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Mayor adds money to expand homeless work program

Mayor Richard Berry, center, announces that he will increase funding for the expansion of There's a Better Way, a program in conjunction with St. Martin's Hospitality Center, that provides day jobs to panhandlers. With him are the Rev. Rusty Smith, left, executive director of St. Martin's, and Will Cole, the program's coordinator and van driver. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Mayor Richard Berry, center, announces that he will increase funding for the expansion of There’s a Better Way, a program in conjunction with St. Martin’s Hospitality Center, that provides day jobs to panhandlers. With him are the Rev. Rusty Smith, left, executive director of St. Martin’s, and Will Cole, the program’s coordinator and van driver. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A program that takes homeless panhandlers off the streets for the day, pays them for picking up weeds and litter and gives them an opportunity to plug into social services, has been such a resounding success that Mayor Richard Berry on Wednesday announced that the city was expanding it.

There’s a Better Way, a collaboration between the city and St. Martin’s Hospitality Center, will be increased from operating two days a week to four, “and when my budget goes down to the City Council on Friday, it will have an additional $181,000 in there,” to run the program for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1, Berry said at a news conference.

The program, which has become something of a model for cities nationwide, began as a pilot project with a $50,000 budget.

Last May, the city began putting up metal signs at intersections where panhandlers commonly stake out ground. Instead of giving money directly to the homeless, the signs encourage drivers to make cash donations through a website, administered by United Way, which passes the money along to organizations that provide services to the homeless. The signs also encourage homeless people to call the city’s 311 citizen contact line to get information on emergency and social services available to them.

In September, the city and St. Martin’s began There’s a Better Way. Using a reconditioned van provided by the city, a program coordinator from St. Martin’s drives the van early mornings to pick up homeless panhandlers who agree to work for the day cleaning weeds and litter from city streets and other public areas.

The workers are provided lunch and $9 an hour, which is paid in cash at the end of the day when the van returns to St. Martin’s. There, they are given the opportunity to get enrolled in a host of social programs.

To underscore the program’s success, Berry noted that since its inception, additional signs have been erected, often at the request of neighborhoods. More than 7,200 people have called the 311 number, some to donate money, but the majority of callers are those who needed various types of help. The equivalent of 128 city blocks have been cleaned of nearly 50,000 pounds of weeds and trash.

Of the 527 day jobs created, nearly a quarter of the workers took advantage of social services: 84 people sought help for behavioral health and substance abuse, 34 were connected to permanent jobs, and eight chronically homeless people qualified for permanent housing.

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