TIME poverty

Parking Meters Aren’t Going to Fix Homelessness

Real Change Movement
An example of one of the Real Change Movement's meters Real Change Movement

The converted parking meters have mixed results around the U.S.

It’s an eye-catching way to raise money and awareness about homelessness: 14 parking meters around Pasadena, Calif., all converted to collect change for those living on the streets.

In the last few weeks, Pasadena has joined several large cities around the U.S. that have set up what are essentially “homelessness meters.” They’re retrofitted parking meters that allow passersby to donate money by depositing coins or even swipe debit or credit cards. That money then goes to homelessness charities and organizations rather than directly to the homeless themselves.

“This is a clear alternative where people contributing know that all the money will go to effective services,” Bill Huang, the Pasadena housing director, told The Los Angeles Times.

Supporters say the money goes to organizations like the United Way or local homeless groups that know how to effectively use the funds for food, support and shelter and get around the possibility of that money going to drugs or alcohol. Two of Pasadena’s meters, painted bright orange and affixed with smiley faces, have reportedly raised $270 in their first three weeks. But elsewhere around the U.S., the meters have decidedly mixed results. In Orlando, for example, 15 homelessness meters have brought in just $2,027 in three years, and that was after the city spent $2,000 getting them up and running.

“I don’t know that these meters have been very effective anywhere, certainly not in Orlando,” says Jim Wright, a University of Central Florida professor who studies homelessness. “The concept was, I believe, oversold by the advocates and too rapidly embraced by politicos trying to create the impression that they were doing something significant about the homeless problem.”

Andrae Bailey, chief executive officer of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness, which collects the money from Orlando’s meters, says they were installed in 2011 without a comprehensive homeless strategy focusing primarily on housing those in need.

“We tried to do meters without having a plan to house veterans and those with mental illness and disabilities,” Bailey says. “Anything other than a housing solution for the chronic homeless is a recipe for disaster.”

In Denver, 50 homeless meters bring in around $3,000 to $6,500 total each year, according to Denver’s Road Home, which launched the Donation Meter Program in 2007. The money goes to support services like housing, shelter, mental health and support services, says Denver’s Road Home executive director Bennie Milliner.

But some housing advocates criticize the meters as merely an attempt to reduce panhandling. Paul Boden, director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, a collective of various West Coast homeless organizations, says that the installation of meters is often in conjunction with either increased enforcement of panhandling laws or additional legislation. Both Denver and Atlanta, which installed meters several years ago, have also worked to crack down on panhandlers.

“It’s a way to possibly reduce panhandling,” says Dennis Culhane, a University of Pennsylvania psychiatry professor who studies homelessness, adding that he doesn’t see much substantive impact from the meters on truly solving the problem of homelessness in those cities.

MONEY hedge funds

Giant Pension Manager Rejects Hedge Funds—Maybe You Should Too

The influential California Public Employees' Retirement System, or Calpers, is turning its back on hedge funds just as hedge fund-like "alternative" mutual funds gain popularity with small investors.

Critics have long argued that hedge funds — unregulated, often opaque, and high-priced investment vehicles for the very wealthy — don’t live up their mystique.

Now the nation’s largest and most closely watched pension fund agrees.

On Monday, the $298 billion California Public Employees’ Retirement System would be liquidating its $4 billion investment in hedge funds, which it called overly complex and costly, Bloomberg reported.

Many Wall Street critics, perhaps feeling vindicated, let out a big cheer. With his characteristic bluster, Barry Ritholtz, blogger and founder of Ritholtz Wealth Management, called the event an “earthquake.”

Exaggeration or not, Calpers is closely watched because of its size and because it has been an innovator before. It was one of the earliest big public pension funds to bet on hedge funds in the first place. Meanwhile, hedge funds have long relied on an image of sophistication and exclusivity to win customers, despite their steep investment fees. So losing a customer of Calpers stature could be a big blow.

Dropping hedge funds isn’t the only thing Calpers has done recently to simplify its investment portfolio. Last month it also said it was considering cutting back it’s holdings in actively managed stock strategies and emphasizing low-cost index funds instead. That move was similarly cheered.

What does the latest Calpers decision mean for individual investors? Most of us aren’t wealthy enough to have hedge fund holdings, which typically have high investment minimums.

But the mutual fund industry has been leaning on hedge fund’s cache to market a new investment product typically called “alternative funds.”

