Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal
For people who become annoyed at the sight of sign-wielding panhandlers along interstate access roads and at busy intersections – get used to it.
The panhandlers – some of them “professionals” – aren’t likely to go away any time soon, thanks in part to a city ordinance that makes it easier for them to do business.
Mayor Richard Berry acknowledged the challenge during a recent news conference in which he announced a new initiative to curb panhandling by asking people not to give money directly to panhandlers, but to instead donate to a United Way website where money will go to organizations providing services to the homeless and poor.
As part of the initiative, called “There’s a Better Way,” signs have been posted around Albuquerque with the website address as well as a plea to panhandlers, telling them to call the city’s 311 information phone line if they need help with food or shelter.
“I think it’s a good start,” said Pastor John Hill, executive director of the Albuquerque Rescue Mission.
“My take on it is, if panhandlers are really serious, they will take advantage of the city services. There needs to be a distinction between panhandlers and the homeless. Not all panhandlers are homeless, and some panhandlers are professional panhandlers. For those panhandlers who are homeless, the mayor gave them an opportunity to get the help they need, and they don’t have to stand on a corner asking for money.”
During a previous mayoral administration, Berry said, the city had a much more restrictive city ordinance that prohibited nearly all panhandling in public places. That ordinance, however, was challenged in state District Court by the American Civil Liberties Union.
In that 2004 lawsuit, explained Albuquerque City Attorney Jessica Hernandez, the ACLU claimed that the city’s panhandling ordinance “violated freedom of speech and due process rights. The court granted a temporary restraining order to stop enforcement of the ordinance.”
The city and the ACLU subsequently reached an agreement on changes to the law, she said.
Berry suggested that the modified and less restrictive ordinance, in part, has contributed to the proliferation of panhandling over the years.
In fact, the city’s ordinance is less restrictive than other nearby cities, including Denver, Tucson and El Paso.
Albuquerque’s current ordinance defines and prohibits “aggressive panhandling” and panhandling from sundown to sunrise in the Downtown “Arts and Entertainment District” and in the Nob Hill District, Hernandez said.
Other limitations include the prohibition of panhandling at designated bus and public transportation stops, as well as in public transportation vehicles, public transportation facilities and within 15 feet outside these facilities; in off-street public parking lots or public parking structures; outside sidewalk cafes; outside of banks or within 15 feet of automated teller machines; and on private or residential property without permission from the owner or occupant.
Neither are panhandlers allowed to interrupt the flow of vehicular traffic by entering into streets or intersections, though they are not prohibited from panhandling from curbs and medians as long as they do not obstruct the operation of vehicles, Hernandez said.
Other city approaches
The Journal checked with several nearby cities and found that all of them specifically ban aggressive panhandling. But there were significant differences beyond that.
In New Mexico, Santa Fe’s ordinances are very similar to Albuquerque’s, while Las Cruces’ ordinances are far more restrictive. Las Cruces prohibits panhandling in streets, intersections, medians and any public property in the city limits, said Udell Vigil, communications director for the city of Las Cruces.
In El Paso, panhandlers are not allowed to step out onto the roadway or solicit from medians, said Sgt. Chris Mears of the El Paso Police Department.
The city of Tucson, Ariz., does not allow soliciting of any kind from medians or street corners, said city spokesman Lane Mandle.
Denver prohibits panhandling in medians or on highway entrance or exit ramps, said Bennie Milliner, executive director of Denver’s Road Home, a city agency responsible for implementing the city’s 10-year plan on homelessness.
Panhandlers can still work street corners as long as they don’t step into the roadway, and they can panhandle on sidewalks, something that has become an annoyance to merchants and office workers in the city’s central business district, he said.
“We’re also seeing more panhandling in the suburbs because we’re seeing more poverty in the county,” Milliner said. “It’s not just an urban thing.”
Berry’s initiative generally has the support of local agencies and organizations that provide services to the homeless and poor, many of which receive funding from United Way or the city.
