ITHACA, N.Y. — Notice the red boxes on the Ithaca Commons lately? Dropping in a dollar will help people in need with food and other basic necessities. The boxes are part of a new program meant to curb panhandling and help community members who are homeless or in need.

The red donation boxes have popped up on the Ithaca Commons this week and read “Pay it Forward” with a slot to drop in a donation. In the past year or two, concerns have been mounting about panhandlers on the Commons, Gary Ferguson, executive director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, said. The concerns have come from businesses and locals.

Ferguson said many people would ask “Should I be giving money to people?” And the answer was complicated.

“When we talk to folks in social service industry, sometimes it’s not the best thing to do. Sometimes money goes into addictions. It’s hard to figure out the best way to respond as a compassionate person,” Ferguson said.

The Downtown Ithaca Alliance, which is heading the fundraising program, drew inspiration from the Center Cafe in Ithaca, which has successfully run a pay it forward program for about a year.

Related: Ithaca cafe owner helps get meals to needy with ‘pay it forward’ program

In an interview with The Ithaca Voice in February, Terry Little, owner of Center Cafe said he would love to see the pay it forward model catch on at other shops in Ithaca — and he’s gotten his wish.

In addition to Center Cafe, Green Street Pharmacy and Casa Blanca are participating.

The program will be funded with help from a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Miami. Of 245 cities that applied for the grant, only six won, Mayor Svante Myrick said in a Facebook post.

The benefits of the program are twofold, Ferguson said. First, it addresses public concern about panhandlers and whether they should give money. Ferguson said with the boxes, people can drop money in and know it will go directly to food, bus passes or other basic necessities.

The program also provides a tool for local agencies, buys time and helps people survive, Ferguson said.

“It helps keep people afloat until the right people can help them get to the right places,” Ferguson said.

No one has to prove they’re homeless to benefit from the program. Ferguson said they are relying on the “general sensibilities of the community to figure out for themselves if they need it or don’t need it.”

Green Street Pharmacy has been testing out the pay it forward model for several months already, co-owner and pharmacist Nicole Pagano said. She said it’s been successful so far.

They made a poster similar to Center Cafe’s model. On Little’s whiteboard at Center Cafe, there are sticky notes with a range of food items available that have been paid for, from a coffee to a full $10 meal.

In Green Street Pharmacy, Pagano said they have items on the board like food, bus passes, first aid items, batteries, toilet paper and coffee.

Generally, people have not taken advantage of the program, Pagano said. She said people with legitimate needs have come through on a daily basis.

“It’s been really eye opening and really incredible,” Pagano said.

Pay it forward works how it sounds. Customers will donate toward items for people in need, sometimes by rounding up their orders. Pagano said they have run out of money several times. She said the new boxes on the Commons will help augment the cost.

Pagano said a young man once came in after just moving to Ithaca. The cost of the move had left him with nothing, she said. Though he came in and asked for a toothbrush, she told him to fill a bag. And he did. He took items like toothpaste, deoderant, toilet paper and other basic items.

“And so he went on his way and he felt good about it. We felt good about it,” Pagano said.

About a month later, the man returned and donated $20 for the next person who was in need like he was, Pagano said.

“Really that’s what it’s all about,” she said.

Kelsey O'Connor

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at koconnor@ithacavoice.com and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.