ITHACA, N.Y.  Over the past year, a few red boxes have become a part of the Ithaca Commons landscape. They have also been a helpful way to  fund “pay it forward” programs at a few local businesses that provide food and other items to people in need. 

The program was created last year due to mounting concerns about panhandling around the Commons area.

Though it may not decrease the number of panhandlers on the Commons, the drop boxes are meant to be a way for people to know their money is going directly to food and supplies for people in need. It is supposed to be an “emergency” program to help individuals who, for various reasons, cannot access normal social services or have been rejected by such programs.

“The Pay It Forward program is not designed to replace programs that exist to help in those situations,” Gary Ferguson, executive director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, said. “Hopefully they’ve first checked out those programs that could help them with those issues. If they end up on the street because no one would help them, or something went wrong, that’s when we are the most useful. We are not a social service agency. We are here to support those agencies and patch the holes in the system,”

It also varies from similar programs in that the money collected is turned directly over to businesses participating in the Pay It Forward program. “Typically, places will collect money and turn it over to the homeless shelter, the food pantry, or an existing social service agency…we are a little bit different. We are providing help on the fly, right away,” Ferguson continued.

Ferguson counts the first year of the program a success, with local businesses receiving large amounts of funds from the Downtown Ithaca Alliance. In total, more than $4,500 has been dropped into the boxes on the Commons. The rest of the money for the program has come from grants, including a $50,000 grant from the US Conference of Mayors. 

According to Nicole Pagano, co-owner and pharmacist at Green Street Pharmacy, they have distritubted $4,193 worth of items to needy individuals in the community. These items include necessities such as toiletries, food, hats and gloves during the winter and more.

Green Street Pharmacy is one of three businesses participating in the program. Casablanca Pizzeria on the Commons and Center Cafe, which recently closed, were the other two.

The program is set to continue expanding over the next year. Ferguson said he would like to bring in more local businesses.

“We will be starting a marketing campaign soon to get more people to give and to encourage more businesses to participate. We just added another donation box on the Commons – there are four now. It allows us to generate funds on a weekly basis to cover costs for the businesses,” Ferguson said.