Meters to benefit homeless

Walking down Green Street, students come across panhandlers who ask for spare change and shake their cups. Instead of simply dropping in a quarter or two, students now have the opportunity to directly help fund agencies that provide aid to the homeless.

Four blue parking meters, located on the sidewalks of downtown Champaign and within Campustown, were set up as a part of the “Make Real Change” initiative. Each coin collected will help fund TIMES Center, a transitional living program that serves Champaign County homeless men. This center is a part of Community Elements, which is a mental health agency that provides treatment services for individuals and families.

“If you were to just hand money to a panhandler, you don’t know what they are using it for,” said Erin Lippitz, Champaign Center for Partnership’s executive director.

Moe Burtson has been panhandling for the last thirty years and said he spends the money he receives on “beer, hamburgers and weed.” Sitting on a bench outside of Noodles & Company on Green Street, he said a typical day is sad, dirty, cold and broke, and “if I wake up at all, it’s a good day.”

Make Real Change

The Champaign Center for Partnership teamed up with the City of Champaign and Community Elements to address the issue of panhandling, wanting to create a recognizable place where people can redirect donations. Community Elements handles distribution of the funds, while the City of Champaign collects money from the meters and the Champaign Center for Partnership promotes the initiative. The first four meters were installed by Champaign Public Works and funded by the city.

TJ Blakeman, Champaign Center’s former executive director, inquired about the meters after seeing similar programs in cities like St. Louis. The center, which serves as a downtown association that promotes member businesses throughout Champaign, received several recent panhandling complaints from business owners.

Between Aug. 16, when the program began, and Sept. 1, the city collected $34.

“We don’t expect this to bring in thousands of dollars every month. It’s just not that type of program,” Lippitz said. “The point is to make people aware of the issue and encourage them to direct their giving to places that actually help people.”

Community Elements offers a variety of resources, including the TIMES Center. Sixty-five cents will provide a meal at the center, while $29 provides a night of care at the shelter; this includes meals, assistance with employment skills, budgeting and a medical screening, said Community Elements CEO Sheila Ferguson.

Ferguson said the organization started a relationship with the city, knowing they could not meet the needs of all the homeless within Champaign County without support.

“This helps us serve more people with the limited funds that we have,” Ferguson said. “The cost of the TIMES Center is a little more than what people would anticipate for a shelter but that’s because we really want to provide the services that people need to move to self sufficiency.”

Ferguson hopes that with the national attention to mental health needs, they will see a trend towards support for increasing services.

Homelessness in Champaign County

According to a bi-yearly report released by the Champaign County Continuum of Care, there were 214 homeless in Champaign County in Jan. 2013. However, these numbers reflect new criteria which resulted in fewer people being classified as homeless compared to previous reports.

Jason Greenly, a member of the Neighborhood Services Department, noted that not all who are homeless panhandle and not all panhandlers are homeless.

“The majority of our homeless people are not panhandling on the street, but they are going out and trying to find jobs,” Lippitz said. “We kind of feel they (panhandlers) are trying to make a business out of it.”

Ferguson said the soup kitchen at TIMES Center alone is serving more than 69,000 meals, and it is not Champaign County’s only soup kitchen. As the weather gets colder annually, the number of homeless people the center sees increases. But more than 40 out of 50 beds are already being used, which means they will quickly be at capacity when the weather worsens.

“I think homelessness is a big issue everywhere right now with the economy,” Lippitz said. “Personally, I’ve noticed a lot more (panhandling) in the last couple of years. Every time I go to campus, I see more, too, and it’s starting to spread out.”

Lippitz said the center has received several complaints, which she reports to the city. Additionally, JSM Development owns several locations on Green Street and works on an ongoing basis with the Champaign Police Department.

“Aggressive panhandling does have negative impact on our businesses and our visitors,” said Jill Guth, director of commercial leasing and marketing for JSM, in an e-mail. “Many times, visitors and students may be intimidated by the aggressive nature and shy away from entering the business.”

Having worked in the Campustown area since 1997, Guth said panhandling seems to be cyclical. At certain times of the year, it seems to lessen, she said, but when the student population returns, it increases.

Panhandling in Champaign County

Though panhandling is not technically illegal, it can be if it becomes aggressive, such as when someone feels threatened or in danger. Panhandlers are not allowed to follow anyone or ask more than once.

“It puts a bad face on campus and a bad face on Champaign,” Lippitz said. “You don’t want a community of homeless people harassing you and sleeping on the sidewalk. Students have a right to feel safe on campus.”

Crystal Rosales, freshman in ACES, comes into contact with panhandlers a couple times each week as she walks to work at Chopstix, a Chinese restaurant located at 202 E. Green St. She admits to giving spare change each time she sees them.

“I give because I feel guilty, and I want to be nice,” Rosales said. “One came into my work and could not afford food, so I bought him some, and then he started creeping me out. I had my coworker ask him to leave. I’m going broke because I feel like all my tip money is going to them.”

Rather than directly giving funds to panhandlers, Lippitz encourages people to tell the homeless that they are putting money in the blue meters and that they should seek help at Community Elements.

The University of Illinois Police Department interacts with panhandlers “as close to daily as you can find,” said Skip Frost, deputy chief of police. Both UIPD and the Champaign Police Department deal with Campustown panhandling.

“Of course you have compassion and want to help, but by doing so you are reaffirming what they are doing and making it worthy for them to continue coming back,” Frost said. “Our students are great and very compassionate, so they are generous even if they do not have much money themselves to give.”

Because of Campustown’s large population density, panhandling will always be an issue, Frost said. Even if one out of every 10 people gives money, Frost said panhandlers will still make a decent amount.

Future of Make Real Change

Lippitz is currently discussing with University officials how to address students on the issue of panhandling, especially freshmen and transfer students. Lippitz hopes to create a University student coalition on campus so they can work together on the initiative.

If the community supports the four meters that are in place, all three organizations hope to install more meters throughout Champaign to raise money for other organizations such as the Center for Women in Transition, Ferguson said. They also plan to look into creating SMS-based payment plans because many students use debit cards instead of carrying spare change.

“We want to keep building on this pilot and give people more options to donate,” Ferguson said. “Sometimes, panhandling is a way to support addictions that people have.”

Champaign city council member Michael LaDue, District 2, said time will tell how effective the program is. He said the city has been working on programs similar to these since 1995 and “every penny counts.”

Megan can be reached at [email protected] and @meganash_jones.