may take the human face off homelessness, says
Sandra Wilson, executive director of the Arkansas Supportive Housing
Network. The boxes themselves may serve as a reminder of the problem,
but perhaps not as effectively as an individual reaching out for help.
“I’d hate for people to think, ‘Ok, if I just put money in the box then
I’ve taken care of any need I have to help the homeless,’ ” Wilson
said. “I give to the homeless. Not every time, but you need to see the
person in front of you.”

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Those in favor of using the locked steel boxes, which parking meter
manufacturer Duncan Industries created to collect traffic tickets,
insist that giving to panhandlers only feeds the problem. “Panhandlers
are often not using the money for food but to buy alcohol and/or drugs.
Even though we want to do something good, we are actually becoming
enablers,” said Sharon Priest, executive director of the partnership.
The group tentatively plans to have the boxes installed by Sept. 22 and
will distribute pamphlets detailing the city’s homeless services that
citizens can hand out instead of money. “If people don’t give the
money, [panhandlers will] quit asking,” Priest said. She added that the
partnership regularly hears complaints about panhandlers following and
harassing passersby.

Stoops agreed that aggressive panhandling is a problem in Little
Rock and elsewhere, but said that there are separate laws for that type
of behavior. “No one should be obnoxious or scaring people or asking
for money by ATM machines, but in some cities you say, ‘Brother, can
you spare a dime?’ twice, and it’s considered harassment.”

In Arkansas, it’s illegal to ask for money on the street, but the
Little Rock Police Department rarely enforces the “loitering for
begging” law unless a panhandler gets pushy, spokesman Lt. Terry
Hastings said. “If a person comes up and says, ‘Hey can I have a dollar
for a cup of coffee?’ that’s fine,” Hastings said. But if he starts
making threats or refuses to take “no” for an answer, “that borders on
robbery,” he said. “Some of our homeless people have figured out that
by being a little aggressive they can get what they want from people.”
Hastings said he hopes that the boxes will reduce panhandling but
doubts they’ll have much effect: “People want their money and they want
it now.”

Several other U.S. cities, including Baltimore, Albuquerque,
Portland and Denver, have instituted similar donation-box programs. In
Baltimore, money can be put into one of nine recycled parking meters
set up downtown. “We’re not under the illusion that it eliminates
homelessness or panhandling,” said Kirby Fowler, president of the
Downtown Partnership of Baltimore. “But it reduces the amount of money
being put to non-productive uses.”

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Baltimore has only raised about $1,000 since the program was
launched in December 2006, Fowler said. But before the end of its first
year, Asheville, N.C., collected about $1,500 from five meters.
Portland, Ore., also raised $1,500 during its first year, but added
more meters and raised that to a total of $10,000 over the last three
years.

The number of homeless people in Central Arkansas increased from
1,300 in 2005 to 1,822 in 2007, according to a U.S. Housing and Urban
Development report released this summer.

Stoops cited Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola’s 10-year plan to end
homelessness and the River City Ministries’ contract to open up a new
temporary day center in North Little Rock, which will provide an
air-conditioned escape as well as job training and counseling, as
indications of progress in the area.

Will Little Rock find itself on the next “meanest” list the coalition is working on this fall?

“I doubt it,” Stoops said. “That ranking stirred things up in Little
Rock and I think it’s caused positive change. We’ll probably mention
Little Rock in our report, but I don’t think it will make the
‘meanest.’ ”