Good Works

This mayor saw a homeless man with a ‘Will work’ sign. It gave him a great idea.

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The city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, used to ticket people for panhandling. Now they’re trying something new — something that’s got a lot of locals excited.

Two days a week, an employee of a local homeless services organization drives a van around the city and asks homeless people if they want to work for the day.

“If they say yes, they hop in the van. We’ve already got a lunch for them, ready to go,” Will Cole, the van driver, told Upworthy.

The idea was hatched by Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry, who saw it as a way to help, not punish, people in need.

“I was driving one day … and I see a gentleman standing there with a sign that says: ‘Will work,'” Berry told Upworthy. “So we decided to take the program to the next level.”

The program, called “There’s a Better Way,” was started by Berry’s administration to connect homeless people with employment, substance abuse, mental health, and housing services, and it recently expanded to include a program to connect homeless residents with jobs for the day.

“As a mayor, you want to be effective, and you want to do it in a way that’s compassionate. And you also want to do it in a way that really maybe helps people get out of the circumstances that they’re in,” Berry said.

Those who say “yes” to the job offer work five-and-a-half hour shifts for $9/hour.

“We want to give the dignity of work for a day,” Berry said. “The dignity of a day’s work for a day’s pay is a very good thing. It helps people stabilize, it helps them with their self-confidence, and it helps them get back on their feet.”

The work often includes pulling weeds, picking up trash, or engaging in other beautification projects around the city. According to Mayor Berry, out of every 12-14 people Cole asks, 10 say yes to the gig.

At the end of their day, Cole’s van drops the workers off at St. Martin’s Hospitality Center where they have access to food, shelter, and other services if they choose.

“This could be anyone of us,” Vicky Palmer, Associate Executive Director of St. Martin’s, told Upworthy. “There are so many people who are a paycheck away, and to stigmatize somebody because they’re homeless without even knowing the reason why, that’s why we’re in the business we’re in.”
Since the program began last year, it has been so successful that Berry just announced it is expanding.

It will increase operations from two days a week to four, with an additional $181,000 in its budget.
Berry credits the community for supporting “There’s a Better Way,” not only through donations but through taking initiative and reaching out. Since the city linked its homeless services to its 311 help line, over 7,200 people have called 311 offering help or asking to be helped. The equivalent of 128 city blocks have been cleaned of nearly 50,000 pounds of weeds and trash.

The city’s new 311 sign, urging homeless residents to seek help and community members to reach out.

According to Palmer, one of the biggest successes of the program has been humanizing a group of people who often don’t get a fair shake.

“It’s frustrating when you’re sitting in your car and somebody’s trying to get money from you, but they’re human beings,” Palmer said. “It’s really hard for us to take that stance because that could be my mother. It could be my brother.”

“I think we have to have that compassion and approach so that we can end homelessness.”

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About Barry G. Morris

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