By Jeremy Reynalds, Ph.D.
Founder and CEO
Joy Junction Inc.
Panhandling for Joy in Albuquerque
Thirteen dollars and 10 cents and a snack wrap for less than an hour’s work isn’t bad, right? Or not?
Well, let me explain. Last Wednesday afternoon, my assistant Kathy Sotelo volunteered to do some research “for the cause,” so to speak. She stood for just less than an hour on the I40 off ramp at Rio Grande and I40 “flying a sign,” and we waited to see the results.
I was close by, but stayed out of sight as much as possible. Accompanying us was Albuquerque Christian television station KAZQ TV 32 videographer Howard Holley. He planned to use some of the experience for the infomercial we air on the station.
Within a few minutes, I was already too hot and if I’d been the one panhandling would have given up very quickly. Perspiration was pouring down my forehead, which was rapidly beginning to resemble the color of a cooked lobster. I burn very easily and have a head that’s too big for many caps and hats.
About 50 minutes after we started, it was time to conclude the experiment. Kathy ditched the sign and Howard asked her about the experience. She started off with the worst part. “It was when I was asked to come back to a guy’s apartment and ‘clean.’ He had a very derogatory tone in his voice. It made me think he had other things in mind.”
Kathy reflectively said there are some women who for whatever reason would have taken advantage of that.
“Yes,” I thought to myself, “and if they had, who knows where or how they may have ended up. Who would have had the ‘advantage’ then?”
Conversely, Kathy added, “One guy shouted, ‘good luck.’ The words of encouragement were nice.”
Looking back at the experience, Kathy said panhandling wasn’t something she could do. She said some people would glance at her and look away. They didn’t want to make eye contact.
“Panhandling,” Kathy continued, “is dangerous, humiliating and dismissing.”
Kathy recalled a response from one man in a car who yelled, “Hey, baby.”
She continued, “I was thinking, ‘You don’t even know me.’”
About people who say panhandlers are lazy, Kathy said it’s most definitely not an easy way to earn money.
She said, “My hands were shaking in the beginning and I didn’t know what people were thinking. This was just an experiment, and after my hands are still shaking.”
However, Howard and I were still curious about what Kathy thought of earning the $13.10, not a bad “take” for just less than an hour’s work.
Just before she answered, an Albuquerque Police Department cruiser stopped on Rio Grande, and Officer Martinez, a female, got out of the car and walked quickly toward us. The officer, who was very pleasant, said APD had gotten “a lot” of calls about us.
I told her that we were from Joy Junction and just conducting an experiment. Officer Martinez said that panhandling was illegal and subject to a citation, fine and even jail.
I was curious, as I had thought that only aggressive panhandling was illegal, not all panhandling. Officer Martinez emphasized that all panhandling was illegal. I thanked her, said we would be on our way soon, and she left.
Interestingly, just after we vacated our “spot,” it was filled by someone else.
So yes, while $13.10 and a little food isn’t too shabby for less than an hour’s work, it can set some real big wheels in motion- those of the justice system. They can crush you.
Just imagine if Kathy had been panhandling for real. She could have been cited and ordered to appear in court. When she didn’t, a warrant would have been issued for her arrest and (if she wasn’t already) she would have officially become part of “the system.”
In addition to being “wanted,” that warrant would have made her ineligible for services for service from the Bernalillo County Detox-MATS (Metropolitan Assessment and Treatment Services). After all, if you have a warrant for panhandling, who wants to spend time in jail so you can go back to MATS?
That’s sometimes an issue for us at Joy Junction. If someone falls off the wagon while on our program, we like to send them to MATS to get assistance. However, if a warrant is in the picture, there’s no help available until it gets taken care of.
I understand citations and arrests for aggressive panhandlers who are harassing and scaring people, but using an officer’s time to deal with a non aggressive panhandler? How many “real” crimes were occurring while an officer’s time was tied up with this? It’s worth thinking about.
A little later I was thinking about the “lot” of people who had called APD about Kathy’s panhandling. I wondered exactly how many people had called, and why. Didn’t they have anything better to do? Looking on the bright side, maybe they were calling for Kathy’s “protection.” While Howard had tried to make himself invisible, it hadn’t worked that well. Kathy said while standing in her spot, several people had alerted her to his presence.
But with panhandling being illegal, why do we see panhandlers citywide?
A spokesperson for Albuquerque police told KOAT 7 back in April that the city enforces the ordinance on a case by case basis. Some officers arrest panhandlers, while others just take away their signs asking for money and tell them to move on.
Panhandling for Themselves
Having conducted our own panhandling experiment, I wondered about the panhandling experience of some of the guests staying at Joy Junction. A few were willing to talk.
Josephina told one of our staff she had panhandled for a while in Albuquerque. She said she had been cited and arrested once and jailed with a $100,00 cash bond.
Josephina said she was ordered to not hang out in front of the store any more where she had been panhandling.
Josephina said she’d had both good and bad experiences panhandling. She claimed some of the men who gave to her wanted more than a “thank you.” They were hoping for sex.
In addition, she added, store owners and employees were mean, treated her “horribly,” and ran her off.
On the good side, Josephina said, many “religious people” were very generous.
Annette said she had also been panhandling for a while in Albuquerque. She told us she was cited and had to go to court.
However, she continued, the judge postponed the hearing, dropped the panhandling charges and charged her with an interfering with traffic violation. Annette didn’t remember the amount of the fine.
Annette said panhandling was a good experience, claiming she made between $300.00 and $350.00 daily from drivers of cars, whom, she said, routinely waved her down.
Katrina, also panhandling for a while but never cited, described the experience as “scary.” She said most people with whom she interacted would give her stuff, such as food, rather than giving her money. She added that on occasion, workers from area businesses would bring food out to her.
Elizabeth said she has panhandled for a while in both Belen and Albuquerque, although she said Albuquerque was more profitable. She said she has never been cited but had been run off by business owners.
Elizabeth said working between three and four hours daily, she could make between $20.00 and $40.00 a day.
So whether it was the money Kathy made (which was all donated to Joy Junction) or the funds these Joy Junction guests claimed to pull in, taking the risks into account-like fines and possible jail time, it doesn’t seem quite so good after all.
What do you think about changing the 2004 Albuquerque ordinance that makes all panhandling illegal, and just restricting it to “aggressive” panhandling? That might just free up some police time and ensure people don’t get sucked into the downward spiral that occurs when they enter the justice system, as well as keeping them out of the already overcrowded Metropolitan Detention Center.
It’s worth thinking about, right?
For more information about Joy Junction, visit www.joyjunction.org