There’s a better way to fight homelessness
Albuquerque’s new approach to helping the homeless is all about self-worth.
It’s an uncharacteristically cloudy day in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and a haze hovers in front of the sun. At 7 a.m., William Cole is already energetic, buzzing around the parking lot of St. Martin’s Hospitality Center, Albuquerque’s largest homeless shelter, employment hub, and housing program. He’s getting ready to drive a big white Dodge van around the city, picking up panhandlers and offering them the opportunity to work for the day.
On this windy March morning, people are standing outside, waiting expectantly to see Cole and his van. Cole skillfully maneuvers through morning commuter traffic in downtown Albuquerque, picking up his first group at the post office at the corner of Broadway and Mountain, just a few blocks from St. Martin’s. Four people get in, rushing up to the van in order to secure their spaces. Cole hops out and fist-bumps them each in turn—“Hi, sir; good morning, ma’am”—loading any of their personal belongings in the back.
Five minutes later, he’s stopped in the Econo Lodge parking lot in the shadow of Interstate 25. A posse of three people hop in, then a few more come jogging over from the other side of Central Avenue, Albuquerque’s main drag. The van’s at capacity now with 10 workers. The radio’s playing a morning chat show, and participants talk to each other. There’s a low hum in the back rows, while Cole swaps stories with a young man in the front seat. Cole tells everyone to call him Will.
There’s A Better Way, a program that has operated since September 2015, brings an innovative solution to the problem of panhandling and homelessness in Albuquerque. In a city fraught with conflict between the homeless population, the police, and the community (James Boyd, a man suffering from schizophrenia and homelessness, was shot and killed by police officers there in 2014), the program offers people experiencing homelessness dignity, respect, and the opportunity to earn money. Under There’s A Better Way, nearly a dozen people per day become city workers. They receive $9 an hour, as well as breakfast, lunch, and connection to services that get them back on their feet. The program runs twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and is supervised by Cole.
The program is the brainchild of Mayor Richard J. Berry, who, since taking office in 2009, has been looking for a better way to serve Albuquerque residents experiencing homelessness.
“As a mayor, you get people telling you to do something about the panhandling,” Berry explains. “The most common approach is a punitive approach: Give them a ticket, pass an ordinance, and tie it to punishment. We know that this kind of stuff doesn’t work.”
Early in 2015 his administration hatched a plan to put up signs throughout the city intending to provide a helpline to those who might need it. The 311 signs, which launched last May, state “If you need help with food or shelter, call 311.” Callers are connected to operators who can tell them where to go to find a hot meal, a place to sleep, and resources for domestic violence, mental health, and drug abuse.
The 311 sign program fielded more than 7,800 calls in the first year, with a mostly positive reaction from the community. (Some detractors say that the operators aren’t aware of the appropriate shelters and services based on individual situations, inadvertently giving callers bad advice about what to do and where to go.)
Still, Mayor Berry knew he could do more.
“I saw a fellow panhandling who had a sign that said ‘Need A Job’ and I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to take you up on your offer,’ ” he says.
He contacted his staff, told them his idea to give panhandlers day work, and quickly set plans in motion. Albuquerque city employees found the used Dodge van that Cole drives every Tuesday and Thursday, wrapped it in a blue design with large white letters proclaiming “Help End Panhandling: There’s A Better Way,” and allocated $50,000 from the city budget to St. Martin’s to administrate a daily work program.
St. Martin’s was founded in 1985 by four downtown Albuquerque church leaders. Although it’s a secular organization, the current executive director, the Rev. Rusty Smith, is an Episcopal priest, and the values of the faith-based founders live on in St. Martin de Porres’ enduring commitment to helping those in need. The city of Albuquerque has long had a good relationship with the nonprofit, trusting them with grants and programs due to their large size, staff, and capabilities.
Vicky Palmer, the associate executive director of St. Martin’s, oversees There’s A Better Way and serves as liaison with the city of Albuquerque. She explains, “Mayor Berry and the current administration are really great about serving the homeless and children. They lead with their hearts but they use their brains along the way, too.”
There’s A Better Way is beneficial for both the city and its residents experiencing homelessness. Albuquerque’s solid waste department identifies areas of the city that need beautification or attention, and There’s A Better Way workers clean, prune, pull weeds, and do similar routine tasks at each site. About a month after Mayor Berry first saw the panhandler with the sign, Cole went on his very first van runs, picking up people and taking them to worksites all around the Duke City.
By 8 a.m., the van arrives at the work site: a median at the intersection of Unser and Gibson on Albuquerque’s west side. Today’s job will be raking and picking up trash, leaves, and debris. Cole puts the van in park and explains what’s expected of everyone over the next few hours. There are a few questions, many nods of assent, and a couple of quick smiles.
One worker swiftly lights a cigarette and takes a few puffs before putting it out on the sidewalk with a scuff of his worn sneakers. Two others share sips from a Big Gulp cup filled with Mountain Dew. Handing out a breakfast of blueberry Pop-Tarts, Cole takes a head count. Participants stand around in a loose circle, waiting to begin their day’s labor.
