Four donation boxes, where passersby can donate to social services meant to alleviate homelessness, opened Thursday in Downtown Berkeley.
The boxes mark the first step in the Positive Change Donation Program, a joint project of the Downtown Berkeley Association, the city of Berkeley and the Berkeley Food and Housing Project, or BFHP, aimed at raising additional money for social services. The pilot stage of this program will last six months, with up to six additional boxes opened. After the pilot stage, Berkeley City Council will consider expanding the program to other areas of the city.
John Caner — who attended the opening and is the CEO of the DBA, an organization of Downtown property owners, their merchants and their business tenants — said these donation boxes are meant to stand as a complement and alternative to giving money to panhandlers.
“People can still provide panhandling if they want to directly, or this gives an alternative for people to donate to BFHP,” Caner said.
But Osha Neumann, a supervising attorney at the East Bay Community Law Center who has worked extensively with the homeless, does not think the boxes will be a positive change.
“It caters to people who would prefer to relate to a box than a human being,” Neumann said. “It’s human contact that’s going to be eliminated with this program.”
Vice Mayor Linda Maio and Councilmember Jesse Arreguin also attended the opening. Maio donated the first dollar, dropping it into a box at the intersection of Center Street and Shattuck Avenue.
With a large number of homeless to provide for, BFHP is always scraping for money, according to Terrie Light, the executive director of the organization, but she isn’t sure how much the boxes will bring in.
“What we hope is that overall, this will increase funding for the homeless,” Caner said.
Neumann, however, said the boxes give an excuse not to give money directly to the homeless and, without the human element, may not collect very much. The overall effect may be less money going to the homeless, he said.
The collected donations will be used to fund transportation to job interviews and other destinations, application fees for getting personal ID cards, application fees for housing, and hygiene products such as toiletries and underwear. The money will also go toward the Homeward Bound program, which funds bus tickets and other expenses for low-income people to travel to family or friends who can put them up.
“We have a large homeless population,” Light said. “We have an economy that’s failing them. We have an assistance program that’s failing them at every level. And so we have to show up.”
Neumann said the program should not delineate the needs of the homeless into specific areas.
“They don’t know what people’s needs are out there,” Neumann said. “They have made a decision about what’s a good need and what’s a bad need, and that’s not a decision they should make.”
The boxes were welded and bolted into location, and the project partners said they are confident that money left in them will be secure. Promotional cards for the boxes will be distributed to surrounding businesses, Caner said.
Staff writer Robert Tooke contributed to this report.