What should cities do to address the issues with their homeless populations? It’s a persistent, nagging question that often seems impossible to solve. For decades, cities and charities have offered support and services to help homeless people, and yet the homeless remain. And advocates for the homeless remind us that giving money to people who are panhandling isn’t really helping them. So what should be done?
In Albuquerque, New Mexico, the mayor decided to take a job-oriented approach to the homelessness issue. From his conversations with members of the city’s homeless population, he learned that many of the homeless just wanted to work, but didn’t know how to go about getting a job. So the mayor worked with a charity to give some of the homeless people jobs cleaning up city streets and helping with landscaping of city properties. The homeless people who perform the jobs are paid $9 an hour for their work, receive lunch, and are offered shelter at night. The program has been operating for a year and has helped 100 people move on to permanent employment. And while there is a cost, the city benefits from the work performed by the participants. The Albuquerque program is called “There a Better Way.”
Cities seem to take different approaches to the problem of homelessness. As the article linked above notes, many cities have begun criminalizing panhandling. Other cities seem to simply put up with homelessness and begging, or institutionalize it. On our recent trip to New Orleans, we saw many homeless people sleeping on the streets, with only a bit of cardboard for shelter; New Orleans seems to tolerate its homeless people and expects visitors to do so, too. In Columbus, on the other hand, some of the homeless people participate in a program in which they receive a license and sell newspapers about homelessness at designated locations. It’s better than aggressive panhandling, I suppose, but it doesn’t seem to be moving people on to private-sector employment. At the street corner near our firm, for example, the same pleasant and polite woman has been selling the papers for years; she even refers to what she’s doing as her “job.”
The Albuquerque approach clearly is preferable to ignoring the problem, and those of us who have always worked know the value of having a job and earning a paycheck, but the article doesn’t say what Albuquerque does with homeless people who don’t want to participate in the program. Those are the people who present the real challenge. No one wants to see people living on the streets, suffering from exposure to the elements and in harm’s way, but most cities also don’t want homeless people accosting pedestrians and begging for money on street corners, either.