Giving meters gross $10 a week for homeless youth; Are they working?

More than one year has passed since Mayor Greg Nickels had five giving meters installed on University Way. He touted the meters as a means of deterring panhandlers from the Ave.

Still, many local businesses have yet to see a decrease in curbside loitering.

"[Loitering] hasn't gotten any better," said Brian Youngdahl, shift lead at Pagliacci on The Ave. "There are no less people [in front of the store], and it's not going to change because of the meters."

However, despite the $10 average weekly revenue between all five meters, local officials and some community members are hailing the project as a success for the homeless population.

Marked with signs that read, "This is not a parking meter ... this is a chance for new beginnings," the lime-green meters collect donations that go toward paying homeless youthsfor their work on local community-improvement projects.

Last week, a team of community volunteers and street youth began piecing together a 600-foot mural on a wall bordering Northeast Campus Parkway.

"Most of us are good people down on our luck and trying to make the best of it," said a formerly homeless teenager, known only as Nemo, while sketching tentative designs on the concrete wall.

Currently residing in transitional housing, Nemo is ineligible to receive a stipend for his work on the mural. However, five of his companions, who wished to remain anonymous, were paid about $8 an hour that afternoon.

Rick Eberhardt, coordinator of the social service organization Partnership for Youth, predicts the completed mural will help deter potential graffiti artists from tagging the wall.

"The youth are taking ownership in the projects," said. "[They think] 'This is our neighborhood and we care and are responsible for it.'"

Still, vandalism has already appeared on unfinished segments of the mural.

Members of the local business community are split about the effects of the meters on Ave. street youth.

Rite Aid Manager Danny Hayami has noticed no change in the number of street people who use his storefront as a shelter. Both Hayami and Youngdahl have witnessed drug deals outside their windows on numerous occasions.

According to a business owner across the street, however, the Ave .has changed since the meters were installed.

"I've noticed a decrease in loitering and panhandling on the Ave.," said Gayle Nowicki, owner of Gargoyles Sanctuary near Northeast 45th Street. "It's not as bad as it was."

Nowicki partially attributed this decrease to enhanced police enforcement near her business.

A part of Nickels' "Take Back the Ave" campaign in 2003, the five giving meters cost the city a total of $750 to install.

"The cost is negligible when you look at a budget of our size," Jordan Royer, manager of the Department of Neighborhoods. "[The meters] are not going to raise a whole bunch of money, but they're a success because people like them and they're leveraging money."

The meters were relatively inexpensive because they came from a city surplus, according to Royer.

"It was never meant to be big and flashy," said Teresa Lord Hugel, U-District Chamber of Commerce executive director. "It wasn't just about money, it's about goodwill."

The giving meters on The Ave. were modeled after a 1999 project in Vancouver, British Columbia, that aimed to reduce street panhandling. The 16 "spare-change meters" produce about $2,000 per year for the Union Gospel Mission there.

According to a speech made by Nickels, one purpose of the meters was to decrease panhandling in the area.

"We're going to reduce panhandling on the Ave. ...[the meters] will discourage panhandling but will make sure kids get the help they need," said Nickels in 2003.

The Mayor's office has since clarified his comment, calling it a miscommunication.

"It was misperceived that donating to the meters was in lieu of contributing to panhandlers," said Mark Snow, executive director of University Street Ministry Services, an organization that originally pulled its support of the project due to Nickels' comment.

"[The meters] are not a substitute for panhandling," he said.

"It's important that youths still ask for change," said Kathlyn Kocher, assistant coordinator of Partnership for Youth. "The point was not at all to stop street begging; the point was to create jobs and opportunities."

Kocher, who voluntarily gives up her lunch break once a week to collect funds from the giving meters.

Funds generated by the meters go toward funding the U-District Youth and Community Project, a collaboration between the Partnership for Youth, the U-District Chamber of Commerce, the City of Seattle and local homeless youth services.

As part of the project, street youth have recently re-painted the historic University Theater, participated in open conversations called the "Donut Dialogues" with local police officers and planted city-donated flowers along the Ave. This month they will work with UW's landscape architecture department to improve Northeast Campus Parkway.

"We're trying to change the stereotype between youth homelessness and the cops," said Nemo.

Last May's U-District Street Fair marked the first anniversary of the project. During its inaugural year, stipends totaling $1,550 were paid to 65 youth who completed a combined 250 hours of work.

According to Eberhardt, the number of total stipends since the project's launch has risen to $1,800, with 26 new workers joining the program in the past six weeks.

While there are no plans to install more meters in the U-District, Eberhardt is optimistic about the future of the project.

"We need to evolve the meter aspect to have (community) groups take responsibility," Eberhardt said, suggesting a sponsorship program that would allow UW departments or campus organizations to adopt a meter and become responsible for its success.

"It's safe to say this project is safe as long as community people donate," he said. "It's only going to grow."

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