SIERRA VISTA— A coupon booklet worth $6 could help change a homeless person’s life.
At least that’s what some city officials are hoping for.
The coupon booklet, or vouchers, are known as Better Bucks. Each one, though valued at only $1, can help bring about some significant change, Sierra Vista Police officials say.
That’s because instead of giving a homeless person money that could in turn be used to buy something that’s not in that individual’s best interest — narcotics, alcohol, drug paraphernalia — Better Bucks may only be used to purchase food, toiletries and other essentials.
And while the creators of this program — Flagstaff Police Department and the Shadows Foundation — say a coupon booklet probably can’t cure someone’s deep-seated issues, but the booklet can point the individual in the right direction to get the help he or she needs.
Sierra Vista Police Corp. Scott Borgstadt has been researching the Better Bucks program for the last several months. He has met with Flagstaff officials and hopes that Better Bucks soon will become a reality here. Borgstadt and Police Chief Adam Thrasher agree that it could help alleviate the city’s panhandling situation, which has elicited complaints from citizens.
“I think it’s a good program,” Thrasher said. “We’ve been exploring different ideas because of the complaints we’ve gotten about panhandlers.”
Borgstadt explained how Better Bucks works: Each Better Buck is worth just that — a buck. The bucks come in booklets of five. The booklet costs $6, with $1 going toward printing and administrative costs. Once the coupon or voucher booklets are produced and become available at different locations throughout the city, they can be purchased by the public and people can give them to a needy person instead of handing them cash.
“People can purchase one booklet or as many booklets as they want,” Borgstadt said. “You can give someone one Better Buck or as many as you want.”
Various businesses and grocery stores can sign up to participate in the program and accept the Better Bucks from a patron. Borgstadt said people can spend up to 20 Better Bucks per store visit, even if they have more. If a person is short a few dollars on their purchase, he or she won’t be allowed to make up the difference with regular cash.
Also, since Better Bucks are $1 each, people who use them will not be given change if their items turn out to be more money and they pay with Better Bucks, Borgstadt said. For example, if an item costs $3.50 and the buyer gives $4 in Better Bucks, the change will go back into the local Better Bucks foundation, Borgstadt said.
In order to direct people to social service providers, the names of local agencies will be printed on the Better Bucks booklet so that those who use them will be aware of the services that are available and can be accessed via the Better Bucks program, Borgstadt said.
The coupon booklets also will include a free bus pass if the person needs a ride to a grocery store or a social service provider.
Businesses that participate in the program would be reimbursed by the local non-profit organization that runs the Better Bucks program, Borgstadt said. Better Bucks are not legal tender, so when someone pays with a Better Buck, the store or business must attach the Better Buck to a receipt so that they are paid back for the goods sold.
While Sierra Vista’s plan is in the “early, early stages,” according to Mayor Rick Mueller, city officials hope it’s a plan that takes off.
“I think Flagstaff has had some good results,” Mueller said. “I hope we can get something like that here.”
A board of directors for the program was recently formed and had its first meeting, Borgstadt said. The board is made up of a handful of community leaders, but Borgstadt said they are looking for at least one business owner to join the panel.
Following in Flagstaff’s footsteps, Borgstadt said an existing nonprofit organization must run the Better Bucks program. He said the board of directors is in the process of producing a list of requirements that nonprofits would have to meet in order to run Better Bucks.
Borgstadt said he believes the applications with the requirements for any nonprofit interested in running Sierra Vista’s Better Bucks could be ready by the first part of January.
Funding sources also are key. Borgstadt said start-up costs for the Better Bucks program will run $10,000 to $15,000. That’s the cash needed to produce the Better Bucks booklets, as well as money that must be available to pay back the participating businesses.
The cash would be kept in a bank account administered by the nonprofit organization that runs the program. Borgstadt said he he has been talking with some possible “funding sources,” but could not reveal their names.
Flagstaff began its program about three years ago after a plan to stop panhandlers failed because the American Civil Liberties Union said the city was impinging on panhandlers’ rights to free speech. The city had to come up with a different plan aimed at discouraging people from giving panhandlers money.
“(Do) not give cash,” said Flagstaff Police Lt. Paul Lasiewicki, one of the creators of the Better Bucks idea, in a video. “ ... They’ll (panhandlers, the homeless) spend it on something that can hurt them or hurt the community. Help the people who need the help in a way that’s responsible and compassionate.”
Flagstaff Police and the Shadows Foundation, which provides services and financial assistance to people affected with a life-threatening illness, partnered to form Better Bucks.
Borgstadt said he believes the program can only do good in Sierra Vista because there are people who are truly in need and then there are individuals who police refer to as “professional panhandlers.” The latter are usually not homeless and make $60 to $80 daily begging.
In a recent Facebook video with the Sierra Vista Area Chamber of Commerce, Mueller mentioned if someone refuses a Better Buck, that’s not a good sign.
“If they accept the Better Buck, at least you know the money is going toward something good,” Mueller said.
“No one can find a downside to this,” he said.” It’s a win-win for everyone.”