Berkeley's Latest Help-the-Homeless Effort: Cash Boxes on the Street

Left to right: Downtown Berkeley Association CEO John Caner, Vice Mayor Linda Maio, Berkeley Food & Housing Project Executive Director Terrie Light, and City Councilman Jesse Arreguín pose before making the first donations to a Positive Change box.  (Seung Y. Lee/Berkeleyside)

Members of the Berkeley City Council, the Downtown Berkeley Association and the Berkeley Food and Housing Project gathered by the downtown BART station last Thursday to launch a donation program for the city’s homeless population.

The Positive Change program will install up to 10 tamper-proof donation boxes around downtown Berkeley in which donors can drop off money to pay for social services geared to help reduce homelessness. Collected by the Downtown Berkeley Association once a week, the donations will go into a bank account from which the Berkeley Food and Housing Project can allocate funds.

The donations will go toward transportation assistance in the form of bus or BART fares; ID card and housing application fees; supplies, such as socks, underwear and toiletries; and the Homeward Bound program, which pays for long-distance bus tickets to reunite with family members in another California city, according to a statement released by the Downtown Berkeley Association.

“These were all things people come to us and ask for,” said Terrie Light, executive director for the Berkeley Food and Housing Project. “When people come for help, we will track the funds from the donations very specifically. There will be a ledger to keep track of these expenses.”

Sponsored by Berkeley City Councilman Jesse Arreguín and Vice Mayor Linda Maio, the motion to implement Positive Change was passed with eight in favor and one abstention — by Max Anderson — at the March 17 council meeting. Arreguín has been working for three years with the Downtown Berkeley Association to implement the program.

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Similar public donation programs have been adopted throughout the country in cities like San Diego and Louisville over the past few years. The donation program in Denver — repeatedly cited as a role model for Positive Change by Arreguín and Downtown Berkeley Association CEO John Caner — raised roughly $100,000 a year for its homeless population, using old parking meters as donation centers.

The move comes nearly two months after the City Council approved the gist of a proposal to address problematic behavior linked to the city’s homeless population, such as the intimidation of passers-by and public urination and defecation. Critics say the new laws will serve only to criminalize the homeless, while failing to address the root causes of the issues.

Although Arreguín said he did not expect Positive Change to be as immediately successful as the Denver program, he hoped donations would be in the tens of thousands of dollars a year to get the program running.

“We’re not anticipating a lot of money first,” he said. “Berkeley Food and Housing Project has faced a lot of cuts over the last few years, so any money toward them will go a very long way.”

During the council meeting when it was passed, several advocates from the homeless community expressed distrust of the program. They said they saw it as a way to discourage panhandling and make life tougher for homeless people who are desperately in need of the money.

“What you are doing is criminalizing homeless people further by cutting off resources,” said Robert Norris, a Santa Cruz resident and member of an advocacy group called Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom.

Arreguín and Light said the Positive Change program will be an addition, not a diversion, in supporting the homeless and their needs.

“I do not support [Positive Change] as an alternative to panhandling,” Arreguín said. “The reality is that there are some people who will feel more comfortable donating to a box, knowing that the money will directly go to services which will improve homelessness.”

Safety of the boxes was cited as another concern. Akin to the stations in Denver or San Diego, the city considered revamping old police telephone boxes or Postal Service boxes as donation stations. But the Downtown Berkeley Association settled on new metal boxes welded to lighting poles as a safety precaution against vandals and thieves.

Arreguín and the association plan to market the program actively to local businesses and downtown Berkeley residents. They said they plan to use an array of means, including distributing fliers to businesses, council members emailing their constituencies about the program, and using social media to spread the word.

Lance Gorée, operations manager for the association, said there is a also need to promote the program beyond Berkeley so that people who visit the city are aware of it.

KQED News Associate Berkeleyside is an independently owned news website based in Berkeley, Calif. Click here if you would you like to receive the latest Berkeley news in your inbox once a day for free with Berkeleyside’s Daily Briefing email.