"Instead of taking the punitive approach and the regulatory approach, why not try something that uplifts everybody?"
was Mayor Richard Berry’s reasoning behind the implementation of “There’s a Better Way” Program. This program is a partnership between the local city government and St. Martins Hospitality Center-which is one of the largest homeless service providers in the state of New Mexico, to address panhandlers within city limits, and to move from treating panhandling as a crime, instead, as an opportunity for work and access to resources.
Originally, $50,000 was set aside for initial start-up of this program for the first 6 months, this program was implemented in 2015. The $50,000 grant from the city provides money for the van driver (salary & gas), who drives around Albuquerque in a twelve passenger van to pick individuals up who are actively panhandling. The grant also includes for money for sack lunches (up to 6 per operational day) and provides money for the days salaries. The program works as follows: the driver asks if the individual is willing to work that day, and brings him or her along, if the answer is yes. If the answer is no, however, the driver leaves a resource card with that individual and encourages them to stop by St. Martins in order to connect them to other services-from employment to public benefits.
This program runs two times a week, hiring about six people each day the program runs. Individuals in the program participate in public work projects and other city beatification related jobs. Individuals work for $9 an hour for approximately five hours a day (it is important to note that the minimum wage is New Mexico is $8.75). Workers are provided with a bagged lunch, snacks, water and other resources during their lunch break. Their lunch break also serves as a time for individuals to find out what other services St. Martins can offer them and what they qualify for. At the end of the work day, individuals are dropped off at the St. Martins Hospitality Center where they can gain access to more services, shelter and food. The program has been so successful, that as of July 1st, the program now operates four days a week and has doubled its operating budget.
According to Kellie Tillerson, Director of Housing and Employment Services at St. Martins, this has resulted in 932 job placements, helping 302 total individuals (numbers after deduplication). Ms. Tillerson did mention that they try to focus the program on those who have not been helped before (by this program specifically) in order to increase the impact of the program and encourage economic sustainability. This program has increased awareness in the community, and has helped to dispel some of the myths surrounding panhandlers. The emphasis on permanent job placement has been another development within this program, and an increasing number of calls are coming into the agency regarding local businesses and community stakeholders wanting to hire these individuals. This increased awareness and emphasis on economic sustainability beyond a day’s work is what makes the Better Way Day Labor Program possible to implement and offer continued opportunities to these individuals.
We can connect the development of this program to Bell vs. The City of Boise and the legal brief the DOJ filed, in that this offers more than just a criminal sentence to issues that are so often criminalized and dealt with punitive measures, this also moves us a step closer to ending the criminalization of homelessness in communities across the nation, by offering those who are willing to work and do not have the means to secure typical employment, paying jobs. It’s not that these individuals don’t want to work, it’s that often the jobs that exist for these individuals will not help them make ends meet in a significant way: or that they do not have transportation to get to that interview, or access to a computer to update and send in their resume. This program however, is working to change that by offering those resources, and giving these folks again an entry into the labor market… programs like this are moving us closer to where we should be as communities.
In Cleveland, it is estimated that we have around 400 panhandlers in our city. It is imperative to hire an outreach worker in order to implement an employment and resource connection program for panhandlers in the community. Although, the program NEOCH seeks to implement requires just one outreach worker; who would focus on connecting panhandlers to necessary resources, as well as measuring and identifying the needs of this unique community. At the current moment, we do not have a very in-depth understanding of panhandlers in Cleveland, and the challenges that they face. St. Martins faced similar issues with measurement process within their own program, because they did not have an accurate count of panhandlers within the program area before the implementation of the “There’s A Better Way Program” (Tillerson).
We hope to learn from both the successes of this program that the city of Albuquerque has implemented, as well as the failures-in order to address these needs in a Cleveland specific way. We estimate the costs at hiring a part-time outreach worker and implementing a program like this at approximately $40,000 a year. NEOCH is currently working to secure funding for such a position, and hopes that soon Cleveland will be able to work towards sustainable employment solutions for panhandlers in our own community.
Note: the exact numbers referenced above for the Better Way Program came from an email interview with Kellie Tillerson, Director of Housing and Employment Services at St. Martins.
Read more about panhandling and proposed solutions in Cleveland here.
To read more about the “There’s a Better Way Program” here are some additional resources:
by Katy Carpenter
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