A Look at the Albuquerque Mayor’s Controversial Anti-Panhandling Initiative. It’s Now about Three Months Old. Success or Flop?

by Jeremy Reynalds, Ph.D.

Founder and CEO

Joy Junction Inc.

It’s been about three months since blue signs sprouted like mushrooms all over Albuquerque encouraging people to call 311 instead of giving to panhandlers.

By so doing, those with a heart to help were told they could donate to local food banks and the homeless or hungry unaware of local services would be informed where they could find food or shelter.

Speaking recently to KOAT,  Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry said about 1,700 people have called so far.

He added, “And 92 percent of those people needed services — they needed food, they needed shelter.”

Of all those who called, I can’t help but wonder how many were referred to agencies that were either closed or not equipped to meet their needs. That was a common occurrence when earlier this year I had some of my staff go “undercover,” and pose as homeless people needing help.

closed Then let’s not forget that the 311 service is only open from 6am to 9pm six days a week, and not available for calls relating to homelessness on Sunday.

As for donations, KOAT reported the mayor says people have given close to $1,500.

The mayor admits the numbers could be better, but told KOAT it’s a start.

“I think we can end panhandling in Albuquerque, but it’s going to take all of us working together to do that,” he said.

It’s not going to happen through 311. While there’s no doubt that $5.00 donated to Joy Junction, the United Way or the Roadrunner Food Bank would do much more than if the same funds were given to a panhandler, the mayor’s plan doesn’t take something very important into account.

For a variety of reasons, many of those panhandling don’t use missions or soup kitchens. This “initiative” leaves them right out in the cold or the heat– depending on the season.

In addition, most people responding to my question of Facebook asking what they thought about a solution to panhandling, didn’t seem to appreciate the mayor telling them how to donate.

They said they would give money to whomever they chose. Some went into more detail saying it’s the right thing to do, and another person said they would not trust a government official speaking out against “acts of humanity.”

A couple of responses really stood out to me.

One woman said her son gives a bag with bottle of water, pair of new socks, crackers, candy and other items to panhandlers, adding “If they’re hungry they will appreciate it, but I will not give money. It only encourages drugs and alcohol.”

Someone else said that kindness is the answer. “If you can help do so. Giving is not deciding how a person living outside in deplorable conditions should spend what little they get. On a freezing night, liquor helps keep the body warm. Don’t cast the first stone. Just give if you can, and thank (God) you aren’t the person reduced to begging.”

Another person was frustrated, saying that while she routinely used to give panhandlers money, food and gas, she no longer does so due to the seemingly ever increasing number, and not knowing “who is for real and who isn’t.”

She added, “ I will go broke trying to help them all. I don’t know what the proper solution is but I’d like to hear some suggestions. It is simply getting out of hand to the point where I don’t help anyone anymore and that isn’t right either, but I don’t know what to do.”

So what is the answer? I have openly criticized this initiative and the city administration’s failure to respond to questions, but do not as one person asked, “promote the homeless standing on street corners.”

This person commented, “I don’t think is a solution personally, as the numbers are rising. It puts their life, as well as drivers, at danger. Joy Junction does not agree with (the) mayor, so what is the answer? I think we all want God’s children not to suffer, but I don’t think there is a blanket answer for this.”

I replied to this individual that Joy Junction opens its doors to everyone and provides food citywide through the Lifeline of Hope.

I continued, “We wish more would avail themselves of the services both we and other agencies in town offer, but realize that in certain cases emotional problems and active addictions prevent them from doing so. Joy Junction … believes that the ‘solution’ offered by the mayor was inadequate and poorly conceived … ”

So what is the answer? As I have said on many occasions, an active community discussion and dialogue, as well as a realization that this is a citywide issue for which we all have responsibility, would be a good start.

But having said that, there are also some state and federal issues (changes in legislation needed concerning homelessness and mental illness) which make things very difficult for any city administration genuinely trying to help.

A few weeks ago, I heard from a business owner who was concerned about the destruction and trashing of private property by those who for a variety of reasons refuse help.

She made some important points. Business owners deserve the results of their hard work, so what can they do (even with a heart of gold) for the person whose addiction to alcohol or drugs often results in him or her behaving inappropriately and causing distress to others?

We have to initiate that community dialogue and work on changing laws so they may more appropriately help those in need. However, even before, during and after that process, kindness is still the answer.

Here’s what one of our guests at Joy Junction told us. I also featured his response in a recent blog piece I wrote.

He said, “My defects really made a mess of my life.” Alcohol abuse and marijuana resulted in his getting fired from a job. Meth came later. He said that addiction made him think he was invincible.

He poignantly continued, “I remember one time when I was high. I was very well dressed, but there was no restroom around. I even looked for a bush, but found nothing. I had no choice but defecate in my pants. This caused me to get off of crack for a short time.”

But what was the turning point for this guy? He said, “I remember that after I bagged the pants and through them in a waste bin, my apartment manager found them and had them cleaned for me. What a great man! I’ll never forget his generosity. That kind of kindness caused me to change my life and try to find help.”

Maybe that’s a place at which a conversation could start. But the dialogue and subsequent action will need to be one embraced by the entire community. There’s no room for NIMBY-not in my back yard-as I’m seeing in at least one neighborhood. What do you think?