City offers hope for homeless via meters

Coins register help, relief from despair

November 15, 2006|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,Sun Reporter

With just a coin, people can now turn despair in Baltimore into hope. Of course the hope lasts only a few seconds, but what did you want for a dime?

New parking meters, which debut downtown today, are part - albeit a small one - of the city's freshly launched effort to erase homelessness in 10 years.

These old-fashioned meters, the type Baltimore began retiring last year, have re-emerged with bright paint and a new mission. They have nothing to do with parking fines and everything to do with getting people off the street.

Downtown Partnership created the plan, which appears to be the first of its kind in the country, as part of its anti-panhandling initiative.

"The idea here," said Tom Yeager, a Downtown Partnership executive vice president, "is to educate the public that it's OK to give but we just want you to give where you're helping to make a change."

When someone drops a nickel, dime or quarter into one of the "Make a Change" meters, a pointer on the dial slowly shifts from "despair" to "hope." You don't get any more hope for a quarter than a nickel and to ward off despair, someone would have to stand at the machine forever with a bottomless bag of change.

Though conceivably that could tap the city's existential angst - the register won't stick on hope, even if the meter's full - every last coin will go to programs run by Baltimore Homeless Services Inc.

Downtown Partnership spokesman Mike Evitts said the visual swing between despair and hope and back again, though something of a downer, is designed to have people reaching into their pockets again and again.

"It's to show that every dime helps," he said, "but the need out there is very great."

To address that need, Baltimore officials have pledged to defeat homelessness within 10 years. Yesterday City Council President Sheila Dixon and Health Commissioner Joshua M. Sharfstein announced they would reveal a plan to do it by next June.

Dixon reminded people of the grim statistics: 2,943 homeless people counted in Baltimore one night last winter.

"That's human beings living in shelters and on the streets of Baltimore," she said, adding that four out of five were men; four out of five were African-American; one-third were veterans and their average age was 44.

"This was a terrible picture for a city making so much progress," she continued. "It is a picture that must be changed."

Sister Helen Amos, executive chairwoman of Mercy Health Service's board of trustees, and Warren W. Sabloff, who is developing the Ritz-Carlton Residences on the Inner Harbor, will lead the planning team.

Baltimore is one of hundreds of cities around the country setting timelines to end their homeless problems. Some have made progress, including Philadelphia, where officials say homelessness has dropped by 60 percent in five years.

"That's the kind of response we want to be able to see in Baltimore," Amos said.

Philly attributes its success to a program known as "housing first," where homeless people are taken from the streets and put into subsidized housing where they then get help with substance abuse and mental health problems. Baltimore is testing the program with 25 people.

"If you can surround them with services after putting them in a home," Amos said, "that is found to be much more effective."

Sabloff, who is behind one of the city's most expensive housing projects, where units carry multi-million-dollar price tags, has offered his construction team to build or renovate whatever's required.

"If you take away housing costs, they have enough to eat and live and move forward," Sabloff said. "[The Ritz] is only for a few, but we always believed if God blessed us, we would give back."

Sabloff, who says people can't say no to him, will also be responsible for recruiting regional "powerhouses of business" to join the cause.

Another aspect of the plan will be finding a way to get city agencies and organizations to combat the problem together.

As things stand, Yeager said, people released from the city detention center often walk right out and sleep under the Jones Falls Expressway. "Why can't we intercept them and figure out where they can go?" he said.

Officials weren't ready yesterday to talk about how much the public-private effort could cost. But they were quick to point out that curing homelessness will be cheaper in the long run than letting the problem persist.

"When people get housing up front, in the end it's cheaper," Yeager said.

The meter initiative begins today with nine machines being installed on sidewalks along Pratt Street. People will find them planted along the blocks between Harborplace and Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

If the meters raise money or seem to curb panhandling, Downtown Partnership might add more across town.

At the close of the City Hall news conference, Dixon dropped a coin into one of meters, creating a little "hope" for the cameras to capture.

Though wiping out homelessness within the decade is, at the least, a most ambitious goal, Dixon said Baltimore is up to the challenge - particularly if government combines forces with non-profits, faith-based groups and the business community.

"I don't think we're saying there won't be any shelters in Baltimore in 10 years," Sharfstein added. "But you can't not try."

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