Last year, the Downtown Partnership (DPC) commissioned a “giving kiosk” for Downtown. Callie Warner, my neighbor and metalsmith, designed what Liz Parham, Direcor of the DPC, described in this May 16th, 2006 Chapel Hill News column [PDF] as an “economic development tool”:

This past week the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership carried a concept proposal for a privately funded “Giving Kiosk” to the Town Council for review. The purpose of the Giving Kiosk is to provide downtown visitors with an alternative to giving money to panhandlers by directing their giving to human service agencies that provide beneficial services to those that are in need in the downtown area; to educate the public on the services that are needed and those that are offered; and to educate the public on how social and behavioral issues are hindering the economic vitality of downtown and our community’s growth.

The Chapel Hill Town Council saw this more as an “art project” – introducing a bureaucratic muddle as local curmudgeon Roland Giduz noted last June

This plan is to install a giving kiosk is as an alternative to donating to panhandlers. It will be completely privately financed. It won’t cost taxpayers a penny and should relieve the popularly perceived image of beggars harming the aura of Chapel Hill’s public shopping area.

An anonymous donor has offered to pay the $17,000 construction cost of building and installing this small sidewalk structure downtown. As tried and used elsewhere in similar circumstances, it offers people the option to contribute to designated charities instead of enabling panhandlers. The Chapel Hill Town Council recently considered this proposal, seemed to like it, and commissioned a local artist to submit a design. The resulting design by Callie Warner shows a securely- built rectangular structure, simply roofed and with slots for contributions. It is purely a functional kiosk, both in design and appearance.

As all too often happens when something is caught in the maw of bureaucracy, the kiosk idea has been shoved aside ‘til it can be considered as art, rather than as a functional structure. It now awaits a decision — yet-to-be considered or approved – as to whether it is art instead of a simple structure for its intended purpose. Until then there’ll be no giving kiosk and no donation of it or to it.

In the past, I’ve been critical of some of the harsher aspects of Denver’s Give a Better Way campaign , echoing our local Council champion of homelessness causes Sally Greene’s concerns :

Narayan thus argues, and I agree, that a concern that the presence of panhandlers in a downtown district discourages foot-traffic and therefore undermines the economic health of downtown is not a morally valid reason for the further regulation of panhandling.

On the other hand, the impulse behind the idea of the giving kiosk had much to recommend itself. I think it represented a genuine wish to be helpful, to reach out as a community to help those in need. The trouble is that we don’t have natural connections with panhandlers; they appear to us as strangers, one at a time, seemingly cut off from the community. We really don’t know what a pandhandler will do with the dollar we give him, and we have reason to fear the worst. The initiatives that the Downtown Outreach Work Group is about to embark on are potentially good ones–as long as they include a recognition that in the end we cannot control the lives or wills of others, that not every panhandler is dishonest or deceitful, that there is genuine need staring us in the face. (The Denver program’s home page is pretty harsh: a picture of an upturned palm, inscribed, “Please help. Don’t give.”)

Yes, the impulse to give, to help is commendable and should be nurtured.

That’s why I’m willing to follow Denver’s lead while Council works out the finer points of art, and suggest we trial Denver’s practical approach of using recycled parking meters to collect funds:

The city of Denver has recycled old parking meters to help in the fight against homelessness.

The old parking meters have been placed at various locations in downtown, including Skyline Park.

The idea is to encourage people to put the money into the parking meters instead of giving to panhandlers. Money raised from the meters will go to organizations fighting homelessness.

Mayor John Hickenlooper said the city’s 10 year plan to end homelessness is working.

“Denver’s 10 year plan to end homelessness, what we call Denver’s road home, has really become a national model,” Hickelooper said. “I think we’ve had the greatest success in getting the whole community to buy in, to believe this is something we can tackle as a community.”

Officials unveiled 36 of the homeless meters on Monday.

Denver’s CBS4 Mar. 5th, 2007

The lede of this story – “help[ing] the fight against homelessness” – highlights yet again an unfortunate conflation between panhandling and homelessness.

They’re not equivalent.

I hope that it is a distinction the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership Work Group on Homeless shares as they move forward.

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