Bethesda Meters Divert Change From Panhandlers to Groups That Aid the Homeless

A group of civic-minded leaders scattered four meters around downtown Thursday.
A group of civic-minded leaders scattered four meters around downtown Thursday. (Courtesy Of Bethesda Urban Partnership)
By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 2, 2009

Who knew that in the eternal fight against poverty, suffering and homelessness even the lowly parking meter could become a weapon for the forces of good.

In Bethesda, a team of civic-minded leaders has commandeered a handful of old, obsolete meters and scattered them around downtown. The goal is to divert spare change going to panhandlers and send it to a local nonprofit group for the homeless.

The meters -- painted candy-apple red -- are hard to miss and were planted Thursday at four main locations that have heavy foot traffic and are often frequented by panhandlers.

The goal is more than financial. The meters aren't expected to bring in much more than spare change. It's an effort to educate the public and funnel hearts and wallets to groups that can make a difference.

"Normally, what people do is drop change into a cup for people on the street, but what's really needed is an awareness about how to actually help these people and others in need," said Dave Dabney, director of the Bethesda Urban Partnership. "You want to get professionals and actual programs and services involved in these people's lives so they can get out of that cycle of poverty."

During the past few years, panhandlers in Bethesda have become more visible, and homelessness has risen, especially amid the economic downturn, the program's organizers say.

After a Bethesda resident saw a similar parking meter for the homeless in Baltimore, the idea became a rallying point for a group of local businesspeople and residents and Bethesda Cares, a nonprofit group for the needy based downtown.

The concept, a mixture of whimsy and let's-talk-about-the-issues seriousness, has popped up in cities across the country, as far as Denver and as close as Annapolis. The meters are planted several feet in from the street to avoid being confused with regular parking meters.

The four meters in Bethesda are at the Veterans Park; 7600 Old Georgetown Rd., in front of the Chipotle; 4835 Bethesda Ave., near the Chicken Out; and by the elevator at the Metro station.

Two of the locations, Chipotle and Chicken Out, are especially popular with panhandlers, social service workers say. "You've got a lot of 'professional panhandlers' and some who just use it to feed their addictions," said Ken Hartman, director of the Montgomery County government's liaison office for services in Bethesda. "You even have one woman who drives into the area in her car, panhandles for her money and drives home. Meanwhile, there are real people who desperately need help and services."

Hartman said he hopes that when people see a panhandler and a meter, they'll go for the meter instead. "The reason the panhandlers keep coming out is because people keep giving them money," he said. "You don't want to keep enabling their problems and lifestyle. You want to get them into shelters and to care workers."

The meters might not take checks or large bills, but organizers hope the advertising on them will nudge people to make bigger donations toward nonprofit groups than a quarter or two. But these days, when funding is growing leaner, even chump change helps, organizers said.

Bethesda Cares, which will receive the money from the meters, offers services such as a clothing center and social workers for the homeless. During the past year, attendance at its soup kitchen has doubled, and its rent assistance program has almost run dry as families have found themselves out of jobs or unable to pay their rent and electric bills, said Sue Kirk, the nonprofit group's director.

"With these meters, I mean, we're literally talking about pocket change," she said. "But we're already seeing people doing double takes as they pass by. As people start to notice, we're hoping it will do a lot of good."

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