Homeless donation boxes to be installed

The Ashland Chamber of Commerce plans to install three homeless donation boxes downtown before Memorial Day — the beginning of Ashland's busy summer tourist season.

Other cities that have installed donation boxes have seen a drop-off in panhandling around the boxes.

The money collected in the secure, metal, Ashland donation boxes will be funneled to the local Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which helps people avoid and escape homelessness, said Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Sandra Slattery.

"We were inspired by the positive difference that St. Vincent's is making," she said. "We were so impressed by what they do and the dedication of their volunteers."

One box will be installed in front of the Black Swan Theatre, while two others will be installed at undetermined locations on the downtown Plaza, Slattery said.

With its outdoor bench seating and small plaza area, the Black Swan is a panhandling hotspot.

Musicians often play there for tips, as well.

Each donation box will be accompanied by a sign that has an image of a hand. The draft wording for the signs says, "Small change can make a significant difference. Give a hand up, not a hand out to those in need. Support Ashland in offering real alternatives to panhandling. Donations benefit St. Vincent de Paul."

The signs may bear St. Vincent de Paul's phone number so that homeless people who need help can call the volunteer organization directly, Slattery said.

In October 2011, Ashland City Council voted to authorize the chamber to install the donation boxes.

Slattery said the chamber will raise money to pay for the boxes and will print up informational flyers that downtown businesses can give to people who have questions about the donation boxes, she said.

Slattery said chamber and St. Vincent de Paul representatives met, and people from the chamber learned about the organization's work.

To help people avoid homelessness, St. Vincent de Paul can give utility-bill assistance, money to pay for gas to get to work and other aid, Slattery said.

Unrelated to the donation boxes, in 2011 Ashland City Council awarded $30,000 in pass-through federal grant dollars to St. Vincent de Paul for a program that helps keep Ashland residents from becoming homeless by offering rent and utility assistance.

St. Vincent de Paul volunteers meet with homeless people and help them access local, county, state and federal resources. That might mean helping a homeless veteran connect with the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, for example, Slattery said.

City of Ashland Housing Program Specialist Linda Reid said St. Vincent de Paul volunteers meet with homeless people over months and sometimes even years to help them get stabilized.

Not everybody is pleased that the chamber selected St. Vincent de Paul as the recipient of donation box funds.

Some members of the Citizens Coalition — a group of residents, homeless people and service providers concerned about homelessness — would rather see the money go to Uncle Food's Diner.

Run by Peace House, Uncle Food's Diner provides a free community meal on Tuesdays at the First United Methodist Church of Ashland.

Ashland City Councilor Carol Voisin said some of the concern about donations going to St. Vincent de Paul seemed to center around the fact that the group provides help to people who still have housing. Voisin said some Citizens Coalition members believe donations should go only to help homeless people.

Voisin is a member of the Citizens Coalition and is also a City Council liaison to the city's official Homelessness Steering Committee.

Slattery said while she appreciates Uncle Food's Diner, the chamber's goal is to help people escape homelessness.

"St. Vincent's also gives out food, but they also help people not just for today, but for the future. As the saying goes, instead of giving people a fish, they teach them how to fish," Slattery said. "They help people out of homelessness. If people want help, St. Vincent's will give them help. They give people a chance to get back on their feet."

Slattery said she has no idea how much money the donation boxes will generate, but chamber representatives hope the amount will be significant.

"We'll see how it all goes this summer. We'll all find out together," she said.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.

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