September 14, 2010; Source: Orlando Sentinel | In Orlando, Fla., it’s illegal to ask someone passing by for spare change, unless the person is standing in a designated “panhandling zone,” one of 36 small blue boxes painted in the city’s downtown sidewalks.  Now Orlando plans to borrow an idea in use in several other cities—let people who want to lend a hand put money for the homeless in specially painted former parking meters that would be set up in the areas where panhandlers congregate.

Money from the machines will be collected and turned over to a nonprofit that helps the homeless. So they won’t be confused with regular parking meters, if the city approves the plan, the “homeless meters” would be painted a different color and set back from the street.  One of the plan’s backers, Tomas Chatmon, director of the city’s Downtown Development Board, says it would make it much easier for people to “donate to the cause of eradicating homelessness. They can give to a good cause, and they don’t feel threatened.”

The city’s restriction on panhandling downtown has been in effect since 2000, when it first limited begging to designated zones.  Then in 2007, it banned panhandling after dark.  Now, it plans to limit the number of blue boxes on sidewalks to 27.  It is expected to cost the city $10,000 to install the new homeless meters.

So far homelessness advocacy groups are skeptical of the city’s plan.  PJ Charles, executive director of Straight Street Orlando, told the Orlando Sentinel, the program may cost more than it brings in. “It’s just another effort to seem like they’re making an effort,” he said.— Bruce Trachtenberg