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CityFixer

How Albuquerque Is Taking 'Will Work for Food' Literally

A mayor’s plan to connect panhandlers with jobs.

David Zalubowski/AP

Albuquerque’s approach to ending homelessness is straightforward: Ask, and you shall receive.

Ask for work, that is. Nearly one year ago, the New Mexico city’s government collaborated with St. Martin’s Hospitality Center, a local nonprofit homeless-services organization, to launch the There’s a Better Way van program with a radically simple mission: to provide real jobs to those sitting on the street, asking for work.

As Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry was heading home from the office one night last year, he pulled to a stop at one of the interstate off-ramps and noticed a man standing to the side, holding a sign that read: “Will Work for Food.” Berry—the first Republican mayor elected in 30 years—has made homelessness a priority in the years since he took office in 2009. Seeing the man’s sign gave him the idea that would grow into There’s a Better Way, says Kellie Tillerson, who manages the program though St. Martin’s.

Berry delegated $50,000 in Albuquerque city funds to St. Martin’s to realize his vision: a van that heads out at 7 a.m. to drive around the city, stopping to ask panhandlers if they want to work. Most say yes. Those that do, Tillerson says, are driven to a predesignated site to work on an urban beautification project—usually doing trash pickup or weed clearing. The city donated the van, and also covers the cost of the driver’s salary and the workers’ wages—they’re paid at $9 per hour for an average of five hours’ work (Albuquerque’s minimum wage is $8.75/hour). Nobody who boards the van is asked for identification; there are no forms to be filled out. People are taken at their word, and throughout the day, they’re provided lunch, snacks, and water. Staff from St. Martin’s circulate during breaks, informing people of the housing, health, and employment resources available through their organization and other local agencies serving the homeless. “We really want the van to be the first point of contact for all of these other services,” Tillerson says.

Since it launched, There’s A Better Way has provided 932 day-long shifts to 302 homeless individuals. Tillerson says that, as a result of the program, 116 people have returned to St. Martin’s to seek work through the organization’s job-development office. St. Martin’s has also founded a day-labor program to keep people working after their shifts on the van, and to help them gain more consistent employment. Around 112 others have sought health and substance-abuse services, and nine have been placed in permanent supportive housing.

At the outset, Berry was optimistic about the efficacy of the program, but cautious: The initial $50,000 funded only six months of programming, with the van circulating through the city just twice a week. But as of July 1, the mayor doubled the program’s funding, and the van now makes four trips per week. In the first few months, the van followed a first come, first served model, picking up anyone who wanted to work. Now, organizers ensure that at least five of the six people they pick up each day are first-time workers. Because connecting people with more permanent employment is the aim, Tillerson says they’re trying “reach as great a pool of people as possible.”

That’s a more manageable prospect in a smaller city like Albuquerque. Among the total population of around 557,000 people, more than 1,400 are homeless. According to a report from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NCLHP), Albuquerque has previously seen success in its initiatives to address homelessness: A 2013 study on the effects of a citywide housing-first program led to a 64 percent reduction in homelessness-related jail costs. Tillerson says that, while there’s no way to ascertain if the program has reduced panhandling, as no precise count was done before the launch, the number of calls to to the city’s information line to report panhandlers has dropped.

But the fact that Albuquerque’s program specifically reaches out to panhandlers is significant in itself. The Washington Post notes that the initiative runs directly counter to a nationwide push to criminalize panhandling: Citing a recent NLCHP report, the Post said that 24 percent of cities nationwide outlaw panhandling altogether, and 76 percent have area-specific bans in place.

Berry and Tillerson see things differently. A stigma surrounds panhandling that assumes that the homeless are addicted to drugs or lazy, but that’s not the case, Tillerson says. “If you stop and talk to any panhandler, like the mayor did, they’ll say that they just want to be able to work,” she says. But a pileup of so many logistical barriers, from a criminal record to a lack of proper identification, can make employment seem like an impossibility.

A day in the van is, for many, the first step toward realizing it’s not, Tillerson says. One young couple who met on the streets worked on the van to earn the money they needed to return to Texas and get married, Tillerson says. They’ve kept in touch with her over text: The husband is now working full-time as a Subway restaurant manager, and his wife, who never finished high school, is enrolled in a GED program. “They just needed that pick-me-up,” Tillerson says. “And they were able to use the money to get where they needed.”

Even in its fledgling year, There’s a Better Way has attracted the attention of other city governments hoping to replicate the model. Tillerson says that Phoenix is nearly ready to do so; a councilman from the city will be coming to Albuquerque this week to get a sense of the on-the-ground logistics before launching a similar program in his district. Las Vegas, Tillerson says, will be close behind.

While these larger cities will likely need to allocate greater resources—a larger budget and more than one truck—the guiding principle will be the same. “So often, people want to work, and face so many barriers,” Tillerson says. The program is “a way of reaching out and letting people know that they have a support system.”

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