Republican Mayor Richard Berry was driving around Albuquerque last year when he saw a man on a street corner holding a sign that read: "Want a Job. Anything Helps."
Throughout his administration, as part of a push to connect the homeless population to services, Berry had taken to driving through the city to talk to panhandlers about their lives. His city's poorest residents told him they didn't want to be on the streets begging for money, but they didn't know where else to go.
Seeing that sign gave Berry an idea. Instead of asking them, many of whom feel dispirited, to go out looking for work, the city could bring the work to them.
Next month will be the first anniversary of Albuquerque's There's a Better Way program, which hires panhandlers for day jobs beautifying the city. In partnership with a local nonprofit that serves the homeless population, a van is dispatched around the city to pick up panhandlers who are interested in working. The job pays $9 an hour, which is above minimum wage, and provides a lunch. At the end of the shift, the participants are offered overnight shelter as needed.
In less than a year since its start, the program has given out 932 jobs clearing 69,601 pounds of litter and weeds from 196 city blocks. And more than 100 people have been connected to permanent employment.
"You can just see the spiral they've been on to end up on the corner. Sometimes it takes a little catalyst in their lives to stop the downward spiral, to let them catch their breath, and it's remarkable," Berry said in an interview. "They've had the dignity of work for a day; someone believed in them today."
Berry's effort is a shift from the movement across the country to criminalize panhandling. A recent National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty report found a noticeable increase, with 24 percent of cities banning it altogether and 76 percent banning it in particular areas.
There is a persisting stigma that people begging for money are either drug addicts or too lazy to work and are looking for an easy handout.
But that's not necessarily the reality. Panhandling is not especially lucrative, but for some people it can seem as if it's the only option. When they've been approached in Albuquerque with the offer of work, most have been eager for the opportunity to earn money, Berry said. They just needed a lift. One man told him no one had said a kind word to him in 25 years.
Kellie Tillerson, director of Employment Services at St. Martin's Hospitality Center, the organization that facilitates the city's program, said the way to dispel people of the negative associations with panhandlers is for them to do what the mayor did and engage on a human level.
"Genuinely ask why they are in the predicament they are," Tillerson said. "Many have medical conditions, they don't have the proper identification - you can't get a job without one. They don't have a Social Security card. Those little things we take for granted prohibit people from getting a job. Don't assume they are lazy."
The There's a Better Way van employs about 10 workers a day but could easily take more. When the van fills, people have begged to get a spot next time, she said. That's why the city has increased funding for the program to expand it from two to four days a week. And it inspired St. Martin's to start its own day labor program, connecting the jobless to employers in the area who could offer side jobs.
Tillerson said a lot of the people who get picked up by the van were not aware of all the services available to them. One man who recently got out of prison returned to St. Martin's the day after taking one of the city's jobs. She said it enrolled him in the day-labor program, told him about behavioral health services and is helping him get an ID.
"He now has a support system he didn't know he needed and definitely didn't know existed," she said. "It's life-changing for them. He was one that said, 'I would much rather earn my money than have someone hand it to me.' "
Dozens of cities around the country have reached out to Berry wanting to copy the program. It's a testament, he said, to the work mayors do regardless of political party. He was the first Republican mayor elected in Albuquerque in 30 years, and he's proactively tackling homelessness.
The program hasn't weeded out all panhandling in the city, and supporters say that's not really the point. It's connecting people who would otherwise not seek help to needed services. And it's showing them when they are at their lowest that they have real value, and that others are willing to show them kindness to help them have a better life.
"It's helping hundreds of people," Berry said, "and our city is more beautiful than ever."
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