The initiative started in May 2015 with 15 signs posted at intersections throughout Albuquerque offering drivers an alternative way to donate, rather than give money directly to panhandlers; and it provided panhandlers information on how to get connected to services.
Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry called that version 1.0.
It was followed by introduction of the There’s a Better Way van, version 2.0, which picks up willing panhandlers and takes them to work sites where they clear trash and weeds, get paid in cash and have an opportunity to plug into social services.
Speaking before a crowd gathered at St. Martin’s Hope Center on Friday, Berry introduced version 3.0, which involves a separate van to carry a team of professionals who will approach panhandlers and evaluate their needs and individual circumstances, and identify ways to connect them with social services. Ultimately, the goal is to help them break the cycle of homelessness and panhandling, he said.
The five-person Citizens At Risk Evaluator team, or CARE, consists of two members from the Albuquerque Police Department Crisis Outreach and Support Team; a paramedic from the Albuquerque Fire Department; a representative from St. Martin’s; and a representative from the city’s Family and Community Services Department.
“The CARE team will talk to panhandlers on the corners where they are,” Barry told those assembled. “We are not asking people to find their way to us, we are going under the overpasses, to the shelters, to where people are walking the streets.”
The CARE team, he said, will “listen, learn and better understand each person’s situation and then craft solutions for them,” whether it involves re-establishing connections to family, acquiring shelter and food, finding a job or receiving case management for mental health or addiction issues. “We want to be very intentional about how we address each and every individual,” Berry said.
The team will be using a 2011 van from the city’s Family and Community Services Department. The entire initiative has a budget of $259,000.
Albuquerque Police Chief Gorden Eden said “across the nation we see a rise in homelessness and panhandling; Albuquerque has a solution and we’re proud to be part of this team.”
City Fire Chief David Downey said the presence of a paramedic allows the team to be proactive when it encounters homeless people with medical or mental health issues.
“We can engage them in a non-emergency setting and communicate with them about the care they need so they don’t become a repeat 911 caller,” he said.
The There’s a Better Way program is funded by the city and administered by St. Martin’s Hospitality Center. Willing panhandlers and homeless people are driven to various work sites selected by the Solid Waste Department, which provides the tools. At the end of the workday, participants are dropped off at St. Martin’s, where they pick up their money and have an opportunity to connect with social services.
Thus far, the program has provided 1,240 day labor jobs, resulting in the cleanup of 317 city blocks and the removal of 109,101 pounds of litter and weeds. Nearly 195 participants have connected to permanent employment, 20 are in housing and 145 are receiving mental health and substance abuse services.