ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It’s a clear blue morning at Central and Tramway, and, so far, the intersection on the eastern edge of Albuquerque is also clear of the panhandlers who frequent the medians here and the sidewalk along the exit ramp from Interstate 40.
But the medians don’t stay vacant for long.
There is money to be made.
A woman with her dark hair in a top knot strolls by with what looks like a makeup bag. She disappears into the trees in a small park at the northeast side of the intersection and emerges later wearing different clothes and carrying a cardboard sign. She settles onto some cardboard boxes on the northern median next to a black trash bag and a water jug and flies her sign as traffic passes.
Another woman, this one in a maroon T-shirt, shorts and a well-worn bucket hat, finds her spot on the west median, where she sits on old cardboard boxes and sips from a water bottle.
Her name is June, and panhandling is her regular gig, every day, sun or rain, heat or cold.
“I’m on disability,” she says. “But you know that goes fast.”
She is initially cautious about speaking with me, her blue eyes peering out from under tufts of blond hair, her face leathered and tanned by hours in the sun despite the hat. Not everybody who talks to her is kind.
But many are.
The other day, she said, a passer-by gave her a Subway sandwich and $100.
“I can make good money sometimes,” she says. “I keep records. In Oklahoma, I made $3,000 in six months.”
She is one of the unlikely and likely unwanted ambassadors to the city, among the first people visitors see if they are coming in to Albuquerque from the east.
I am here after a reader told me about how bad it has gotten at this intersection, not just because of the panhandlers, but because of what may be happening to the panhandlers.
“It just seems like nobody is doing nothing about this,” Chris Cdebaca says. “I see this every day.”
He says he regularly finds used syringes scattered around the area, and the smell of urine wafts from behind Dumpsters. Trash is tossed in the bushes and along the patch of grass in front of a nearby grocery store. He is friendly with the clerks at a gas station convenience store on the corner, and they tell him how some of the homeless people shoplift and harass them.
I catch June walking out of that store carrying a Big Gulp, a can of Arizona Tea and a couple of dollars, and she tells me that the woman with the top knot is banned from the store after an altercation, so June makes purchases for her.
“We help each other out,” she says.
Cdebaca says he is also concerned that some of the panhandlers may be the victims of a human trafficking ring, that some of them may be forced to turn over their handouts or worse to predators – this, he surmises, after witnessing a woman with dark hair being directed into a gray Mercedes with temporary tags parked discreetly behind the gas station.
June dismisses that concern.
“No, we do what we do on our own,” June says.
But if not human trafficking, Cdebaca says surely the man in the Mercedes did not have altruistic motives.
“I looked into her eyes as she walked by me heading to the car,” he says. “Her eyes were blank.”
Cdebaca says he regularly calls Albuquerque police about the issues. He has called the mayor’s office. But nothing much happens.
“I wish there was some way to get these people off the streets,” he says. “It’s not safe out here. I bring them bottled water sometimes, orange juice and a doughnut, but that’s not enough.”
Nothing seems enough. The Tramway/Central intersection is only one of many areas frequented by panhandlers and homeless people. Former Mayor Richard Berry’s nationally touted “There’s A Better Way” program, in which panhandlers were offered temporary sanitation jobs for pay, eventually fizzled. This week, KRQE reported that the program is ending at the end of September, but a city official Monday says a new contractor is being sought to replace the current contractor, which declined to continue its work because of a staffing issue.
In July, a federal judge struck down the city’s Pedestrian Safety Ordinance, which banned panhandlers from medians, freeway entrances and exits and travel lanes, as well as all “interaction or exchange” between them and generous motorists.
At the time, a spokeswoman for Mayor Tim Keller’s office said the city had not decided whether to appeal the judge’s ruling.
But this month, city attorneys filed a notice of appeal to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
About two weeks ago, Albuquerque police initiated a Problem Response Team in the area, providing more bike and foot patrols so officers can make face-to-face contacts and establish relationships, police spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said.
June says she doesn’t know about any of that.
She and her husband and their dog live with five other people at a campsite in the nearby open space area. A health clinician from some homeless agency she cannot name comes every Thursday to check on them. Everybody on the street gets along, she says. It’s a community. It’s a hard life, she says, but it’s her life.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.