Soon, Angelo Gallegos pulls up. He’s a solid-waste supervisor employed by the city of Albuquerque. Every work day includes supervision by solid-waste managers who tote portable toilets and water for the workers, as well as rakes, shovels, gloves, and other tools. Gallegos chats a bit, shakes a few hands, then gets into the front seat of his truck to wait out the wind.
When work starts, the mood turns serious. Clad in fluorescent vests and armed with rakes and bright orange trash bags, the workers move slowly as a large group down the median. Their eyes stay down, focused carefully on the scattered bottles, soda cups, flyers, and other trash caught in the scrubby desert plants. A few have white headphone wires running from their ears to their pockets, their heads silently moving to the beat. No one speaks or jokes. Concentration is apparent. The only sounds: cars whizzing by on either side, the steady whoosh of the leaf blower, and Cole and Gallegos’ light chatter on the sidewalk.
Cole is originally from Evanston, Illinois, where he worked as a representative at Budget Rental Cars until the franchise was bought out. He moved to Albuquerque to reconnect with a high school sweetheart. He’s wearing all black, with a track jacket zipped up to combat the early spring cold, a University of New Mexico Lobos visor (“I’m trying to get down with the Lobos, since I can’t watch the Bulls play here”), and comfortable shoes. Tall and strong-bodied, he got a job as a security guard at St. Martin’s about nine months ago. After the city partnered with the nonprofit to create the panhandling program, Cole was the natural choice to drive the van and supervise the workers.
“I jumped on it,” he says, “because everyone said it wouldn’t work, and I wanted to prove it can be done.”
The staff at St. Martin’s speaks admiringly of Cole. Ernest Becerra, lead job developer at the nonprofit, says, “He does a heck of a job.” Mayor Berry, too, sings Cole’s praises; the mayor has been out to the worksites multiple times to see his idea in action.
Cole tries to pick up a mix of new and seasoned workers, taking a tally of names, ages, and ethnicities with clipboard in hand. Out of today’s workers, four are new to the program. He rarely has trouble with anyone. In all the months they’ve been in operation, there have been zero instances of fighting or stealing. Every once in a while, he notices a worker who isn’t in line with the ethic of the others—and that person is not picked up again. “We stick with the people who are really up to work,” he says.
Once, they had a heroin addict join. About halfway through, he said he had to leave because he was suffering withdrawal, but Cole and that day’s crew helped him through. He made it to quitting time at 1 p.m. but didn’t come back.
The workers are diverse, some old, some young, and from varied ethnic backgrounds. There are two women among the 10 people meticulously scouring the median. As the sun rises higher in the sky and the clouds begin to dissipate, Cole remains vigilant. He keeps a casual but careful eye, stationed well across the street from the workers. He’s not on top of them, but they’re fully aware that he’s watching, supervising. “Get what you can get,” he says. “Go slow. You guys are doing great work today.”
Cole’s passion for his work with There’s A Better Way is contagious. He’s eager to talk about the many good things the program has already brought to participants, as well as what it can do in the future.
“I hope it can get more people into housing, into employment, and back into a more normal existence,” he says. “I want to see the program help people become functioning and happy. I really think it can help, if even only on a small scale. I know we are making a difference because I’m out here seeing it, feeling it.”
At 9:30 a.m., the orange trash bags filled with dead leaves and other debris are piling up. Cortney Wheat, 22, sits on the curb, shading his eyes. He’s been working with There’s A Better Way once a week (the maximum allowed) since January. He and Cole have a friendly familiarity; Cole calls him a “great worker.” Wheat was homeless in Albuquerque for three years following a falling out with his family, but after being connected with housing services last year, he’s been living on his own in an apartment on the east side. He wakes up at 5 a.m. on Tuesdays to take the bus and wait at the spots where the van picks up panhandlers.
“For me, my experience coming out here every Tuesday and trying to make a neighborhood look more appropriate, I feel like I can make a difference in the city where I live,” Wheat says. “Forty-five bucks gets you somewhere, you know? Doing this is teaching me to be reliable. I am always finding ways to keep myself going so I can go forward and not take three steps back.”
On the days he’s not working with the city, Wheat’s out looking for a nine-to-five job, and he credits Mayor Berry for respecting and supporting the homeless.
“I believe God is working in this city,” he says, fierce conviction in his voice. “And he is using people to make things better for all of us in Albuquerque.”
Though There’s A Better Way has only operated for less than a year, the program has drawn more positive attention than the mayor or St. Martin’s ever imagined. With a popular Upworthy.com video that’s been viewed over 4 million times and feature articles from The New York Times and the Boston Globe, people are deeply affected by what the program is doing for Albuquerque. Cities, states, and countries are clamoring for a space in the van to see the program up close and personal; officials from South Korea recently rode alongside Cole to take notes. Denver, Seattle, and El Paso, Texas are expected to start similar programs for their homeless population.
While other major cities like San Francisco and Honolulu have laws that penalize panhandlers and homeless encampments, Albuquerque’s partnership with nonprofit organizations that respect and uplift vulnerable people feels radical, if not revolutionary.
