Monday, September 15, 2008

How to measure effectiveness

There has been a lot of criticism of the new homeless meters. The AJC points out that they don't raise much money, the Creative Loafing calls them "change we can't believe in," and the regulars at Peach Pundit are piling on.

I for one don't think CAP is dumb enough to think that the meters will "stop homelessness" or even really reduce homelessness. As far as I see it, the point isn't even to raise money. I don't care if it raises money. What I care about is whether people will stop giving money to the panhandlers, who are really quite separate from the chronically homeless.

My understanding of the idea is that tourists, students, and downtown workers will see the meters and it will give them a mental excuse not to give money to the panhandlers. You know how lots of people are always confused by panhandlers? "Will I really help them, or are they just going to buy booze or crack? Am I really making a difference? Man, I feel like a jerk just ignoring them..."

Well, the meters reinforce the idea that giving money to panhandlers is an ineffective way to help. It is enabling. You aren't being a jerk if you don't give them money. The meters let people assuage their guilty conscience, or at least give them that option, so they don't feel bad saying "no" to the panhandlers. So, they give less money, and the panhandlers have to find better stalking grounds.

In that respect, these programs have been somewhat effective:
“We saw a drop in panhandling along the waterfront,” said Baltimore’s Yeager. “But a reduction in homeless people? No. They just went to neighborhoods where they didn’t have meters.”
The AJC article also notes that Buckhead has seen an increase in panhandling as a result of the police crackdown downtown. It is not a "solution". But it is a decent idea that is worth trying. The city isn't even paying for the meters:
The money for the program — $40,000 — is coming from Central Atlanta Progress, the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Atlanta Police Foundation and the Georgia World Congress Center.
I don't see how it can hurt to try it, in addition to the increased enforcement by police. Obviously a long term solution is to try and deal with structural issues, which the city actually addressed first by setting up the Gateway Center.

Another factor is "solution by dilution". Anyone who has been to a major urban center with a healthy downtown (hell, even Ann Arbor) knows that panhandlers are tolerated when they are outnumbered by everyone else. When you have enough people walking around doing regular business, panhandlers don't stick out so much, and there is a relative feeling of safety in numbers for pedestrians.

We'll never get enough people downtown for it not feel like a shelter unless we first get the panhandlers out, though. Buckhead and Midtown aren't going to just let all the panhandlers set up shop their, either, so eventually Atlanta will lose its reputation as being a regional center for panhandling. Atlanta does have a reputation, and panhandlers actually travel here from elsewhere because it is tolerated.

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