A day after a 5-foot-tall yellow contraption appeared on the immaculately kept sidewalk outside the Hilton hotel, doorman Howard Golden walked circles around it, eyeing it suspiciously.
Then he pronounced his verdict on Atlanta’s latest jab at its runaway panhandling problem, donation meters. “This is one of the dumbest things I’ve seen in my life,” said the New York City transplant. The way he figures it, nothing will stop a determined panhandler from making a day’s pay. Certainly not a meter.
“I’m just waiting for someone to steal it,” he said.
Panhandling is the No. 2 complaint about the city, behind traffic. Atlanta leaders have spent years battling a constantly expanding and contracting swarm of beggars, credited with frightening tourists, driving away downtown business and being a general pain.
Now the city is asking victims – from conventioneers to everyday pedestrians passing a buck to keep the peace – to stop the problem themselves by cutting off panhandlers’ income at the source.
Spare change plopped into meters instead of panhandlers’ palms will be collected and distributed to social service groups, a new approach in a city that’s tried everything from bans to police stings to curb some of the nation’s most aggressive begging.
But with victims as weary of gimmicks as they are of panhandlers, success may be slow in coming.
Research in some cities shows panhandlers earn as much as $50,000 a year.
Parking meter-like donation stations designed to redirect some of that money began popping up downtown Sept. 11. Twenty-four hours later, few around the city seemed to consider them worth their dime.
“This will be a great way to do some good,” said Jeff McCord, a state worker who nonetheless breezed by the meter installed at City Hall. No change, he said.
He was like many pedestrians who bypassed the meters, their annoyance with panhandlers was overshadowed by their indifference to any attempts to make them go away.
Marie Brewer glanced at the one outside City Hall but shook her head when asked if she’d donate. She questioned how her change would be used.
“They take it … you don’t know where it will end up,” Brewer said.
Officials have placed five meters at prominent spots in the tourist heavy business corridor, where “spangers” – slang for spare change beggars – typically lurk.
Posters around the city encourage tourists and pedestrians to feed the meters instead of panhandlers. Resource cards list shelters and other places to find help for the fraction of panhandlers who officials believe are actually destitute.
The concept looks great on paper.
On city streets? Not so much.
“You think a guy’s gonna let you put money in here?” said Golden, who’s sure aggressive panhandlers would intervene if someone walked up to feed the meters.
Indeed, Atlanta panhandlers have a reputation for being pushy and at times violent. On Sept. 2, police arrested a man they say was a panhandler who shot and killed a Florida man at a gas station after begging him for money.
The city has tried to tackle the problem before. A 3-year-old panhandling ban meant to silence beggars faltered after victims – usually tourists – refused to return for prosecutions.
Earlier this month, police wrapped up a 30-day sting involving plainclothes officers mimicking tourists and other pedestrians. Once they were panhandled, they essentially became victims guaranteed to show up for a trial.
The sting netted 50 arrests for violations of the panhandling ban. It was a small dent among the dozens of panhandlers that line entire blocks.
Police say they can do only so much. It’s up to the victims to cut panhandlers off.
“We do know the reason people are coming back is because they’re getting money,” said Wilma Sothern, vice president of marketing with Central Atlanta Progress, a revitalization group that has partnered with the city and tourism groups to curb panhandling.
She and other city leaders looked to cities like Denver for inspiration.
Pedestrians there were giving as much as $4.5 million a year to panhandlers before the city installed 86 meters last year, said Jamie Van Leeuwen, who helps oversee the effort through Denver’s Road Home, an anti-homelessness initiative.
The project has generated more than $15,000 in coins.
Meters have been installed in such places as Chattanooga, Tenn., St. Louis and Baltimore, which got the first batch in the nation. In coming months, the city will add 25 meters to the nine it has, said Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.
Still, the biggest help has to come from folks like Daniel and Danielle Corenchuk, tourists from Fort Stewart, Ga., who were approached by panhandlers five times their first day in town.
“I had a man sing me a nice song … ‘Cupid, draw back your bow,’ ” Danielle said, chuckling.
She rewarded the soloist with 75 cents she wouldn’t likely feed into a meter.
After all, the panhandler had a nicer voice.