IOWA CITY - Twenty-four-year-old Alicia Herrera doesn't want to ask people for money.
With a 14-month-old son and electric bills to pay during a record-breaking hot summer, though, she has no other choice. If the power is shut off, the trailer she lives in will be uninhabitable without air conditioning.
"I've exhausted all the resources in Johnson County, and their funds are limited," Herrera said. "I wouldn't be out here like this if there were funds for me."
In this July 18 photo, Alicia Herrera, 24, of Iowa City panhandles for money with her 14 month old son Jazper in the Pedestrian Mall along Washington Street in downtown Iowa City, Iowa. Herrera who recently lost her job said she brings in about $20 a day and uses the money to pay her electric bill.
Roughly two years after Iowa City installed donation meters to reduce panhandling on the Pedestrian Mall, the begging hasn't stopped.
Donation meters were paired with an ordinance that prohibits people from asking for money within 10 feet of a building, 15 feet of a crosswalk, 20 feet of ATMs and 20 feet of mobile vendors. City officials said the begging is less aggressive, and they continue to support the changes.
"The ordinance has helped in the Ped Mall area, because before, it was always blatant," said Iowa City police Sgt. Denise Brotherton. "Now, we still have a lot of issues with people sitting around intoxicated and littering - and we try to get down there as much as we can - but before they would block people and ask them and stop them, and I don't get a lot of reports of that happening as much."
Although the department has issued only two panhandling tickets since the ordinance passed - one of which occurred in a prohibited area - she said officers often write other citations because they don't witness the panhandling.
"A lot of times we don't see the actual begging, but we might get a report of it," Brotherton said, "but they could still get charged with something else, like public intoxication. There's always a possibility there's more incidents of it, because if they see our uniform and they have a sign, they hide it."
Between June 1, 2010, and July 1, 2012, the donation meters collected only $2,177.95.
Still, during economic instability, all donations are valuable, say leaders of local programs that benefit the homeless.
"All of us these days are needing money to keep going," said Mary Palmberg, director of the Free Lunch Program in Iowa City. "The economy is increasing the numbers that we're serving and at the same time decreases people's ability to donate. . When the money goes directly to the (panhandlers), it really doesn't help. Almost any agency, when it receives money, can make it stretch a lot of ways to help a lot of people."
Palmberg said money from the donation meters helps to alleviate some of the program's costs for milk and other daily staples.
Iowa City's Free Medical Clinic, which also receives meter donations, puts the money toward medical vouchers for its patients.
Some panhandlers were initially concerned the meters would divert funds that would otherwise go to them. Several said they receive about $20 to $25 a day when begging. The meters average about $2.86 a day.
"I don't see too many people actually using them," Herrera said as she held a sign reading, "Single Mom Lost Job Please Help Bills Due Looking 4 Work" while sitting next to a bench on East Washington Street beside her son. "I know they're there. Sometimes I'll stand next to it. It's just like, hey, it might come to us or to other people that need the help."
Geoff Fruin, assistant to the city manager, said Iowa City hopes to improve the program.
"We still believe it's a good program to have there," Fruin said. "There's always room for improvement, and whether that's more public education and making (the meters) more visible, those are things that we continually have to look at. And we're doing that in this case to see if the locations are appropriate."
Though Cedar Rapids does not yet have a panhandling ordinance, Interim Police Chief Steve O'Konek said he feels an alternative like donation meters would benefit the city.
"I think the donation meters are a great idea for people who have some spare change and want to donate to a worthy cause," O'Konek said. "I think it's a great idea, and I would look into something like that because it becomes a point of communication in the public that says, 'Hey, if you want to help these folks, this is where you can donate to.' "
O'Konek proposed a panhandling ordinance earlier this month. It would outlaw aggressive panhandling at intersections and at on and off ramps to reduce safety risks. O'Konek said the ordinance also would help officers to better direct those in need to the appropriate resources.
Though a similar ordinance was tabled three years ago, the City Council's Public Safety Committee generally supported it during discussions.