To help homeless panhandlers, let them be city workers for the day

While many other cities are moving to ban panhandling by homeless people or push them further out to the outskirts, the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, is trying a different tactic. It’s offering temporary day jobs to panhandlers willing to be city workers for the day, plus a meal and overnight shelter as needed. Those who accept the offer are picked up in a van and taken around the city to clear litter and weeds—beautifying maintenance work that needs to be done anyway. In addition to providing a chance to earn cash at $9 per hour, the initiative also connects participants to services from a nonprofit partnering with the city.

Not only is the approach unusual compared to other places’ harsh reactions against homeless panhandlers, so is the premise motivating it:

When panhandlers have 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.

As The New York Times reported, Mayor Richard Berry explicitly sought to avoid the punitive measures taken by other municipalities because in his view, “fines and jail time don’t solve anything.” Instead, The Washington Post explained, he proposed bringing the work directly to them:

hire-homelessSeeing 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.

Dubbed “There’s a Better Way,” the campaign isn’t meant to be a comprehensive solution to the complex problem of homelessness and its manifestations like panhandling. But it’s a promising step, as individual participants themselves have affirmed. One local news station gave the following inspiring story:

“This program today is a God-send,” Thomas Trusley, a homeless man in Albuquerque, told News 13.

Trusley said the money he’ll receive from working for the day will help him look presentable, since his first priority is finding permanent work.

“With today’s monies I’ll be able to get the shaving gear and the cologne,” Trusley chuckled.

It’s such a promising experiment that numerous other cities and states are studying it, including Portland, Oregon; Seattle, Washington; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. For more information, see “This Republican mayor has an incredibly simple idea to help the homeless. And it seems to be working.” The Washington Post (2016); “Homeless man on Albuquerque panhandler project: ‘It’s a God-send’,” KRQE News (2016); “Albuquerque, Revising Approach Toward the Homeless, Offers Them Jobs,” The New York Times (2015); “Albuquerque mayor: Here’s a crazy idea, let’s give homeless people jobs,” PBS NewsHour (2015); and “Albuquerque Gives Panhandlers Day Jobs, Not Tickets,” (2015).