“There’s a better way.”
Such has been the mantra of the city of Albuquerque as officials have taken on the task of providing services — specifically jobs and resources — to dozens of panhandlers. With a $50,000 grant to St. Martin’s Hospitality Center, a mental health and homeless service center, the city plans to provide shelter, resources, food and even jobs to those panhandling within the city limits.
In Albuquerque, panhandling isn’t illegal — an ordinance banning panhandling in the city in 2003 was never enforced after the American Civil Liberties Union fought it on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment — but panhandling is considered a public safety issue within the New Mexico city.
As part of the city’s pilot outreach program, a 16-passenger van is dispatched twice a week to travel around the community and pick up panhandlers who want to work and earn cash for the day. The workers are paid $9 per hour — more than the city’s minimum wage — and are employed to pick up trash, pull weeds or complete other landscaping projects. Rhiannon Schroeder, media relations manager for Mayor Richard Berry’s office, told TheBlaze that the jobs are generally completed on public lands, including medians and intersections.
“These jobs were already being done by the City of Albuquerque Solid Waste Department to help keep the city clean,” Schroeder told TheBlaze. “Through this program, we are able to make those city employees available to work on other parts of the city. So basically, its augmenting the workforce.”
There are no limitations to how many times an individual can participate in the jobs, Schroeder said, but added that St. Martin’s employees work to transition people into “more stable and permanent jobs through their employment services.” However, Schroeder said none of the panhandlers has yet been interested in full-time employment.
Additionally, panhandlers won’t be taxed on their wages until they make more than $600, KOAT-TV reported.
According to a city paper on the plan, the van program was implemented Aug. 31, but Vicky Palmer, who oversees the “Better Way” van program as the associate director for St. Martin’s, told TheBlaze in an email that the twice-weekly program really began to run on Sept. 3. Palmer said that the van goes out Tuesdays and Thursdays and lunch is provided for the workers.
“The support services we provide are housing, mental health, substance use disorders and full time employment resources,” Palmer said. “The van driver leaves early and hits the corners where many panhandlers are in our city. He changes his route to ensure that we connect with anyone willing to participate.”
Palmer told TheBlaze that the program serviced eight or nine people per day in its first week of operation but since then has helped anywhere from 10 to 12 people per day.
“We hope it becomes so successful we can make it a five-day-a-week thing,” she said.
Schroeder also touted the program’s success and told TheBlaze that the “Better Way” initiative has collected $2,700 in donations and has received 3,673 phone calls — approximately 94 percent of those calls have connected people with some type of service.
As of Oct. 9, the city has spent $4360.05 on the project, which will run indefinitely. Schroeder said that after a few months city officials will reconvene to discuss the progress of the initiative.
So far, the program has served as a great help to Anna Wren, who hopped on the van to pull weeds when it picked her up on a street corner.
“It gives me something to put on my resume, you know? Puts money in my pocket so I don’t have to beg from people and embarrass myself,” Wren told KOAT. “I’m uneducated, I’m a convicted felon.”
However, other panhandlers have told KOAT that they would make more money if they just begged on street corners like normal. Laura Gomez told the news outlet that her brother previously made $1,400 on the street in just one day. She also said that several panhandlers are afraid to take the job because of how they might be treated if people know that they are homeless.
“They’re just afraid that they are going to get mistreated bad,” Gomez said. “They are not going to be treated as a human.”
Besides the job implementation, Berry, a Republican, has also commissioned dozens of signs around the city that encourage people who need food or shelter to call 311 as another facet of the “Better Way” project. However, KOAT critiqued the 311 service in an August news report as it is not a 24/7 service line. In fact, KOAT reported that the line was available for all services and questions only about 90 hours per week.
The safety and legality issues of panhandling have been contentious across the U.S. — not just in Albuquerque. The ACLU has complained about Colorado Springs’ panhandling ordinances that have prompted the city to look into making a change. The Colorado Springs Police Department also has a Homeless Outreach Team that, among other things, also works to determine if panhandlers truly are seeking food, shelter or employment or if they’re looking for money to buy drugs or alcohol.
In May, the city of Tampa was sued by Homeless Helping Homeless, a nonprofit organization, which contended that the city’s panhandling ordinances were a violation of the First Amendment.