Ringed by television cameras and photographers, Los Angeles politicians grinned and plunked coins Thursday into the bright orange meter newly installed in Grand Park.
As homelessness has surged in Los Angeles, "this is a way for people to give. And it's going to be right before them when they're walking down the street," Councilman Jose Huizar said.
The machine, which looks like an unusually exuberant parking meter, will collect donations to support the City County Community program, which brings outreach workers into the streets to help homeless people. Huizar touted it as a new way for Angelenos and visitors to chip in and help address the crisis.
Six of the donation meters are being installed across downtown Los Angeles. In addition to spare change or credit card donations, the meters will generate money through sponsorships that cost $3,500 annually. Huizar is sponsoring the meter unveiled to reporters Thursday in Grand Park, which bore a hot pink sign with his name. Another is sponsored by County Supervisor Hilda Solis.
The machines themselves were donated by the IPS Group. The six meters will cost $5,000 to operate and maintain each year and generate $21,000 from annual sponsorships, producing at least $16,000 for the outreach program, plus any money that people drop or swipe into the meters, according to Huizar spokesman Rick Coca.
Coca said that if the program doubles in size, as Huizar is hoping will happen within a year, the overhead costs per meter will drop. Sponsorship money will be collected by the Flintridge Center, which has coordinated similar programs in Pasadena and West Palm Beach, Fla., and sent to a nonprofit called the People Concern, which works with the outreach program.
So far, the machines are being set up only on private or county property, not city land, because the city has "contractual obligations" under an exclusive agreement with a company that installs bus shelters, Huizar said at the Thursday event.
The councilman credited downtown resident Brigham Yen, who blogged about seeing donation meters while he was in Maryland more than five years ago, for sparking the idea. Yen, who attended the Thursday unveiling and was honored by Huizar, said the meters would provide a needed alternative to simply handing spare change to panhandlers.
"If you are going to give money to the homeless, do so in a way that's responsible," Yen said.
Such meters have generated debate as they pop up across the country: When donation meters were installed in Pasadena four years ago, some critics said they were meant to help cities push homeless people away and monopolize money that could go to panhandlers. Some homeless advocates have denounced them as a gimmick that does little to address the root problems.
"The whole premise is, 'Money is not good for poor people, they're going to use it for bad things, so let's give it to charities instead,'" said Paul Boden, director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, a homelessness advocacy group in San Francisco. "If you're broke, money is probably what you're looking for."
Hours after the television crews had left Grand Park, Daniel Salcido was surprised to learn about the new machine that had been installed, just steps away from where he was sitting in the afternoon sun. Salcido said he has been homeless for roughly eight years, but he wasn't worried that parkgoers might stroll past him and plunk coins into the machine.
Money can make him a target for thieves on the street, he said. This way, Salcido said, "you won't have people rushing you."