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What Indianapolis can learn from a New Mexico panhandling program

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Posted at 11:02 AM, Mar 05, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-05 11:02:33-05

INDIANAPOLIS — The City of Indianapolis will begin its program to pay panhandlers to work across the city this spring.

But that isn’t a new idea. City officials have said they’re modeling it after a similar program in Albuquerque, New Mexico, called “There’s a Better Way.”

If the lessons of Albuquerque’s program can be taught, Indianapolis could pick up a thing or two.

Albuquerque’s Program

Albuquerque Director of Constituent Services Alan Armijo was working for the city when the program started.

He said the idea began when then-Mayor Richard Berry was driving in the city in 2015 and a panhandler approached his window.

"If I gave you a job for the day and paid you in cash, would you work?" Berry asked.

"Yes, sir,” the man responded. “I'd rather do that than do this."

Berry then came up with the idea to pick up panhandlers in a van and hire them to do work across the city. They pick up trash, pull weeds and trim bushes at $9 per hour for about five hours.

Albuquerque works with a non-profit called HopeWorks for the program. That way, the city avoids a lot of the red tape that would come up if it had to hire the people directly.

“Have we gotten rid of our panhandlers? No, we have 4,000-5,000 homeless people,” Armijo said. “Not all panhandlers are homeless, but a lot of people panhandle.”

The Money

At the end of the day, the panhandlers in the program get their payment in cash. HopeWorks has every person who works fill out a W-9 form for their taxes. The non-profit keeps it on file.

“It's up to them to file their taxes,” Armijo said. “If you choose not to file your taxes, as an adult, that's up to you. Is the IRS going to come after you? They might. Are they going to come after a homeless panhandler? I doubt it.”

The program started with a budget of $50,000. The next year, Berry requested doubling the program's budget to $100,000. Instead, the city council liked the program so much, they gave him $181,000.

The program has also grown from one van running two days a week, to two vans each running five days a week.

The money for Indianapolis’ program will come from increased revenue from an extension of parking meter times. The City-County Council approved the extension in January.

Indianapolis officials still have a major question to answer – how much to pay the panhandlers for the day.

“We have to find that balance that allows us to offer as many job opportunities to as many people as we can, while still paying enough to disincentivize panhandling,” Indianapolis Deputy Mayor of Community Development Jeff Bennett said. “That activity itself is lucrative. In some cases, folks are making $75, $100 or more a day. We have to be able to compete economically with that model.”

But Armijo said Albuquerque officials simply didn’t consider that when creating their program.

"We just said, 'Here it is. Here's what you can make. Take it or leave it,’” Armijo said. “Maybe it's happened, but it has not happened in the last two-and-a-half years that anybody who was asked if they wanted to work ever refused."

He said most panhandlers in the city would rather work for the day, rather than ask for it from people on the street.

“And I imagine there are people who go do the work and panhandle later that day,” Armijo said. “People do all kinds of stuff.”

Learning from Albuquerque

What has Albuquerque learned about the program in the nearly four years since it started?

Long-term? The city tries to pick up people who haven’t worked in a while, or have never participated in the program.

But short-term?

“What nobody thought about is where are they going to use the restroom,” Armijo said.

Two days after the start of “There’s a Better Way,” there was a trailer with a port-a-potty hooked up to the back of the van.

Now, Albuquerque is famous across the world for the panhandling program.

Elected officials from all across the United States have flown to Albuquerque to see the program firsthand. And Armijo has fielded calls from Europe and New Zealand, as other cities look to emulate the success.

Armijo’s advice for Indianapolis?

“You have to figure out what do they want them to do,” he said, noting that it would be difficult to clean up Indianapolis with one or two vans. “Maybe you pick quadrants and every other day you go to a different quadrant [of the city].”

At the end of the day, it isn’t about getting panhandlers work or cleaning up trash. It’s more about getting the people into the help they may need. HopeWorks helps connect the workers with substance abuse treatment centers or housing assistance.

He’s been asked by other city officials: What if the panhandlers decide to buy alcohol with the cash they earned that day?

“I'm an adult, I get a paycheck,” Armijo said. “On Friday after I get paid, if my wife calls me and says 'Hey, pick up a bottle of wine for dinner.’ What's the difference? Or if I decide to pick up a six-pack for Friday night games. What's the difference? Just because I drive a car and I take a shower? Does that make me any different?”

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