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Salt Lake City unveils 'donation meters' to help homeless

SALT LAKE CITY — Pamela Atkinson smiled as she wrapped her arms around the bright red "donation meter" on the southeast corner of Main Street and South Temple.

And when she was done giving it a hug, the longtime advocate for the homeless fed it a few quarters.

Atkinson joined Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, Police Chief Chris Burbank, social service providers and downtown business leaders outside the Zions Bank building for Thursday's launch of the Homeless Outreach Service Team program.

The program, Becker said, "utilizes a collaborative approach to address the root causes of panhandling."

Donation meters throughout downtown will allow people to give spare change to the homeless rather than to those who ask for it on the streets. All money collected in the meters will be distributed to homeless service providers in the city through the Pamela J. Atkinson Foundation.

"We encourage the public to support the HOST program by turning spare change into real change and contributing to meters rather than individuals," Becker said.

Local social service providers will be working with police to respond with appropriate help to reports of aggressive panhandling or disorderly conduct.

Rather than issuing citations and hauling offenders off to jail, police will contact area homeless service providers in an effort to get those individuals the help they need.

"This program is much more than simply changing the behavior of how we donate to panhandlers," Burbank said. "If we don't change our behaviors, (panhandlers) aren't going to change their behaviors."

Zions Bank is the first to partner with Salt Lake City and the Downtown Alliance on the donation meters. Zions also has pledged a matching donation of up to $25,000 for money raised through the HOST program over the next six months. Tax-deductible contributions also can be made at any Zions Bank branch.

The city has 13 donation meters to be placed around areas of the downtown. The meter outside the Zions Bank building is the only one that has been installed.

"The money that the public puts into these very special meters is really going to make a difference in people's lives," Atkinson said.

The action comes four months after the Salt Lake City Council indefinitely tabled an ordinance that would have regulated when, where and how panhandlers ask for money in the city.

Burbank, who was opposed to the aggressive panhandling ordinance, made reference to the proposed legislation during Thursday's news conference.

"Oftentimes in society when we encounter a group of people or situations who make us feel uncomfortable, it becomes very easy to say, 'Let's draft an ordinance … and prohibit that behavior,' to marginalize that segment that makes us feel uncomfortable and push them aside," he said.

The "more courageous" thing for people to do, Burbank said, is to look for ways to change their own behavior in hopes of fixing the problem.

The HOST program shows that city officials, social service providers and business leaders have done that, he said.

"I'm proud to be involved in this process that has taken place in our city," Burbank said.

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