SAINT JOHN – On a cold Wednesday morning in the city centre, there were no homeless people asking passersby for change on a corner that is ordinarily a popular spot for panhandlers.
Instead, there were people gathered for the unveiling of what are known in other cities as “kindness meters,” which look like parking meters but are used to collect change from pedestrians that might otherwise have gone to panhandlers.
Uptown Saint John, in partnership with the Saint John Police Force and the Saint John Parking Commission, has installed what they’re calling a “Meter for Change” for people who don’t like being approached by panhandlers but are happy to make donations to service organizations that can help them.
“The purpose of the meter is so that so when folks are in the uptown instead of giving to people on the street to give it a more structured program,” said Nancy Tissington, executive director of Uptown Saint John, which represents city-centre businesses and property owners.
“Sometimes people are really uncomfortable giving money. We actually don’t want them to give money to folks … because they may be feeding into an addiction or something that’s probably more harmful. So we would like to see folks give to the meter and we would give it to the agencies locally to help those folks. ”
Tissington says they plan to donate the proceeds from the meters to local shelters, food banks, and addiction treatment centres like methadone clinics. “They’re looking for help and we’d like to be part of that solution,” she said.
The program is modelled on ones that exist in places like Fredericton, Charlottetown and Ottawa. They’re generally launched by business associations like Uptown Saint John that hear complaints from office workers, shoppers and tourists.
We’ve had a lot of folks come to us quite concerned,” said Tissington. “We get asked all the time. It’s not that we want to tell people not to give. We just want them to give in a different way.”
Colin McDonald, the housing director for the men’s homeless shelter Outflow, says the new meter could benefit homeless people, even though it may take money out of their pockets.
“The reality of handing somebody money on the street is that you can’t guarantee where it’s going to go,” said McDonald. “There is a good chance that money is going to be directed towards alcohol or drugs, or things like that.
Often people who are panhandling are dealing with mental health or addictions issues – not always, but often. So certainly the upside is hopefully it will divert some money to putting programs in place that will actually move people from situations of poverty and addiction and get them some help.”
On the downside though, says McDonald, the panhandlers uptown are a public reminder that poverty is a real and persistent problem. He says people may not realize it’s an issue if panhandlers leave the city centre because police continue to issue tickets to people who beg for change, and “kindness meters” become the way to make donations to organizations that help them.
It pushes the issue of poverty and homelessness further to the fringe,” said McDonald. “If we’re not confronted with the panhandler on King St. then do we really think about or do we understand the issues that people in Saint John are facing when it comes to poverty and homelessness.”
McDonald says Saint Johners can develop empathy for the homeless people in their community when they meet them face-to-face, which can then inspire them to help find short- and long-term solutions to the problems the homeless face.
“We’ve heard lots of stories at Outflow of someone who will come to one of our meals as a volunteer and then they’ll encounter one of our folks panhandling,” said McDonald. “Instead of giving them money, they’ll say, ‘let’s go into Subway and have a sandwich together.’
“I’ve now had lunch with somebody or spent time where I’ve sat down in the street and had a conversation and their life suddenly matters to me. That’s how change becomes real.”
Tissington understands that perspective, and she doesn’t believe the meter will make panhandlers disappear entirely from the Uptown. She just wants to give people another way to make a contribution.
“Some people get frustrated,” she said. “[The] people that work uptown say oftentimes it’s three or four times from one block to the next. They get discouraged by that. We thought at least having a place for them to give in a real way would be helpful.
“We don’t believe it’s going to remove people completely from the Uptown. We’re just helping those who come to visit to be more comfortable. If they’re asked for change perhaps they would feel more comfortable in giving it to the meter. So we don’t think [panhandling is] going to completely disappear, no.”