CHAMPAIGN — If you can spare some change for the homeless, here's a new way to make sure it gets to an agency providing help.
Just feed one of the four new blue parking meters on the sidewalks of downtown Champaign and the University of Illinois campus area.
They'll be collecting coins for Community Elements, the mental health agency that also provides services for the homeless through such programs as the TIMES center, which is a transitional living program for homeless men, and Roundhouse, a shelter for runaways and at-risk youths.
The meter program, called "Make Real Change," is a project of Champaign Center Partnership and Community Elements with help from the city of Champaign.
Champaign Center Partnership Executive Director T.J. Blakeman said the idea grew out a need to address panhandling in the downtown and Campustown areas.
"It has been a couple of years in the making and it kind of grew out of merchant meetings in downtown and in Campustown," he said.
Meter programs such as this have been started in other cities, he said, among them Denver, Nashville, Athens, Ga., and Lawrence, Kan.
When people give money to panhandlers saying they are homeless, the donor may not know how it's going to be used. But when people feed meters collecting for Community Elements, they can know it will be used to assist the homeless, he said.
"This seemed like a creative way, and in many cities, an effective way, to make sure the money is put in the hands of those that can really make a difference," he said.
Sheila Ferguson, chief executive of Community Elements, said she doesn't know how much money a program like this can raise, but if it's successful, she hopes to see more meters added in the community to support other service organizations.
"I like to think we're piloting something that has potential for programs that support self-sufficiency for the homeless in our city," she said.
Giving to the meters, rather than directly to panhandlers, is a personal choice, Ferguson said. However, she added, the money can go farther if it's given to an agency that can use it to support programs to help the homeless of the community.
All the money from the four meters will be used to support the TIMES Center, Roundhouse and Community Elements' homeless youth programs, she said.
The meters were installed Friday, and the city donated the meters and the installation, the organizations said.
The meters can be found in downtown Champaign at Main and Neil streets and at Walnut and Chester streets.
In the campus area, they can be found at Green and Wright streets and on Sixth Street between Green and John streets.