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Feeding the Meter, Helping the Homeless?

American cities have tried many ambitious methods to "fix" their homelessness problems, from San Francisco's "care-not-cash" program, which cut welfare funds in exchange for expanded access to shelters, to The Bridge, Dallas' just-opened center that aims to take the novel approach of treating the homeless like consumers. Now, it appears the latest craze in homeless policy takes its cue from Lovely Rita, Meter Maid.

Earlier this month, San Francisco became the latest in an expanding list of cities that have converted downtown parking meters into collection boxes, with the coins deposited by passersby going to charities that assist the homeless. Although there are no parking spaces affiliated with the 10 meters scattered around San Francisco, officials hope the specially painted orange meters will reduce actual panhandling, in line with the slogan plastered on them: "Be a part of change, don't give change."

Homeless advocates, needless to say, are not thrilled with the idea. As Sister Bernie Galvin, executive director of Religious Witness with Homeless People, told the San Francisco Chronicle: "Forget the children, forget the mothers who are struggling to raise their family homeless or in inadequate housing," she said. "Will the city never give up on trying to find ways to make the lives of homeless people harder?"

Baltimore became the first to install the parking meters as part of its "Make A Change" program, with 10 blue-and-green meters lining the city's Inner Harbor. The dials on the meters change from "despair" to "hope" when coins are put in. Tom Yeager of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, which runs the program, told USA Today that the meters "don't raise a lot of money — maybe $100 a month ... But it satisfies the education (outreach), and it's one prong in a much larger effort to curb panhandling and raise awareness for homeless advocacy."

Indeed, the meters don't seem to be particularly lucrative. Portland, Ore., which has been running its "Real Change, Not Spare Change" meter program for several years, has raised only about $10,000 through the effort, and city officials are recruiting artists to make the meters more visually appealing. Denver has one of the more extensive programs, launched in the spring of 2007 and now with almost 90 meters in operation, and has brought in about $15,000.

Tempe, Ariz., also has dedicated meters for the homeless. In addition, more than 20 cities, from New York to Minneapolis to Las Vegas (where panhandlers collect an estimated $24 million a year), have expressed interest in the idea. North of the border, Montreal put 34 meters into service last summer, and Ottawa recently installed six "Kindness Meters."

In Seattle, however, the so-called "giving meters" proved hugely controversial and unpopular, with homeless advocates denouncing the effort as a thinly veiled attempt to drive out panhandlers.

Still, nothing compares to the sad story of Chattanooga, Tenn., where, just two days after being installed and identified as donation drops for the homeless, two of the meters were stolen by thieves. Here's guessing they didn't make off with much money ...