Twice a week, a city van rolls through downtown Albuquerque, N.M., stopping at popular panhandling locations. The driver, Will Cole, asks panhandlers if they want a day job. Work pays $9 an hour, higher than the state's $7.50 minimum wage. The city's public works department can employ up to 10 people a day for beautification projects, such as pulling weeds and picking up litter. The van has been in circulation since September, and while "we get a couple no's here and there," said Cole, he's usually finds 10 people willing to trade panhandling for a day job.
The van initiative is part of a larger effort in Albuquerque to reduce homelessness and panhandling. In May, the city started posting blue and white signs at intersections that list a 311 phone number and a website. Panhandlers can call the number to connect with services. At the same time, motorists can visit the website, managed by the United Way of Central New Mexico, to donate to a local shelter, food bank or an employment fund to pay panhandlers' wages.
Branded "There's a Better Way," the point of the campaign is to encourage more effective charitable giving to help the homeless. Not only does the van provide some income to panhandlers, but it drops them off at the end of the day at St. Martin's Hospitality Center, a nonprofit that connects people with housing, employment and mental health services. To support the program, the city has directed $50,000 to St. Martin's, which pays Cole's salary and his driving-related expenses, plus additional money to cover the wages of the panhandlers.
Albuquerque, with a population of about 550,000, reported about 1,200 homeless people last year through its annual point-in-time count. The number of people who experience homelessness repeatedly or continuously over a year was lower, about 181. But both figures probably underestimate the true number of people either without a permanent home or in danger of becoming homeless, according to Father Rusty Smith, the executive director of St. Martin's. His nonprofit alone serves closer to 5,000 people in a given year.
Reducing homelessness has been a priority for Mayor Richard Berry, who argues that housing people saves money from otherwise being spent on jails and emergency rooms. About four years ago, the city and its nonprofit partners launched an initiative that has helped place about 440 individuals and their family members in permanent homes.
In general, cities have invited legal battles in recent years by trying to regulate panhandling and keep homelessness out of the public view. In August, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a legal brief criticizing an anti-camping ordinance in Boise, Idaho, calling it a "misguided policy" because it penalizes people for being poor. In a survey of 187 cities last year, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found that an increasing number of cities had sought to ban begging in public. In fact, Albuquerque itself used to have a strict anti-panhandling ordinance, but a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico in 2004 forced the city council to relax its restrictions.
Cities typically clamp down on panhandling in shopping districts where business owners complain that panhandlers scare off customers. In Albuquerque, Berry said a bigger concern was pedestrian-related traffic fatalities. Panhandlers there tend to target busy intersections, and as a result could be at greater risk of dying. Last year, the city recorded 27 pedestrian deaths, the highest in the last five years.
Most of the online donors are giving more than what they would give to panhandlers at an intersection. (AP/Jon Hayt)
Rusty said the city's new campaign correctly recognizes that "you cannot legislate people off the corner." Citations and jail time are disruptive events that only increase the likelihood that people will have to rely on panhandling for income, he said.
So how could the city discourage panhandling without resorting to penalties that only make the problem worse?
"We wanted to try and create an initiative that would be a little out of the box," Berry said. "Instead of taking the punitive approach and the regulatory approach, why not try something that uplifts everybody?"
Albuquerque is not the only city to advise its residents against giving money to panhandlers. Some jurisdictions, such as Denver, have retrofitted parking meters to collect donations for homeless services. What's different about the Albuquerque campaign is the offer of temporary jobs, said Eric Tars, a senior attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. "It is demeaning to have to beg for money," Tars said. The day jobs provide income and build up a person's self esteem, he added.
Since May, the campaign has raised about $2,700 in charitable donations, according to Randy Woodcock, the executive director of the United Way of Central New Mexico. Woodcock acknowledges that it's "not a tremendous amount of money," but he thinks that the donation website increases overall giving to homeless services. Most of the online donors are giving $20 a time -- more than what they would give at an intersection -- and they are setting up credit card accounts with continuous donations every month.
For Cole, the proof of impact is in the small details. One man Cole hired came back the next week to show off a new phone he was able to purchase with his earnings. A few have used to money to take a bus back home to cities in other parts of the state. He was careful not to oversell the campaign as a way to end homelessness.
"It might slowly jump-start them to get back into regular employment," Cole said. "I'm hoping that is what it does."