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NOT a handout

New homelessness donation boxes in downtown Ashland are getting mixed reactions — if people even notice them at all.

The Ashland Chamber of Commerce, city of Ashland and St. Vincent de Paul are cooperating on the donation box project, which is meant to encourage people to donate via the boxes rather than giving money directly to panhandlers.

St. Vincent de Paul will use the money to help prevent homelessness and aid people in escaping from homelessness.

City workers put up three small, mainly white donation boxes last Friday. The boxes have wording inviting people to donate to those in need.

One box is by Ashland City Hall on the downtown Plaza, a second is also on the Plaza in front of Mix Sweet Shop, and a third is currently near the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Welcome Center at the corner of Main and Pioneer streets.

That third box will eventually be moved to a small plaza area in front of the Chamber of Commerce and OSF's Black Swan Theatre, said Graham Lewis, a member of the city of Ashland's Homeless Steering Committee and the staff photographer and volunteer coordinator for the Chamber of Commerce.

The small plaza by the Chamber and Black Swan Theatre is a popular spot for tourists, street musicians and homeless people.

A young homeless man with a black puppy nestled in his lap was sitting on a sidewalk within eyesight of the donation box near Mix Sweet Shop earlier this week. He held a cardboard sign asking for money to buy puppy food.

"I've been sitting here for a while and I haven't seen anybody put money in," he said of the donation box. "I've been getting money."

The man, who wanted to remain anonymous, said he thinks the donation boxes are "the worst idea ever." He said most homeless people he has talked to share the same sentiment.

He said he believes the money will not benefit Ashland's homeless because the local St. Vincent de Paul is based in Medford.

Lewis said St. Vincent de Paul's Ashland and Medford operations are separate. He said 12 highly trained volunteers — many of them retired social workers and counselors — meet with people in Ashland who are on the verge of homelessness or already homeless to assess their needs and get them help.

Lewis said the volunteers meet with clients in their homes if they are still housed, or out on the streets, on benches or in cars.

The volunteers can offer diverse forms of aid, from help paying utility bills to gas for a person to drive to a job interview, Lewis said.

He said any money in the donation boxes has not been counted yet. The Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors and the Ashland City Council will receive quarterly reports on money collected. They will also hear which donation box sites are most effective when it comes to garnering donations.

Lewis said the Chamber of Commerce did fundraising to pay for the donation boxes, which cost $160 each. City workers installed the boxes.

A Medford woman walking in downtown Ashland with her family on Tuesday said she had heard of Ashland's plans to install the boxes, but hadn't noticed them yet.

"I hope it does work. Sometimes people are panhandling because they don't want to work," said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous.

A group of women visiting Ashland from Eugene said they thought the idea of helping the homeless via donation boxes was a great idea and an improvement over handing money directly to panhandlers.

"I think it's a terrific idea," said Glenda Chorlton of Eugene.

Lewis said no one involved with the donation box project believes it will solve all homelessness issues in Ashland. He noted there are many missing pieces when it comes to helping people get off the streets.

For example, Lewis said there is a lack of mental health services to help stabilize mentally ill homeless people.

"This is not the answer to homelessness in Ashland. It will give people a better opportunity to help people," Lewis said.

If people would like to donate but do not want to use the donation boxes, they can give to a homelessness donation account set up at People's Bank of Commerce, 1500 Siskiyou Blvd., Ashland, OR 97520. Checks should be made out to St. Vincent de Paul, Lewis said.

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