Three hand-painted meters went up in Bienville Square on Dec. 16, but it wasn’t for people parking downtown. The meters are there to make a difference.
Mobile Police Lt. Billy Roland spearheaded an initiative to give people a way to help the homeless without having be a part of an illegal act — panhandling.
“In an effort to allow people to help the homeless, but not feel pressured to give to panhandlers, the police department, downtown business owners and groups and homeless services came together to place three meters in Bienville Square. The money collected in the meters will go to different agencies that help the homeless,” Roland said. “We have heard complaints that people feel pressured to give money to panhandlers because they don’t want to say no or they are scared. This is a way to help combat the problem.”
The people involved with initiative said people should be aware of the difference between homeless and vagrants. Homeless, Roland said, are those who have not been able to secure housing, but are actively trying. Vagrancy, the lieutenant explained, is people who are on the streets due to addiction or mental illness and beg for a living.
The vagrancy is where the police see the most problems for downtown.
Roland said from January 2013 to November 2013, the police made 40 arrests in downtown for panhandling. However, he thinks they’re only getting a fraction of the violators.
“The 40 arrests made were for people who officers had heard panhandling. We may have caught only one in 10 of the violators,” he said. “From January 2013 to November 2013 in downtown, the police have made more than 600 arrests of vagrants. Of those arrests 211 were for public intoxication.”
The arrests of vagrants account for 48 percent of the crimes committed downtown, according to Roland.
The arrest and re-arrest of vagrants is something Roland likened to a dog chasing his tail.
“When I arrest a person for public intox, release them and then arrest them a few days later, you’re not helping the problem,” Roland said. “Instead of getting to the problem — the addiction — you’re just arresting someone.
“This money from the meters will go to places with resources to help.”
Four local artists were tapped to help with making the meters and posters advertising the initiative become a work of art.
Devlin Wilson, Zach DePolo and Sune Van Rooyen Phillips transformed the parking meters into individual, unique works of art. Elise Poche crafted the posters, which will be up downtown promoting the push to help the homeless.
Wilson and DePolo work at Portal Studio, 560 Dauphin St., just across from Catholic Services. Wilson said he was more than excited to lend his talent to a good cause.
“It’s hard to turn down someone asking for money and everyone wants to help. This way, people can give and the money will go to the right place,” Wilson said. “That will help downtown’s retail and residences and that’s what we’re trying to do — help downtown.”
Downtown has a misperception of being unsafe, Roland said, and he attributes that to the panhandlers.
“We want people to come down here and shop. There’s an idea that downtown isn’t safe, but that isn’t true,” Roland said. “We want people to know it is OK to come downtown.”
As Roland was talking about the safety of Mobile, families were playing in the park and owners with their dogs walked the sidewalks. The first donation was made to the meter painted by Wilson.
The program is going to be monitored for its success. The funds collected will be given to the agencies at first on a need basis.
However, Roland hopes Mobile’s program takes off like Denver’s meters for the homeless initiative did.
“Denver has 86 meters and collected about $100,000 last year,” he said. “Mobile just isn’t as big as Denver, but we needed to try something different … to think outside the box.
“I hope we can expand and put meters citywide with some in the mall and others in West Mobile.
“It’s a way to address the problem and for the public to help out.”