Brother, Can You Spare a Can?
Warren Chiavaroli doesn't give money to panhandlers. No, he says matter-of-factly, he gives cans.
Well, not a can, really. It's actually a skinny cardboard tube about the diameter of a roll of wrapping paper, cut down to about three inches high. The little cylinder is called a Can of Help. Chiavaroli hopes to "create something that, in a way, replaces panhandling with canhandling."
And "tubehandling," of course, does not rhyme.
Sounds silly, but the CEO of Southland Advertising South isn't kidding. Beginning next month Fort Lauderdale Shell stations will sell cardboard "cans" designed by Southland and filled with coupons that can be given to panhandlers instead of cash. Inside each color-coded Can of Help is one, three, or five Homeless Initiative Partnership (HIP) "dollars," each of which may be redeemed for a one-way trip on Broward Transit or a buck off any clothing or shoes at Shepherd's Way or Mission Thrift stores. The dollars, created in cooperation with the nonprofit Broward Coalition For the Homeless, are also printed with the names of toll-free hotlines for food, shelter, and health care.
Organizers designed HIP dollars to be useful to panhandlers, but if they're not and panhandlers don't want them, then maybe, the reasoning goes, they'll stop begging.
Chiavaroli and HIP board finance chair Birch Willey came up with the coupon concept about a year ago at a Rotary Club luncheon. Willey secured $10,000 in seed money from Shell Oil Company. (Willey's daughter works for the company.)
But it was -- natch -- Chiavaroli who came up with the can. "I am the architect," he says from his spacious corner office overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway.
He's also its blue-blazered salesman. When he took the concept to the Broward County Commission, it unanimously approved the privately funded program. A few commissioners even whipped out their wallets to purchase the limited-edition specs.
"We collected four or five or six dollars," Chiavaroli enthuses. "They all seemed to really love it."
Chiavaroli does, too: "The nice thing about these cans is they can keep their cans. They can keep it as a souvenir item. They can give it to their kids to play with."
But it gets nicer: "The really nice thing is, even if they buy the can, walk around with the coupon and never give it to anybody, the money that's raised [from the sale of the can] goes to programs helping the homeless."
Can of Help is meant to discourage chronic panhandling. Aside from that, which one is it -- a canny fundraiser for Broward HIP agencies or aid and outreach to its panhandlers?
According to Chiavaroli, "It's absolutely, positively both!"
In business-speak, Chiavaroli's giddy synergy might be called a "win-win."
"There are a lot of people who have never interacted with homeless people," he explains, "partially because they don't come into contact with them, partially because they're skeptical."
And partially because they don't want to.
"In tourists towns they want [panhandling] out of your face," says Marti Forman, director of the Cooperative Feeding Program, an HIP-funded program listed on the HIP dollar. Six days a week, inside the dirty, pink stucco walls of the Tallent Liquor Building, 250 to 350 of Broward county's homeless and working poor line up for a midday meal served on pale green or yellow school lunch trays.
Forman's still smarting from what she sees as a history of blows to the homeless in Broward County, like the elimination of Tent City more than a year ago, the much-publicized attempt to rid Hollywood of vendors of a homeless newspaper, and Arnold Abbott's ongoing legal battle to feed the homeless at the beach.
In other words she suspects the program might be yet another effort to keep panhandlers and the homeless out of sight.
"It'd be great if people buy the HIP dollars," she says from the co-op's crowded office in a half-vacant strip mall, "but who are you going to give them to? It seems a little late in the game since they got rid of all the panhandlers."
She's also concerned it could be a harbinger: "I worry that it might be a predecessor to legislation. I think when people start to be comfortable with doing away with things, they do away with things." Forman fears an effort to eliminate panhandling altogether. "My first reaction is, "Gee, what's the next step? I've watched local governments try to enact [antipanhandling ordinances] all over the country."
Steve Werthman, Broward County's administrator of homeless services, says Forman's concerns are unfounded but not unusual. "That came up very early on and the HIP board was very clear they did not see this as an antipanhandling program. It's not coercive."
Werthman insists the "can that can" is an alternative to panhandling, yet he concedes that the degree to which it decreases the activity will be one measure of its success. "If a panhandler doesn't want [services mentioned on the HIP dollar], it will cut down on their ability to panhandle profitably."
That's important, he says, since the money panhandlers can make -- sometimes as much as $75 a day -- is often used for drugs or alcohol. "It's a rut," Werthman says. "So this offers a way out."
But aside from hotline numbers, it's unclear how much the HIP dollars really offer panhandlers. On the bottom of the canary yellow coupon, in tiny, smudgy type, are the words no cash value. Printed above that is the clothing discount.
Chiavaroli says he ran the idea by a focus group of 25 homeless people for their input. New Times also showed a HIP dollar to a few homeless people.
Cliff, a fair-haired 22-year old, says of the clothing discount, "That's a waste. They can get clothes from the Salvation Army. That's the least of their concerns." Now living in a shelter, Cliff has been on and off the streets since he was eight years old. When he panhandled, he says, "I did it for food. It was survival."
Werthman says the HIP dollars are good for food since they provide a one-way bus ride to several soup kitchens where free meals are served. "Take this bus to a new life," says the ad campaign, which will include "king-sized" bus posters, informational cards, and bus-shelter posters.
But Rich, a slim, soft-spoken 17 year-old and former street kid, says, in his experience it's immediate food, not clothing or a bus ride to food, that's in demand. However, he says, the hotline information is useful: "[Homeless people] will read anything."
Rich at first suggests he'd save his HIP dollars -- until he learns they can't be "spent" on anything but thrift-store merchandise or a bus trip. "Oh," he says, pausing. "I think they should be good for food. Just add that in."
Chiavaroli isn't adding that in, though. It's a relatively small detail, and he's a big man with big ideas. The ivory walls of Southland's conference room are proof; they're lined with several prestigious "Addy" awards from the American Association of Advertising Agencies. The same organization also honored Chiavaroli in the category of "industry self-promotion" for a TV spot called "Bum on a Bench."
Thus accustomed to accolades, Chiavaroli radiates self-assurance. He's already thinking of conveying "canhandling" to other cities, maybe taking it nationwide.
And though it has yet to launch locally, on one level, at least, Can of Help is already a success.
"Graphically," he says, "it worked really well."
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