Will Cole steered an old Dodge van along a highway access road one recent Tuesday, searching for panhandlers willing to work.
Four men waved him away dismissively at his first attempt, turning their backs on the van as it rolled past. By the third stop, though, 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 in Albuquerque, 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, cleaning up residues of lives that may well have been their own: a soiled burgundy blanket, two Bibles soaked by melting snow, a trail of crushed cans of Hurricane High Gravity Malt Liquor.
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For participants, 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.”
After a schizophrenic homeless man, James Boyd, was fatally shot by the police last year — prompting protests and calls for reform of the Albuquerque Police Department, a force of 1,000 whose rate of deadly shootings was eight times that of New York’s — this city has sought to recalibrate its approach toward homelessness.
While other cities, including New York, Baltimore, Los Angeles and Washington, have tried to clear out homeless camps or move the homeless further into the shadows, this city has decided to move away from the punitive approach that had defined strategies in the past.
It is, in part, the result of an agreement with the Justice Department, which released a blistering review of the use of force by police officers over the years, citing a pattern of violence and mistreatment that disproportionately affected mentally ill people, including many who were living on the streets.
For example, training in crisis intervention has become a requirement for police cadets, who must try to find their way out of staged real-life scenarios — encounters with distressed drug addicts, rape victims or suicidal war veterans — without pulling out their guns.
Funded in part through a donation by Boyd’s family, who received $5 million from the city in July, outreach workers — officially known as Team James Boyd — have visited homeless encampments regularly, reaching out to men and women who are among the hardest to reach.
On the streets, an ordinance on aggressive panhandling has been rarely enforced. “Fines and jail time don’t solve anything,” Berry said.
To discourage begging, the city has focused on changing the behavior of drivers. Through billboards and signs, it has urged them to donate the money they would have otherwise handed out the window to feed, shelter or pay for a homeless person’s day’s work.
The program borrows from a system of daily employment already available to homeless people across the country through private staffing agencies. That system, however, is largely exploitative — workers are underpaid, while the agencies make a profit — and hardly ever leads to stable jobs, said Dennis P. Culhane, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania whose primary area of research is homelessness.
Government entities, for the most part, offer temporary solutions, such as hot meals and beds for the night, but, he said, “they’re not generally designed to move people forward, to help you get out of the problem.”
The Albuquerque program, Culhane said, seems to address significant reforms that homeless day laborers have demanded for decades by allowing participants to keep all of the money they make while making it possible for them to find full-time employment. Five had done so since the program started in September, including a man who found work at a private recycling center, city officials said.
The van’s driver, Cole, a broad-shouldered security guard at St. Martin’s Hospitality Center — Albuquerque’s largest provider of homeless services — picks up 10 panhandlers from random corners on Tuesdays and Thursdays, then drives them to vacant lots, abandoned parks and other blighted spots, such as the railroad tracks they were cleaning up the other day.
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 for Farmington, a struggling city in northern New Mexico, then for Albuquerque last summer, where, she said, none of the jobs that she applied for materialized.
She took on the job to buy a “nice hot meal,” she said, and would save the rest of her earnings for when she goes back to Farmington, which she planned to do someday.
“I don’t even know how I ended up homeless,” said Beletso, her eyes cast toward a pair of striped pink socks nearby, abandoned in a drying pool of mud. “Work helps me forget.”
For some, the work and pay serve more nefarious needs: A man in his 20s, sickened from heroin withdrawal halfway through his shift, dashed away as soon as he got his pay — rushing, he said, to buy a hit.
On Thursday, a federal monitor said the Albuquerque Police Department had yet to revamp its use-of-force directive, underlining the challenges of modifying longstanding police culture and practices.
Still, the city’s overall strategy is drawing interest from across the country. Officials from 37 cities and states — including Portland, Ore.; Seattle; and Hawaii, where states of emergency over mounting homelessness crises were declared in recent months — have reached out to City Hall in Albuquerque, curious about the mechanics and costs of the program.
Berry allocated $50,000 to it, though he said he plans to increase it next year, through a mix of public and private funding.
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,” he said.
For Beletso, taking the day job was about recovering honor and pride she had lost while on the streets, sleeping in cardboard boxes and succumbing to alcohol, her anesthetic.
“I worked for my money,” she said at the end of her shift. “And that feels good.”