Alternatives have turned out to be one of the fastest growing mutual fund categories, with assets reaching nearly $150 billion, up from less than $25 billion a decade ago, according to Investment News and Morningstar.

Like the original hedge funds these often involve hard-to-parse investment fees. If your financial advisers pitches them, be sure to ask why he or she thinks they will work out better for you than they did for Calpers.

TIME poverty

Pasadena Is Repurposing Some of Its Parking Meters to Help the Homeless

The collected sums will be small, but officials say the meters, painted bright orange, are also intended to raise awareness about homeless programs

Motorists feeding the meter in Pasadena could now be helping to feed the homeless.

The Californian city is repurposing 14 of its parking meters to collect change for nonprofit programs that serve the homeless, the Los Angeles Times reports.

The collected sums will be small: the two meters so far converted have only raised about $270 in three weeks, according to the Times. Still, local officials told the Times that the meters, painted bright orange, with smiley faces and inspirational sayings, are also intended to raise awareness about the city’s homeless programs and encourage more donations to charitable organizations in general.

Some advocates for the homeless contend that the meters will hurt, not help, the homeless, because they do not put money directly into homeless hands but funnel it through organizations — and, in doing so, reinforce the belief that it is better to not give directly to the homeless because they will spend the money on drugs or alcohol.

Such advocates say some homeless people rely on direct donations to handle problems that fall outside a charitable program’s remit.

Pasadena’s meters were designed by students at the Art Center College of Design.

[Los Angeles Times]

MONEY Tech

New Law Bans Companies From Punishing Online Critics

Yelp review sticker on window
Reviewers in California need not fear retribution if they disagree with this sign. Scott Eells—Bloomberg via Getty Images

A new California law will outlaw "non-disparagement" clauses that prevent customers from posting negative reviews online.

Writing a Yelp review just got a whole lot safer thanks to a new law, signed by California governor Jerry Brown, which prohibits companies from going after customers who write negative reviews of their services.

The law, which appears to be the first of its kind in the United States, prevents companies from including “non-disparagement” clauses in their contracts with customers. The L.A. Times explains these clauses are often hidden in long user agreements that many consumers unwittingly agree to when using a service.

From now on, California businesses that try to enforce such a provision will face a civil penalty of $2,500 for their first offense, $5,000 for each repeated infraction, and an additional $10,000 fine for “a willful, intentional, or reckless violation” of the statute.

This type of legislation might seem unnecessary since forcefully silencing one’s customers seems to be a clear violation of the First Amendment. However, that hasn’t stopped a number of American companies from trying to mute criticism using just the type of contracts this bill seeks to outlaw.

MONEY’s Brad Tuttle previously reported on a series of businesses that shake down their dissatisfied clients. One upstate New York inn threatened to bill customers $500 per negative review if they hosted an event at the location and any guests took their grievances online. Another couple was pursued by a collection agency after violating an (arguably non-existent) non-disparagement clause by slamming the online retailer KlearGear on RipoffReport.com. Thankfully, a federal judge ruled in the customers’ favor.

While American courts have generally protected citizen reviewers against retribution from businesses, with or without a specific legislative mandate, that hasn’t always been the case internationally. Earlier this year, a French court fined one food blogger a total of €2,500 (about $3,200 at today’s exchange rate) after the blogger’s negative review of a restaurant appeared near the top of Google’s search results.

At least in California, online critics need not fear a similar fate.

TIME Natural Disasters

The Most Beautiful Wildfire Photos You’ll Ever See

The fire near Yosemite National Park's most popular and iconic features is still only 10% contained

At first, you don’t see the fire and smoke raging near the most beautiful section of America’s most beautiful national park. Instead, the blaze that’s burned through 4,500 acres of Yosemite blends almost seamlessly into its natural features: the fire looking an extension of the sunset; the smoke appearing nothing more than a layer of fog above the valley floor.

Photographer Stuart Palley captured the wildfire when it first began spreading early this week. He says he always thought if there was a forest fire near Half Dome, the gray granite formation that’s one of Yosemite’s most popular and iconic features, it would make for a stunning photograph. So when he heard over the weekend about the growing fire, he drove seven hours to Yosemite from Los Angeles to shoot it overnight from the vantage of nearby Glacier Point.

While much of the west and southwest are experiencing some level of drought, roughly 80% of California is suffering from “extreme drought” conditions, and about 60% of the state is experiencing “exceptional” drought as little rainfall over the last two years have brought reservoir levels to 60% of their historical average.

