The Need for Change
The mayor’s anti-panhandling initiative distracts from the real problem of homelessness
Mayor Berry's new anti-panhandling campaign consists of 30 blue street signs directing people in need to dial 311, and those who want to help to go to United Way website donateABQ.org. After dialing 311—during the hours of 6am to 9pm Monday through Saturday and 9am to 6pm on Sundays—a representative will read the City's website to you. Introducing this initiative, Berry used this analogy: Hand $5 to a panhandler, and they can buy a hamburger and fries at a fast-food joint; but giving that same $5 to Roadrunner Food Bank via the United Way of Central New Mexico funds dinner for 20 people. Buying in bulk does save money, and maximizing resources is a noble goal. But if the past few years have highlighted anything, it's the real, constant danger that Albuquerque's homeless population faces on a daily basis. And a sign suggesting a phone number is a poor substitute for meaningful change.
In March of 2014, police officers fatally shot mentally ill homeless man James “Abba” Boyd, ostensibly for the crime of camping on private property in the Sandia Foothills. Just four months later, three teenagers brutally beat two homeless Navajo men, Allison Gorman and Kee Thompson, to death on West Central. The boys confessed to having perpetrated 50 other attacks on the homeless in the last year. These examples are the tip of the perilous iceberg. People who live on the street are unlikely to report being physically or sexually assaulted, fearing arrest, law enforcement harassment or further violence.
If the past few years have highlighted anything, it's the real, constant danger that Albuquerque's homeless population faces on a daily basis.
The visibility of Albuquerque's transient population and its perceived impact on businesses has been on the City's radar for some time now. Last fall the City funded a walkability study by urban designer Jeff Speck. Page 96 of Speck's report notes, “The presence of the homeless, and those who appear to be homeless, on the streets of downtown Albuquerque contributes measurably to the discomfort of people walking there. They are not that many in number, but they seem ubiquitous because they form such a large percentage of the people who are walking.”
Being confronted with the ugly reality of human suffering is distressing. And it should be.
Why does the very existence of the homeless Downtown discomfit people? Being confronted with the ugly reality of human suffering is distressing. And it should be. If a city doesn’t exhibit the larger, economic segregation in our society, it's a fairy tale. If we're not happy with the reflection in the looking glass, we should alter the object of its gaze. Speck then states, “Short of draconian and inhumane measures, there is little that can be done to limit homelessness in cities, except for providing the homeless with housing.” Speck's other suggestions include providing one-way bus tickets to recently released prisoners and adding a waiting area (with a TV) to the county probation office. As long as we cling to an “out of sight, out of mind” obscurantism, homelessness and the attendant problems will exist.
The solution to the panhandling problem in Albuquerque is simple: End homelessness.
Housing every Burqueño/Burqueña is a prelude to solving homelessness in the Duke City. Providing research-based treatment for addiction, access to behavioral health services and a system of education and training to housed individuals would comprise a worthy effort. But the money, right? How can we fund this utopian vision? Here's the thing. We're already spending in excess of $20 million annually for services accessed by the homeless; that figure is low, based as it is on federal HUD Continuum of Care data and not inclusive of funds paid out by churches, emergency shelters and privately funded organizations. Touting Albuquerque Heading Home's success a year ago, Berry himself acknowledged the economic sense that giving homes to the homeless makes, saying, “The research [by UNM Institute for Social Research] shows that we save $3.2 million by housing the homeless.” This study of the City's Housing First program took into account associated costs like inpatient hospital stays and detox, ambulance service, emergency room visits, shelter subsidies, imprisonment and outpatient medical, mental health and substance abuse treatment.
We are headed in the right direction, but the work has just begun, and an anti-panhandling campaign only serves as a distraction from the momentum and progress our community is already making in combating homelessness. The solution to the panhandling problem in Albuquerque is simple: End homelessness. Nothing short of that will resolve the “discomfort” of seeing homeless people Downtown or elsewhere—including a PR offensive that is intended to embolden our baser human instincts to turn away from those in need. If anything, what we must do is double-down on efforts to house the most vulnerable, chronic and at-risk homeless people—and ultimately all human beings—walking our streets. The results of putting housing first are verifiable and readily available to us. As we reduce homelessness in Albuquerque, that will be reflected in the human landscape of a city shaped by both compassion and vision. And that's gotta be good for business.