As the light turned green Wednesday afternoon, a panhandler darted onto Indian School Road to take some change offered by a passing driver.
Another car waited patiently, allowing the man – Matthew, who describes himself as temporarily homeless – to cross a lane of traffic quickly to grab the money.
A proposal heading to the City Council next week aims to ban scenes like that, common across Albuquerque, especially near the interstates.
City Councilor Don Harris plans to introduce legislation that would prohibit panhandling at freeway ramps, within medians or along high-speed roads in Albuquerque.
“This is just about public safety,” Harris told the Journal . “We really want to avoid any value judgments. We wouldn’t allow anyone to solicit business from those places or engage in any kind of activity.”
The proposal is the second to come out of City Hall this year targeting panhandlers who gather at the on- and off-ramps to Interstates 25 and 40. In May, Mayor Richard Berry launched an initiative that encourages drivers to donate to groups that help the homeless rather than hand cash out the window.
The campaign, called There’s a Better Way, in an effort to reduce homelessness, includes signs installed at intersections urging homeless people to call a city hotline to learn about services and drivers to visit DonateABQ.org if they want to give money.
But Matthew – who was panhandling from the Indian School median near Carlisle, just off Interstate 40 – is skeptical of the initiative.
People like to see who they’re helping, he said. And he contends that he isn’t distracting drivers any more than, say, someone twirling a sign to advertise a tax preparation business.
“I don’t think this is dangerous,” said Matthew, 33.
He said he hoped to make enough to buy a hotel room and food.
“I’m not proud of what I do,” Matthew said.
Harris, a Republican whose district includes the foothills and southeast part of town, said his only goal is safety.
“It’s only a question of time” before someone is injured panhandling in the road, he said.
Harris said he’s heard “a lot of anecdotes about people rushing in and out of traffic or almost being injured, about people almost missing lights and people honking horns, people being late places – a lot of close calls, especially in bad weather and the dark.”
Albuquerque now has less-restrictive panhandling rules than Denver, Tucson and El Paso, according to a Journal review earlier this year.
A more stringent ordinance in Albuquerque was struck down about a decade ago for violating free speech and due process rights.
Now, it’s legal to panhandle from curbs and medians as long as the person doesn’t obstruct the operation of vehicles, according to the city Legal Department.
There are other prohibitions, too. It’s illegal, for example, to panhandle after dark in Nob Hill or Downtown.
The penalty is a written warning for the first offense and a citation for the second, which can result in a fine of up to $500 and up to 90 days in jail.
Harris, a lawyer, said he expects his proposal to survive a court challenge, if it comes to that.
His bill would make it illegal to panhandle:
• From any median.
• Within 100 feet of an interstate access ramp.
• Along a roadway with a speed limit over 35 mph.
• Within 10 feet of a traffic lane where there’s no sidewalk or area for pedestrians.
The measure is expected to be introduced at a City Council meeting next Wednesday and referred to a committee for further consideration.