According to reports, the fire appears to have recently slowed. Eight helicopters and roughly 400 firefighters have been deployed to fight the wildfire, which forced the evacuation of dozens of hikers in the area surrounding Yosemite Valley. But at last estimate, the fire was only 10% contained.

TIME Environment

California Blue Whales Are Making a Comeback

Blue whale
Getty Images

New study shows the marine mammal’s population in the Golden State is nearly back to pre-whaling levels

California’s endangered blue-whale population may not be so endangered after all, according to a study released Friday.

New research published in the journal Marine Mammal Science found the state’s current population of the aquatic mammal is nearly as high as before the practice of whaling became popular.

“It’s a conservation success story,” said Cole Monnahan, the study’s lead author and a doctoral student at the University of Washington, in a statement.

The International Whaling Commission banned the hunting of blue whales for commercial purposes in 1966, after which whaling has only been carried out illegally. Other causes of death also include pollution, shipping and getting accidentally caught up in other fishing.

Blue whales are the world’s largest known animals, growing to nearly 100 ft. in length and weighing over 200 lb.

The study’s revelations concern California’s blue-whale population rather than the total number in the North Pacific, which has been known to be about 2,200 for some time now, although researchers did find that previous estimates of the pre-whaling population might have been inaccurate.

Scientists always assumed the pre-whaling population was much larger, but the authors of Friday’s study estimate the current population is up to 97% of historical figures. They arrived at this conclusion by using historical data to estimate the number of whales caught between 1905 and 1971.

“Our findings aren’t meant to deprive California blue whales of protections that they need going forward,” Monnahan added. “California blue whales are recovering because we took actions to stop catches and start monitoring. If we hadn’t, the population might have been pushed to near extinction — an unfortunate fate suffered by other blue-whale populations.”

The one problem the massive marine mammals still face is being hit by ships, with at least 11 blue whales being struck off the West Coast last year. But Monnahan and his co-authors say this won’t affect the population’s stability.

TIME Environment

California Set to Enact First Statewide Ban of Plastic Bags

Jerry Brown, Neel Kashkari
California Governor Jerry Brown, left, listens as Republican challenger Neel Kashkari speaks during a gubernatorial debate in Sacramento, Calif., on Sept. 4, 2014 Rich Pedroncelli—AP

After state lawmakers passed a bill

California is poised to become the first U.S. state to ban single-use plastic bags after Governor Jerry Brown said Thursday that he expected to sign a bill nixing their use.

The legislation — which would oust single-use plastic bags from grocery stores and pharmacies in 2015, as well as from convenience and liquor stores a year later — is similar to laws on the books in more than 100 California municipalities, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, as well as in individual towns and cities across the U.S.

Like those municipal laws, the California bill also authorizes stores to levy a $.10 charge on paper or reusable bags. In addition, it extends some $2 million in loans to plastic-bag manufacturers in an effort to soften those factories’ shift toward producing reusable bags.

American environmentalists and lawmakers have seized on banning non-biodegradable bags as a way to cut down on waste and clean up the country’s waters. But bag manufacturers have lobbied fiercely against such measures, warning that as bags disappear, so do the jobs in their factories.

Brown has until the end of September to sign the bill, passed by state lawmakers in a 22-to-15 vote last week.

“I probably will sign it, yes,” said the Democrat on Thursday evening, during a televised debate with his Republican rival Neel Kashkari, who is challenging Brown in the Nov. 4 gubernatorial election, the Los Angeles Times reports. “This is a compromise. It’s taking into account the needs of the environment, and the needs of the economy and the needs of the grocers.”

Republicans in California’s legislature had opposed the bill, calling it unwarranted government involvement in local business, as well as a burden to job-creating manufacturers.

Kashkari — who trails the incumbent Brown by 50% to 34% in recent polling — said in the Thursday debate that there was “no chance” he would sign the bill.

TIME Environment

Solved: Mystery of Moving Stones in Death Valley

A sailing stone in Racetrack playa, Death Valley, CA.
A sailing stone in Racetrack playa, Death Valley, in California Mark Newman—Getty Images

A group of scientists say they've figured out how the "sailing stones" glide along the desert floor on their own

So-called sailing stones in California’s Death Valley National Park have perplexed tourists and scientists alike for their apparent ability to move on their own, leaving sometimes meter-long tracks in their wake.

