ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Panhandlers across the city may soon find a van pulling up next to them, and instead of being offered a quick buck they will be offered employment for the day.
As part of a pilot program with the city of Albuquerque and St. Martin’s Hospitality Center, panhandlers who are willing may be able to earn $9 an hour for working on such things as city beautification projects and weed and litter control, Albuquerque Mayor Richard J. Berry announced during a Monday news conference.
The van will pick up the panhandlers early in the morning on Tuesdays and Thursdays, starting Thursday. At the end of the work day, the van will take them back to St. Martin’s, where they will be paid in cash, and where staff will help connect them with services for food, temporary shelter, substance abuse, mental health issues and housing, Berry said.
“We might come across some folks and this is how they get started getting off the corner and away from panhandling,” said Berry. “They can get a little bit of foundation and get connected to some of the services through our local nonprofits and they can start getting treatment for substance abuse if that’s the issue, or mental health if that’s the issue. We hope to see some uplifting stories come out of this.”
The Rev. Rusty Smith, executive director of St. Martin’s, said that “the money is significant enough that people can work their way off the streets. St. Martin’s also has an employment program that will be used to help these individuals find longer-term jobs.
“Our goal is to transfer them into full-time employment.”
In addition to the refurbished 16-seat van, the money distributed by St. Martin’s comes from a $50,000 city allocation, enough for the program to operate through the end of the current fiscal year, Berry said. Under Internal Revenue Service rules, the panhandlers can earn up to $600 a year, after which they have to fill out employment forms and pay taxes.
All of the jobs and work orders will be generated by the city’s Solid Waste Department. “We will shoot for five or 10 people the first couple of weeks and see if we have any takers,” the mayor said. The expectation is that the program will grow as more panhandlers become receptive to participating.
The pilot program is an offshoot of the city’s “There’s a Better Way” campaign begun in May. Under that campaign, the city posted signs at intersections frequented by panhandlers, telling them if they need help with food or shelter to call the city’s 311 information number. The signs also encourage motorists who want to make a monetary donation to do it through the donateabq.org website, administered by the United Way of Central New Mexico.
The campaign began with 11 large signs on blue backgrounds. There are now 33 signs posted around the city. About 2,300 people have called the 311 number at the prodding of the signs, and the program has received more than $1,680 in donations.