After Albuquerque’s harsh approach to homelessness resulted in the death of a schizophrenic man in 2015, the city has done a 360.
NY Times reporter Fernanda Santos describes the current approach to homelessness: “Will Cole steered an old Dodge van along a highway access road one recent Tuesday, searching for panhandlers willing to work. … By the third stop, [nine] men and one woman had hopped inside.
“They were homeless. But suddenly, as part of a novel attempt to deal with rising poverty and destitution here, they were city workers for the day.
“Donning gloves and fluorescent vests, they raked a piece of messy ground by some railroad tracks on the edge of downtown … The toil paid off decently: $9 an hour and a lunch of sandwiches, chips and granola bars, enjoyed in a park. For the city, it represented a policy shift toward compassion and utility.
“ ‘It’s about the dignity of work, which is kind of a hard thing to put a metric on, or a matrix,’ Mayor Richard J. Berry said. ‘If we can get your confidence up a little, get a few dollars in your pocket, get you stabilized to the point where you want to reach out for services, whether the mental health services or substance abuse services — that’s the upward spiral that I’m looking for.’ …
“To collect their pay, they must work hard and work an entire shift, from start to finish — five to six hours, on average. They are paid in cash at the hospitality center’s employment office, two blocks from the shelter that feeds 400 people on a given day.
“The sole woman among the day laborers that recent Tuesday was Ramona Beletso, a Navajo Indian in her 40s who had twice fled abuse and destitution on the reservation. …
“ ‘I don’t even know how I ended up homeless,’ said Ms. Beletso, her eyes cast toward a pair of striped pink socks nearby, abandoned in a drying pool of mud. ‘Work helps me forget.’ …
“The mayor said he got the idea for the program from a panhandler he spotted on his way to work, holding a sign that read, ‘Want a job. Anything helps.’ It dawned on him that ‘the indignity of having to beg for money cuts through the soul.’ “
I saw almost the same sign in Providence last week. I usually duck my head and hurry on, embarrassed and not knowing what is right, but the young man who wanted work was so pleasant, perhaps I can think of a place he could ask about a job.
More on Albuquerque at the NY Times, here.
11/23/16 Update: Yesterday I saw the concept being applied by Amos House in Providence. The city has also said it intends to try it.
Photo: Mark Holm for The New York Times