For about a year, the merchants of downtown Evanston have faced one of the most delicate conundrums for a business district: How do you deal with the homeless without looking heartless?
No one is claiming to have found a solution, but they have found something: A program that encourages downtown visitors to stick their extra change into a parking meter instead of a beggar’s cup. Because of a partnership between four groups that involved young artists, a stockpile of outdated meters, and a social experiment in Las Vegas, Evanston now has a new kind of “smart” meter—the kind that shares.
“It’s a very sensitive subject,” but Annie Coakley, the executive director of the agency Downtown Evanston says merchants are looking a helpful way to move the homeless off their sidewalks. “It’s really hard to talk about, but it needs to be talked about.”
And talking led to the placement of 14 coin-only but brightly painted parking meters in flower boxes and other prominent locations, each with a sign announcing them as “donations stations.” Anyone with change in their pockets can feed the meter, and the money goes to Evanston-based non-profit Connections for the Homeless.
Betty Bogg, Connections for the Homeless’s executive director, understands that this won’t fill the chasm in her budget (Connections dropped its operational expenditures from $3.5 million to $2.8 million in recent years). Still, she was happy when the merchants contacted her not just to complain about the vagrants she could no longer support, but to offer help.
“We want to make sure we’re protecting the dignity of people on the street,” Bogg says. “I really appreciate people bringing creativity and out-of-the-box ideas.”
Connections operated a daytime program called Entry Point, which offers computer access, job training, and more to about 40 people per day in the basement of the Lake Street Church of Evanston. But early in 2015, the state government—wobbling under its own debt—dammed funding to non-profits, and Bogg says she could find no alternatives to closing Entry Point. Suddenly with little to do in the afternoons, some of Connections’s clients walked a few blocks north to panhandle downtown.
Coakley says store owners readily noticed the new faces that were becoming regular faces.
“I see it, without a doubt, every day,” she says. “And I hear about it every day. A lot of my people are saying ‘This is becoming a bit of a problem.’”
Bogg found a grant that allowed her to re-open Entry Point for two days a week, serving only 20 people; both women said that did not fix the store owners’ problem. Coakley started researching business districts and chambers that faced similar quandaries, and found an effective program in Las Vegas: “donation station” parking meters.
City Hall has phased out hundreds of coin-only parking meters. Coakley wondered what happened to them.
“I don’t know how they’d be recycled,” she said.
And at least 14 of them were taking up space in a Public Works warehouse. Coakley acquired them, then approached Lisa Degliantoni, the executive director of youth-arts group Evanston Made (Degliantoni is also the editor-at-large of this magazine), who gave the meters to her students to use as canvases. Coakley got them back with paintings of flowers and other inviting themes.
Downtown Evanston then bought new poles from Ace Hardware, and on August 30, public works guys set the refurbished meters into new concrete foundations and the public has been trying to figure out what they are ever since.
“It’s little kids with a paintbrush, so they look pretty crazy,” Degliantoni says, “but that’s fine. I like that they’re messy and that kids made them.”
Bogg and Coakley both say they had no idea what kind of revenue to expect. Coakley says she has a one-year arrangement with City Hall; Bogg says Connections has plenty of ways to use however much spare change they get.
“It’s a boon and a blessing, whatever it is,” Bogg says. “Evanston’s a remarkable community, in its commitment to caring for really vulnerable people. That part is really inspirational.”
And it happens with meters that had permanently expired, and are now re-inspired.