My colleague Macarena Olsen wrote back last August about efforts by the city of Albuquerque to put panhandlers to work with government day jobs. The Albuquerque program—called There’s a Better Way—paid just around minimum wage and provided lunches to workers, a huge bonus for those used to begging every meal. WaPo summarized the Albuquerque program’s accomplishments at that time:
“In less than a year since its start, the program has given out 932 jobs clearing 69,601 pounds of litter and weeds from 196 city blocks. And more than 100 people have been connected to permanent employment.”
Similar news came to us from Portland, Maine this summer, where panhandlers had recently been targeted by legislation banning begging from traffic medians. A federal appeals court quickly stuck down the law, prompting city officials to rethink their approach to public poverty.
But instead of punishing panhandlers, Portland launched Opportunity Crew, a program that, like its Albuquerque counterpart, hires the homeless for $10.68 an hour and provides free meals in exchange for day-jobs picking trash across the city. One man participating in the program told Maine Public Radio’s Fred Bever that the work made him feel more rooted in his city: “I'm actually a bigger part of the community than I was back when I was in a hard spot, you know?”
Programs like this seem like a no-brainer. And yet, as Bever notes, they’ve yet to really catch on across the country: “According to a recent report, the number of cities that bar panhandling is on the rise.” Denver, Chicago, and San Jose are some of only a handful of other cities to implement programs like Albuquerque’s and Portland’s.
To be sure, obstacles exist.
For one thing, city budgets are always tight, and Portland, for instance, could only manage to commit $42,000 to Opportunity Crew. Albuquerque had to resort to community donations to keep their version up and running. Perhaps more problematic is the fact that many of the homeless who need the program most lack the basic paperwork—birth certificates and state IDs—that they need in order to pull a paycheck.
But these are the sort of obstacles that new government programs always face.
The basic idea—connecting beggars to low-skill, public-interest shift work and providing them access to programs that can help direct them to regular full-time jobs—ought to be one that catches on. Will such efforts end panhandling or eliminate poverty? Of course not. But they will help engage and affirm some of the most marginalized members of any community.