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Once a National Model for Helping Panhandlers, Albuquerque's New Law Could Land Them in Jail

Its new ordinance exemplifies a shift in how cities across the country are trying to target panhandlers.

A panhandler accepts money from a passing motorist.
A panhandler accepts money from a passing motorist.
(AP/Jon Hayt)
Two years ago, Albuquerque, N.M., received national attention for an innovative program that addresses citizens' concerns about panhandlers. Rather than arrest or ticket them, the city offers people begging for money temporary work at $9 an hour, feeds them lunch and connects them with social services at the end of the day.

"We wanted to try and create an initiative that would be a little out of the box," then-Mayor Richard Berry told Governing in 2015. "Instead of taking the punitive approach and the regulatory approach, why not try something that uplifts everybody?"

Most of the panhandlers are given day jobs with the city's public works department, performing low-skilled tasks like picking up litter. According to data provided by the city, the initiative has so far provided 4,240 day jobs, housed 21 homeless residents and connected 414 people with additional work.

For cities that had historically punished panhandlers, Albuquerque offered an alternative. More than a dozen cities, from Seattle to Chicago, were inspired to launch similar programs of their own. 

But under a new ordinance enacted late last month by the city council, critics say Albuquerque is returning to the failed practice of criminalizing homelessness.

Specifically, the law bans “pedestrian interactions with vehicles” at certain locations, including highway entrances and street medians. The word “panhandling” does not appear in the ordinance, and the restrictions apply to anyone who asks for money.

The sponsor, City Councilor Trudy Jones, says she introduced the measure to deal with the high rate of pedestrian traffic deaths in the city. But in practice, “it will have an impact on panhandling,” she says. “That is the major pedestrian-driver interaction.”

Many cities have laws that target panhandling. According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 61 percent of 186 cities surveyed last year ban begging in “particular public places,” such as commercial or tourist districts. The same report found that regulations like these have become more common. However, a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling strengthened homeless advocates' argument that panhandling is a form of protected free speech, putting those laws on potentially shaky legal ground.

The case, Reed v. Town of Gilbert, clarified that government restrictions on speech must be as narrow as possible and must be based on a compelling interest. As a result, broad panhandling bans have been struck down by courts or repealed by local governments and replaced, in some cases, with laws like Albuquerque's that restrict interactions between vehicles and pedestrians.

The council justifies the new restrictions based on a 2015 University of New Mexico study that mentioned pedestrian error as a reason for accidents. One kind of pedestrian error is entering a roadway outside the crosswalk to ask for donations.

“It tries to portray itself as being a general prohibition on interactions between pedestrians and motorists on medians and street corners,” says Peter Simonson, the executive director of the ACLU of New Mexico, which is planning to mount a legal challenge to the law. “I don’t think anybody in their right mind would question that this ordinance is explicitly targeting panhandlers.”

While the law's impact on panhandlers has sparked controversy, no one is disputing that pedestrian traffic deaths are a serious problem in Albuquerque. Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that New Mexico has one of the highest rates of pedestrian fatalities in the country, and Albuquerque has the second highest rate among large cities.

Before the city passed its new law, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty had been preparing a case study on Albuquerque to highlight how a local government could address panhandling by tackling unemployment and other root causes.

“I don’t even know if we are going to put out this case study anymore because the city has gone back to this practice,” says Tars. “At a minimum, we’re going to have to put a giant asterisk on it.”

Former Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry, who left office earlier this month after deciding not to seek re-election, did not sign the legislation -- though he didn't need to since the city council's vote was unanimous. He thinks that while the new ordinance might make intersections safer, it won't reduce panhandling. For that, he says, the city needs to offer people a constructive alternative and continue the jobs program. 

"We're actually getting people off the corner," he says. "The program's working." 

*This story has been updated.

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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