Danny Whatley, pastor and director of The Rock at Noon Day, said he applauds the mayor’s approach and is “of the opinion that you don’t give homeless people anything that they can barter, especially money.”
People who give money to panhandlers “usually do it out of guilt,” he said. A better alternative is to give them a “goodie bag,” containing things like snacks and bottled water.
Dennis Plummer, chief executive officer of Heading Home, a nonprofit that finds homes for the most medically vulnerable and chronically homeless, said he would not try to dissuade anyone from giving money to panhandlers; “however, I do know that when we combine our resources, we can have the greatest impact for social change.”
Pastor Hill of the Albuquerque Rescue Mission points out that national studies have found only a small percentage of people who panhandle are homeless.
One such study, published by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, part of the U.S. Department of Justice, said that “Contrary to common belief, panhandlers and homeless people are not necessarily one and the same,” and among homeless people, “only a small percentage of them panhandle, and only a small percentage of panhandlers are homeless.”
The report further concluded that panhandlers are “not interested in regular employment, particularly not minimum-wage labor, which many believe would scarcely be more profitable than panhandling.”
Not all onboard
One person not convinced the mayor’s initiative is better is Jeremy Reynalds, founder and chief executive officer of Joy Junction, the state’s largest homeless shelter. Unlike most other homeless shelters and programs, Joy Junction does not receive government or United Way funds.
“It is a bumper-sticker simplistic answer to a complex problem, and it doesn’t address the problems faced by hungry panhandlers on the street,” Reynolds said. “Some of them may have post-traumatic stress, some may be sex offenders or have mental health issues, some may have addictions or warrants, and others simply may not be able to fit into the structured rules imposed at meal sites or shelters.”
Hinder their ability to collect money from people, he said, and you impede their capacity to feed themselves.
Further, he maintained, the people answering the 311 information line are not familiar enough with the organizations that assist the homeless and poor. He also pointed out that the 311 line is not answered after 9 p.m., or 6 p.m. on Sundays.
As an experiment, Reynalds said he had several Joy Junction employees call the 311 line and give different fabricated stories about their situations. The 311 operators were well-intentioned, he said, but referred them to organizations that were inappropriate based on their stories.
“We always appreciate the work done by Mr. Reynalds and Joy Junction, and I have personally supported their work in the past,” Berry said in response. “Unfortunately, Mr. Reynalds has a track record of quickly discounting our initiatives to help the homeless in our community – including his sharp criticism of Heading Home when we started in 2011.”
That program has since placed more than 481 of those most in need in housing, according to the city.
The $5 that a motorist hands to a panhandler, Berry said, “will feed 20 people” if instead donated to a nonprofit that feeds the hungry.
“The status quo just isn’t good enough anymore, and I want to facilitate a better way, but we can’t tackle such a complex and sensitive issue without our entire community joining the effort,” Berry said.
It’s too early to tell whether the mayor’s initiative will curb panhandling – and panhandlers themselves are getting mixed results.
“A lot of drivers point and tell me, ‘Look at the sign,’ ” said 25-year-old Linda Woods, who was standing near a 311 sign along the eastbound Interstate 40 exit ramp at Louisiana. She was holding her own placard that stated that she’s homeless and pregnant.
The amount of money she received from passing motorists after nearly two hours – almost $20 – was about the same amount she collected before the 311 signs were posted. Still, she said, “I don’t like the idea of it.”
Ernest Rosales was at the I-25 northbound frontage road at Jefferson, a 311 city sign towering above him as he held his own placard asking for help. He is nearly 67 and said he has cancer.
“I’ve been here since 9 a.m., about five hours, and have maybe $8 or $9 in my pocket,” Rosales said. “Before these signs went up, if I was out here for five or six hours, I’d have $30 to $40, enough to get a (motel) room for the night,” which he prefers to the shelters.
“These signs are not meant for me. I called 311 and they told me to go to the Albuquerque Rescue Mission. I already know about the Mission; I didn’t need them to tell me that. These signs are more for the drivers, to tell them not to give me money. To me, it feels punitive.”