Albuquerque Gives Panhandlers Day Jobs, Not Tickets

Categories: Life Stories

Instead of giving citations to homeless people for panhandling, Albuquerque is giving them money for their work, and this new initiative is helping.

For those that continue showing up, the opportunity of fining a job could become a reality.

So far 309 participants-5 housed, 17 employed & 37 connected to mental health services.

Twice a week, a city van rolls through downtown Albuquerque, N.M., stopping at popular panhandling locations. The driver, Will Cole, asks panhandlers if they want a day job. Work pays $9 an hour, higher than the state's $7.50 minimum wage. The city's public works department can employ up to 10 people a day for beautification projects, such as pulling weeds and picking up litter. The van has been in circulation since September, and while "we get a couple no's here and there," said Cole, he's usually finds 10 people willing to trade panhandling for a day job.

An increasing number of cities have recently tried to ban begging in public. (AP/Robert F. Bukaty)

The van initiative is part of a larger effort in Albuquerque to reduce homelessness and panhandling. In May, the city started posting blue and white signs at intersections that list a 311 phone number and a website. Panhandlers can call the number to connect with services. At the same time, motorists can visit the website, managed by the United Way of Central New Mexico, to donate to a local shelter, food bank or an employment fund to pay panhandlers' wages.

Branded "There's a Better Way," the point of the campaign is to encourage more effective charitable giving to help the homeless. Not only does the van provide some income to panhandlers, but it drops them off at the end of the day at St. Martin's Hospitality Center, a nonprofit that connects people with housing, employment and mental health services. To support the program, the city has directed $50,000 to St. Martin's, which pays Cole's salary and his driving-related expenses, plus additional money to cover the wages of the panhandlers.

Albuquerque, with a population of about 550,000, reported about 1,200 homeless people last year through its annual point-in-time count. The number of people who experience homelessness repeatedly or continuously over a year was lower, about 181. But both figures probably underestimate the true number of people either without a permanent home or in danger of becoming homeless, according to Father Rusty Smith, the executive director of St. Martin's. His nonprofit alone serves closer to 5,000 people in a given year. 

Instead of giving citations to homeless people for panhandling, Albuquerque is giving them money for their work, and this new initiative is helping. (via Mayor Richard J. Berry)

Posted by Upworthy on Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Reducing homelessness has been a priority for Mayor Richard Berry, who argues that housing people saves money from otherwise being spent on jails and emergency rooms. About four years ago, the city and its nonprofit partners launched an initiative that has helped place about 440 individuals and their family members in permanent homes.

In general, cities have invited legal battles in recent years by trying to regulate panhandling and keep homelessness out of the public view. In August, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a legal briefcriticizing an anti-camping ordinance in Boise, Idaho, calling it a "misguided policy" because it penalizes people for being poor. In a survey of 187 cities last year, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found that an increasing number of cities had sought to ban begging in public. In fact, Albuquerque itself used to have a strict anti-panhandling ordinance, but a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico in 2004 forced the city council to relax its restrictions.

Cities typically clamp down on panhandling in shopping districts where business owners complain that panhandlers scare off customers. In Albuquerque, Berry said a bigger concern was pedestrian-related traffic fatalities. Panhandlers there tend to target busy intersections, and as a result could be at greater risk of dying. Last year, the city recorded 27 pedestrian deaths, the highest in the last five years.

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