I can’t count the times I have approached an intersection and averted my eyes from panhandlers and their signs stating “will work” or “I’ll take any job.” Waiting for the light to change, conflicting thoughts pass through my mind, “He looks like he could work. I wonder if he would take a job if he was offered a chance. It certainly won’t help him if I gave him money to feed his habits.” Those same type of thoughts occurred to Mayor Richard Berry of Albuquerque, NM, as he created his city’s successful day labor program “There’s a Better Way!” in 2015.
Albuquerque’s nationally recognized program offers panhandlers jobs picking up litter and clearing vegetation. You can read about it online, but I wanted to see for myself how it really works. I packed my boots and headed for Albuquerque.
I arrived at the St. Martin’s Hospitality Center, the non-profit that implements the program, shortly after O-dark-30. There I met Alan Armijo, the Mayor’s point man on the project, and Will, the supervisor, screener and driver of one of the program’s two 12-person vans. After a short introduction to the intake process, Will and I are off to look for willing workers. It was a “fixed pickup point day” where potential workers gathered at advertised parking lots and it didn’t take long to fill our quota of ten.
The barrier to the program is low and the process is simple: if you are physically able, willing to pull your weight on the crew, are sober and not hung over, you are eligible. There are no questions about how you got there. You are limited to two days in any one week, part of the effort to reach as many people as possible. Our crew of eight men and two women was at the work site before 7:30 a.m.
Initially pegged by my new co-workers as an additional supervisor, I donned gloves, grabbed a shovel and a rake, and tried to keep up in the mile-high atmosphere with temperatures above 80 degrees. At the first water break, and after some good natured banter, I caught a couple of my co-workers gesturing toward me and laughing. “Are you guys talking smack at me again?” I asked with a grin. “No man,” they replied with a laugh. “We were just saying this is just like Undercover Boss”- the TV show where the boss is usually unable to do the real work.
At lunch it was time for me to part ways with the crew and meet with city and non-profit staff. Before leaving I remembered that the Undercover Boss gives his employees a bonus so I bought a fast food lunch for the crew so they could keep their box lunches for later in the day. As I left for the comfort of air conditioning, the crew retreated to a park to eat and to be gently nudged toward various social services that could help them.
At the time I returned to my hotel, the crew members were collecting their pay for their day’s work. There were no slackers. I had watched them develop teamwork during the short time they were together. They exhibited pride in the quality of their work and as they reached the front of the line and were handed $50.00 cash, they stood taller with a greater sense of dignity.
Some lingered for referrals to behavioral health, medical, housing, and employment programs. However, there is no better social program than a job, even if it is only for a day at a time. Perhaps Pierce County should see if There’s a Better Way would work in our region, too.
Don Anderson joined the Executive team in January and is the Senior Counsel, Military Liaison & Veterans Services