City officials are considering the use of discontinued parking meters as a means to prevent panhandling from occurring and ultimately ban it completely in downtown Madison.

With the proposal, city officials say they hope to allow citizens to donate money to those who need it if they wish, according to Katie Crawley, a spokesperson for Mayor Paul Soglin. She added the city also hopes to prevent them from directly giving money to panhandlers, which can result in the use of the contributions for alcohol or drugs.

Charitable organizations would purchase old meters to be placed downtown and passersby would then have the option of placing money in the machine.

“The premise of the program is: let’s allow people to donate money where it can go to better uses than liquor purchases,” Crawley said.

According to Ald. Lisa Subeck, District 1, the idea will most likely be discussed at the next City Council meeting on Sept. 18.

Officials said the program would likely begin with a “pilot” meter on the 500 block of State Street, where panhandling commonly occurs. If the meter is successful and does not become subject to vandalizing, other meters could appear, Alcohol Policy Coordinator Mark Woulf said.

The nonprofit organization ReachOut, which provides services to Madison’s street community, has expressed interest in purchasing the pilot meter, Woulf said.

The use of old meters is also part of a larger effort to rid the downtown area of panhandling.

Ald. Mike Verveer, District 4, said he and Soglin sponsored an ordinance in August that would ban panhandling all across State Street, the Capitol Square and streets within a block of the Square.

Currently, panhandling is illegal only through a “patchwork” of ordinances that allow the act to persist in certain areas, Verveer said.

Under those existing ordinances, many authored by Verveer himself, panhandling is legal on State Street if it occurs a certain distance from an ATM or a business.

The act is therefore commonly seen on the 500 block of State Street in front of the University Inn parking lot and between Kabul Afghanistan Restaurant and the vacant establishment formerly occupied by Buffalo Wild Wings.

“It is my hope that getting rid of this one legal panhandling spot will greatly improve the atmosphere of the 500 block,” Verveer said. “I’ve heard nothing but complaints about panhandling there for some time now, particularly from the businesses that are in close proximity.”

Subeck, who said she supports Verveer and Soglin’s measure, added that the parking meter idea may serve as a way to include “a broader education effort and a broader outreach effort to get the general public aware of what happens when they give to a panhandler.”

The meters can act as a visual reminder not to give money to panhandlers and to support the programs that help the people who commit the act, she said.

“As long as people keep giving money to panhandlers, people are going to keep panhandling,” Subeck said.
Between 20 and 25 other cities in the U.S. have implemented similar ideas, Subeck said. Some of those include Dallas, Denver, San Francisco and Seattle.