The city's latest attempt to deal with one of its most vexing problems will be announced in coming weeks in the form of 10 old parking meters installed in some of the most heavily panhandled areas, The Chronicle has learned.
Money deposited in the meters would go directly to charities that help the homeless. The goal, officials say, is to reduce panhandling and to educate tourists and residents about the problem of giving money directly to people on the streets.
"The reason people are panhandling is because there's a market for panhandling," Mayor Gavin Newsom said Monday. "We're not helping these individuals by handing out cash. If there was strong evidence to suggest this helped people turn their lives around, we would not be using this approach."
The bright orange meters, donated by the city's Department of Parking and Traffic, will be scattered along places like Market Street and Van Ness Avenue that typically attract a steady stream of panhandlers every day. The meters will be accompanied by signs telling people how they can give money to help the homeless.
The slogan for the program and accompanying advertising campaign will be plastered on the meters: "Be a part of change. Don't give change."
The plan is to have the Department of Parking and Traffic employees who collect money from parking meters also collect money from the homeless meters. The money would be divided among local nonprofit organizations, Newsom said.
A handful of cities around the country, including Denver and Baltimore, have installed homeless meters in recent years. And while the programs haven't necessarily been lucrative, some cities have seen less panhandling as a result.
Newsom and his homelessness czar, Dariush Kayhan, say it's worth a try.
"This is not going to solve poverty," Kayhan said. "But it is another strategy to see if we can save lives out there."
Local advocates for the homeless, however, laughed - and gasped - when told about the idea Monday.
Sister Bernie Galvin, executive director of Religious Witness with Homeless People, called the meter idea "utterly ridiculous." She said it was based on a stereotype that all panhandlers use every nickel and dime to buy drugs and alcohol.
"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?"
Homeless advocate and community organizer James Chionsini liked the idea at first - until he realized you don't actually get parking for your change. Then he said it sounded like a political stunt that would have very little impact on funding homelessness programs or stopping panhandlers.
"I'd rather give it to a panhandler than put it in a meter personally," he said. "At least if you give it to them personally, you're going to get a smile." Newsom contends that most of the panhandlers in San Francisco aren't actually homeless but are supplementing government assistance with the money people give them.
Over the years, city leaders have struggled to curb the panhandling problem, which is largely centered around tourist areas and downtown. City officials estimate that about 150 panhandlers are on city streets on any given day.
In 2003, the San Francisco Hotel Council funded a $65,000 billboard campaign that linked panhandling to drug abuse and sexually transmitted diseases.
One ad read, "Today we rode a cable car, visited Alcatraz and supported a drug habit."
Homeless advocates said the campaign was mean-spirited, and then-state Sen. John Burton took out ads of his own reading, "Jesus gave money to poor people on the streets of Galilee."
Also in 2003, then-Supervisor Newsom authored Proposition M, a voter-approved measure that banned aggressive panhandling in public places.
Paul Boden, director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project that deals with homelessness issues, recalled attempts under previous mayors to place jars by cash registers in businesses and sell coupons for services that could then be handed over to panhandlers. He said the meters idea was especially "asinine" and San Francisco's all-time second-worst idea to curb panhandling.
The worst, he said, was a failed proposal during Willie Brown's administration to equip homeless people with credit-card machines like those used for retail purchases. People could swipe their cards and choose how much to donate, with 80 percent going to homeless programs and 20 percent to the individual panhandlers.
"It's not fair for the government to create this incredible level of poverty and then turn around to the rest of the community and say, 'Harden your hearts and give the money to us,' " Boden said. "Human beings when they see other human beings are going to give a little change, and that's good."
But Newsom asked doubters to keep an open mind. He said aggressive panhandling is by far the top complaint he hears from people.
"I ask them to give us a chance," he said. "If it doesn't work, show me the evidence, and then we'll abandon it."