Effort to ‘uncomplicate’ homeless issue could be lesson for Seattle

Sep 9, 2016, 5:19 AM

As the City of Seattle struggles to deal with a growing homeless population and the council considers an ordinance that would make it more difficult to remove people living on public property, another city is touting its simplistic methods to help people in need.

The Mayor of Albuquerque, New Mexico and his city are celebrating the one-year anniversary of “There’s a Better Way,” a pilot program that gives “panhandlers a chance at a change in life.”

The program, which cost about $50,000 for the first year, is extremely simple. Trained staff from a local non-profit drive around in a van and offer panhandlers a job for a day. At the end of the day, the city pays them $9 an hour and offers health and human services — lunch is also provided.

Mayor Richard J. Berry told Seattle’s Morning News that the idea was about making things less complicated.

“When people have that dignity of working for a day and they know that somebody — for the first time in maybe decades — reached out to say, ‘we care about you as an individual, a person, a human’ … You begin that process of rebuilding lives,” Berry said.

“It’s amazing to watch these folks when they have an opportunity,” he said.

The program has provided work for more than 900 people each a day. Of those, 116 have been connected with permanent jobs, according to Mayor Berry.

Berry says there have been no issues between the program and city workers. Most of the work is low-level-type stuff, such as weeding and picking up litter. It actually frees up workers to tackle more aggressive projects, he says.

The program is a stark contrast to what is currently being discussed by Seattle officials. That includes an ordinance drafted by the ACLU and other advocate groups, which would create a framework for how homeless encampments will be allowed or removed from city property. Critics argue that the ordinance will allow camping on public land throughout the city, making homeless encampments legal. Others say it will strike a balance between compassion and a solution to the crisis.

The ordinance was introduced by council member Mike O’Brien and sponsored by Rob Johnson, Lisa Herbold, and Kshama Sawant. Tim Burgess, however, argued that the ordinance “tips the balance away from public health and safety.” Council President Bruce Harrell voted to move it forward, but said he could not support it in its current form.

The ordinance is just another part of the ongoing discussion of how to help the growing number of people living on the streets. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray planned to release two reports this week on the issue. Citing council member Sally Bagshaw, The Seattle Times reports that there will be recommendations to provide more housing to homeless people.

The city budgeted more than $40 million on homelessness for 2016.

Though he admits it isn’t a “cure all,” Mayor Berry says Albuquerque’s pilot program is a “solution to get at the root of the problem.”

If Berry has any advice for Seattle, it’s that tent cities aren’t a good idea (and he’s not the only one).

“This is one of those nice examples that as a government we uncomplicate this.”

Seattle homeless program mirrors Albuquerque

Though city officials seem to be marred in process, a combined effort by United Way, the Millionair Club, and Downtown Seattle Association has already taken it upon itself to start a program similar to Albuquerque’s.

“Jobs connect,” program about six months old, has connected 15 homeless people with jobs. Outreach has been mainly downtown, but Jon Scholes with the Downtown Association says that outreach is growing.

The idea is essentially the same as in Albuquerque. A team offers homeless people jobs within a cleaning program managed by the Association and funded by property owners.

Though it’s a start, Scholes says more needs to be done.

“We need more housing. We need more treatment. And we need more job opportunities,” he told Seattle’s Morning News. “Its not one of those things, it’s all of them.”

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Effort to ‘uncomplicate’ homeless issue could be lesson for Seattle