Pandhandling and Homelessness: One Mayor Who Looked the Problem in the Face and Helped

TPOH has long repeated the sentiment that the least among us must be treated like assets to be developed, not liabilities to be managed, so it’s heartening to see that the mayor of Albuquerque, N.M., is embodying the effort to show people who are “at their lowest that they have real value.”

The Washington Post reports that Mayor Richard Berry decided to test the “Will Work for …” signs held by homeless panhandlers by actually starting a program to give work for hourly pay, lunch, and a shelter bed. Turns out many of the folks holding up the signs are willing to jump on the offer of a job. The program is so successful, it’s now slated for growth.

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. …

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. …

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.

As the Post reports, panhandling is objectionable to residents in many cities. Very few people enjoy walking down the sidewalk and having a group of unkempt men holding out their hands or smelling the foul odor of urine at the crosswalk.

But if those scenarios are uncomfortable for most, imagine what it feels like for the person on the other side of that equation.

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty reports that municipal laws prohibiting panhandling extend beyond begging for money. “Homeless people are being criminally punished for being in public even when they have no other alternatives.”

What’s an alternative? Well, for people without family or friends as resources, in cities where the number of homeless exceed the number of emergency shelter beds or affordable housing units, hospitals and jails serve as costly temporary “housing” options for homeless “criminals.”

There are more innovative ways to go about it, however.

In its 2013 Comprehensive Report on Homelessness, the Utah Housing and Community Development Division reported that the annual cost of emergency room visits and jail stays for an average homeless person was $16,670, while providing an apartment and a social worker cost only $11,000.

A 2013 analysis by the University of New Mexico Institute for Social Research of the Heading Home Initiative in Albuquerque, New Mexico showed that, by providing housing, the city reduced spending on homelessness-related jail costs by 64%.

Those are just some of the findings in the law center’s report. It also points out that making criminals of homeless people only hinders their chance for getting jobs or finding housing, and it creates financial penalties they cannot pay.

So if communities really want to help end homelessness, one way to start would be to find innovative solutions, like the 100,000 Homes Campaign, which helped 235 communities “identify all of their homeless neighbors by name; track and measure local housing placement progress; and adopt methods of housing homeless people more quickly, using process improvements.”

The result? 101,628 people and families, including 31,171 homeless veterans, found housing in under four years.

The solutions are there if we look the problem in the face. That’s what Albuquerque’s mayor proved willing to do.

Read more about Mayor Berry’s work program for panhandlers.

Here’s a video by the city about the program.