But after years of speculation, researchers with patience, remote weather monitors, cameras, and stones that are fitted with GPS say they have discovered the force behind the phenomenon.

Wind (very strong winds) and ice (very thick ice) have long been considered as possible explanations for why the rocks, sometimes weighing hundreds of pounds, move. It’s actually a combination of a little of both, the team of researchers say in their study, published in the journal PLOS One this week.

Rainwater in what is known as the Racetrack Playa creates a shallow pond over the playa that, in cold winter temperatures, freezes over. When the ice begins to melt under the sun, it first breaks up into large panels thin enough that, with a nudge from even light winds, they shift — and push whatever rocks may lie in their path.

TIME natural disaster

How 10 Seconds Could Save Lives During Earthquakes

Napa Area Businesses Continue Recovery Effort From Earthquake
A crack runs down the center of an earthquake-damaged street in Napa, Calif., on Aug. 26, 2014 Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

California eyes warning system after latest quake

Ten seconds could save your life. That’s the message from researchers developing an early-warning system in California that could eventually alert the public an earthquake is about to hit.

The research program, run by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in partnership with several California universities, is still in beta form, but was put to the test last weekend when an earthquake struck the Napa area. At the University of California, Berkeley, to the south, the system detected and sent out a warning signal to the scientists about six seconds before the tremor reached the area.

The technology behind the system uses sensors across the state that detect early waves from an earthquake before the main event strikes. While it’s not possible to issue warnings to those located right next to an earthquake epicenter, those further away could be warned seconds or even a minute in advance.

Doug Given, USGS’s early-earthquake-warning coordinator, says 10 seconds might not seem like a lot, but it could be enough for people to take cover before an earthquake hits and for public services and private industry to take precautionary steps. This might include systems that force elevators to let passengers off at the closest available floor and those that let first responders know they should open garage doors ahead of tremors so they can quickly begin search-and-rescue missions afterward. Given says other applications include letting hospitals know an earthquake is coming, so they can prepare doctors and patients. “If you’re in an MRI machine, you might want them to pull you out before it starts shaking hard,” says Given. Likewise, he says surgeons performing delicate operations — on eyes, for example — could have notice that their work is about to be interrupted.

“Imagine being a dental chair,” says Margaret Vinci, manager of the Office of Earthquake Programs for the California Institute of Technology, one of the colleges partnering with USGS. “Would you not want that dentist to pull that drill out of your mouth?”

Given and Vinci also say a statewide early-earthquake-warning system could tell rapid transit systems to slow trains to help prevent derailments. A similar alert program exists in earthquake-prone Japan, where earthquake warning alerts automatically slow bullet trains.

Japan and Mexico are two countries that already have the kind of earthquake-warning system California lacks. Devastating quakes in those countries prompted major public investments in such systems. As recently as April, residents in Mexico City had a full minute of warning before a 7.2-magnitude quake 170 miles away rocked the capital.

California’s program, though, is hobbled by lack of adequate funding, according to Given, who says the program needs an investment of $80 million over five years and about $12 million a year to maintain operations. California passed a law recently calling for a statewide early-earthquake-warning system to be set up, but did not provide funding. Given says the program currently includes about 400 sensors set up around the state, but needs at least double that figure for the warning system to be fully functional. “We hope we will be the first country that builds its system before the big earthquake rather than after,” Givens says.

Investments in the system itself wouldn’t include spending by local governments and private businesses that would need to establish response plans, and possibly automated systems, to take advantage of the USGS warnings. As for the public, earthquake warnings could be sent out via text message and through local television and radio stations, but that too requires advance planning and spending. Vinci says if the early-warning system was fully funded, it could be ready for public consumption in two years.

In the meantime, researchers involved in the project are asking public and private organization to test whether the alert system works and offer suggestions about how to improve it. Disneyland, the city of Long Beach and the Bay Area Rapid Transit system are among those serving as testers. Researchers are also studying which kinds of warning sounds and signals work best with the public. When activated, the existing system, which is called ShakeAlert and which runs on computers for those involved in the program or serving as beta testers, kicks in to tell users an earthquake is coming, how soon it will happen and how severe the shake will be. The warning includes a loud quick buzz with a speaker saying, ”Earthquake! Earthquake!”

“Right now the ShakeAlert we have now is kinda scary,” Vinci says.

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