Donation Stations for the homeless show shift in city’s attitude

In April, the city of Las Vegas officially signaled a big change in the way it views the problem of homelessness by installing 10 old coin-operated parking meters around downtown areas known for high pedestrian traffic and panhandling. “Donation Station to End Homelessness” is written on the meters. “Make a change here.” An arrow points to the coin slot.

Mayor Oscar Goodman, of all people, suggested the pilot program. Goodman, who has a controversial history when it comes to dealing with the homeless, got the idea in 2007 after attending the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Los Angeles. There he heard success stories about similar programs in Denver and Baltimore and decided it was the kind of program that Las Vegas needed. Now, the pilot program is in place. It’s quite a shift from the days when the mayor suggested rounding up the homeless and sending them 30 miles away to live in an abandoned prison in Jean.

Between April 8 and Sept. 12, the meters have collected $1,450. The money goes to help the city’s Housing and Homeless Services Program, which works to prevent homelessness and also help the homeless with transportation, housing and other services.

“It’s a two-part reason why we’re doing it,” says Tyrone Thompson, the city’s neighborhood planning and initiatives manager. “Of course we know that the change generated is not going to resolve the whole homeless issue, but it will help [people who are homeless or facing homelessness]. The second part is to bring community awareness to the homeless issues that exist in our community.”

The coin-operated meters, which were retired when digital meters came into use, can be found throughout downtown, from the Port of Subs at 200 Las Vegas Blvd. North, to the Skybridge at City Hall, to Fremont Street, to Sahara Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard South. The most lucrative placement so far is the Fremont West meter at 100 S. Main (it’s brought in $605 since April), while the lowest performer is at Premium Outlets ($25 to date). Thompson has been searching for other high-traffic spots and will relocate the low-performing meters to areas that have a better payoff. He’s also searching for businesses that are interested in sponsoring the meters—for $500 a year, a company or individual can have a name or logo on a meter.

Homeless advocate and social rights crusader Linda Lera-Randle El says that the donation stations demonstrate a drastic change in attitude on the city’s part. Lera-Randle El is the founder and executive director of Straight From the Streets, a vocal nonprofit organization that’s been working with the homeless for 25 years. During that time, she’s seen Goodman back an ordinance to arrest people who feed the homeless in parks. She’s watched the city conduct “sweeps” of homeless camps and close down parks used by the homeless. She’s heard Goodman accuse other cities of “bussing” their homeless to Las Vegas, and listened to him refer to homeless advocates who feed the homeless as “enablers crying like bleating sheep.”

“I’ve lived to see a big change in the way we deal with homelessness in this community, that’s for sure,” Lera-Randle El says. “One of the more inventive and one of the more, I would say, positive things that the city has done over the years is to create Donation Stations.”