Nashvillians can help serve the city’s rising homeless population by dropping spare change or dollar bills into refurbished parking meters under a new program Mayor Karl Dean rolled out Tuesday.
With the so-called Adopt-A-Meter campaign — modeled after a successful initiative in Denver, Colo. — the hope is to attract private businesses to sponsor meters that would be branded with their company logos, decorated with public art and labeled as special “donation meters.”
Money collected from the machines, which would be placed throughout downtown, are to be designated specifically for homeless services, a distribution process supervised by the Metro Homelessness Commission in conjunction with Metro Public Works. The first company that sponsored a meter is Southwest Airlines, with Piedmont Natural Gas Company following suit.
Most projections, depending on the night, register Nashville’s homeless population to be somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 people, a figure that’s grown in short time , perhaps even doubling from five years ago.
“Homelessness is not a government issue. It’s not a nonprofit issue. It’s a community issue,” Dean told a crowd at a downtown luncheon where he announced the new program. “So let’s use pocket change to change the lives of homeless individuals and families in our city.”
By the mayor’s account, the program launched in 2007 in Denver has flourished, underscored by the 86 meters that now dot that city’s urban core and the more than $100,000 in donations they bring in annually. Dean said the Adopt-A-Meter campaign there has also helped reduce panhandling.
“I’m hoping we’ll have a lot of participation, and that we’ll bring in a lot of income,” Dean said. “I don’t want to give out numbers, but I think it’s a very compelling program. It’s an opportunity for our very generous corporate citizens to get involved in an effort to help out the homeless.”
Metro Councilman Erik Cole, who chairs the homeless commission, said dollars collected from Nashville’s Adopt-A-Meter program would more than likely help the commission fund nonprofits to hire outreach workers to work one-on-one with the downtown homeless population.
“The idea is, right now police workers are our social workers,” Cole said. “We have very few outreach workers in the city. So we want to use these funds and this program to hire individuals to interact with people on the street.”
Besides its Adopt-A-Meter program, Denver is frequently cited by civic activists for its progressive approaches to homelessness, programs that includes Denver’s “housing first” initiative, as well as plans that provide health services.
“In many ways, they took the lead,” said former Vice Mayor Howard Gentry, a longtime advocate for homeless outreach and current CEO of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce’s Public Benefit Foundation. “A lot of their initiatives are out of the box, so to speak, and they’re working.”
Gentry said Metro’s next step should be to “get the homeless off the street” by improving housing access, something he believes Metro is uniquely positioned to carry out.
“We have an opportunity to do what cities like Denver don’t have an opportunity to do,” Gentry said. “Because we’re a metropolitan city, and we’re not dealing with different municipalities and other governments within our boundaries, we’re able to come together in a collaborative way a lot easier than cities like Atlanta and Denver.”