“People have a misconception that street people don’t want to work, but it’s not true,” Becerra says. “Many people want to work and better themselves. A little bit of money, like what they get through a day of work, goes a long way and changes their outlook. Their disposition changes; you can see it on their faces. They feel happier and more confident.”
The program is well-known among the city’s panhandlers, and Cole regularly finds himself turning willing participants away. St. Martin’s provides quarterly reports to Albuquerque City Hall and, since inception, 570 workers have participated; the majority are between the ages of 28 and 54. Twenty-four There’s A Better Way workers have found permanent employment; eight have moved into permanent housing; 47 have received mental health services. The city has benefited, too—more than 110 city blocks have been cleaned and an estimated 450,000 pounds of trash and weeds have been removed from Albuquerque’s streets, parks, medians, arroyos, and other public areas.
“Any city in the country can do this,” says Mayor Berry. “People will do the right thing if they are given the right opportunity. I truly believe that.”
It’s Shawntelle Mercer’s first time working with the program. Dressed in a bright pink hoodie and sporting a close crop of black curls, she found out through friends that she could work for a day and earn cash. Mercer, 32, has been homeless for a few years but often stays at Joy Junction, a women’s shelter in town. For her, working today is about the hope of a private room and a shower at a local motel, away from the hustle and bustle of the shelter and the presence of so many others. She’s grateful it’s not too sunny today because she doesn’t have a pair of sunglasses and doesn’t like the heat. Mercer regularly uses the services at St. Martin’s but has been eager to try There’s A Better Way to see how it would work for her.
“If you are on the streets here, you definitely find out about this program,” she says. “I thought, maybe if I keep doing this, I’ll have the opportunity to get a job.”
Around 11 a.m., everyone breaks for a brown bag lunch of ham and turkey sandwiches, tortilla chips, and apples, packed by the cook at St. Martin’s. During lunch, representatives from St. Martin’s programs, including behavioral health, housing, employment, and more arrive at the park where participants are eating and resting. Their task is to connect today’s workers with the variety of services St. Martin’s provides as part of their initiative Project End Homelessness, including substance abuse treatment.
“We’re usually able to get a few of the day workers into long-term employment and behavioral health services . . . housing usually comes later,” Palmer explains.
In the first few months, staff attempted to connect with people at the end of the day, but hours of hard labor made participants tired and less open to talking. The lunch hour has become the ideal time to chat, build trust, and provide useful help to those who want it.
Though the main focus of the program is providing resources for the homeless, There’s A Better Way reaches beyond that. The program serves more than panhandlers and residents without homes. People stranded in Albuquerque looking to get money for a bus ticket home, job seekers trying to earn cash to put gas in their cars, or the otherwise disenfranchised and down on their luck are all welcome to come and do a day’s work.
Jessica Salazar and Orlando Griegos are both jobless and living with family. Griegos, 26, has been participating in the program every Tuesday for a month—he uses the income to pay his phone bill while he looks for a full-time job. Currently, he’s going to Central New Mexico Community College to get his GED, with hopes to eventually become a pharmacy technician.
“Anything that they give me, I’m willing to do it,” Griegos says. “I like to work. I just want to work, that’s it.”
Salazar, 33, takes her headphones out, softly explaining that her continued work with There’s A Better Way has helped her save some money. She’s also taken advantage of the services at St. Martin’s, working with Becerra in the job program to get a new resume. Salazar hopes to leverage her experience in the program to get a job with the city, hopefully doing warehouse work or something similar.
“It’s cool that doing this helps the community, too, to keep it clean,” she says. “I live here, and I like that.”
After lunch, the workers move to another median further down the street, continuing for an additional hour. Cole calls it a day and thanks everyone for their hard work. Then, the big van heads back to the administrative center at St. Martin’s, where workers receive their cash payment of $45. Some will add it to growing savings, others will use it for immediate needs.
Cole will spend the next few hours driving through the city, passing out flyers about There’s A Better Way to people he sees on corners, standing with signs at highway access roads. He still works as a night security guard at St. Martin’s 24-hour shelter and service center, which feeds nearly 7,000 unduplicated needy people per year.
Due to its incredible success and continued national interest, There’s A Better Way was allotted an additional $100,000 from Albuquerque (doubling the initial investment), and the city plans to add a third work day in July. Employees at St. Martin’s say they’d love to see it expand even more, including Palmer, who suggests having a more extensive day labor program for the other two days a week. Berry is not against the idea—he’s also interested in further expansion, perhaps even including private companies who need workers. Friedman Recycling, a local company where one former There’s A Better Way participant recently got a full-time job, might be a possibility.
“As a Christian man, I have an obligation to help my brothers and sisters,” Mayor Berry says, his voice urgent and impassioned. “The most meaningful part of There’s A Better Way is that homeless people are being told they have value, maybe for the first time in their lives. If you need a hand to get off the corner, we’ll give you that. Yes, it’s about coming with us and cleaning up weeds and trash, but it’s really about the fact that we trust and believe in you.”
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