So, raise your hand if you've seen somebody in your city standing on a corner, holding a sign like this. I think we all have. If you're being honest, at least one time, have you wondered if they mean it? If we offered them a job, would they really take it? And what would that job mean to them in their lives? Well, this is a story about what happened in my city when we decided to find out, when we decided to think differently about panhandling, and lift people up through the dignity of work.
We call it, "There's a Better Way." We call it There's a Better Way because I believe there's a better way to get the money you need than panhandling on the corner. I believe there's a better way to help your brothers and sisters in need than handing a few dollars out the car window. We know there's dignity in work. We also know that people are much more likely to invest in themselves if they believe that their community is willing to invest in them first. And because we're all wired to be kind and compassionate, it always feels good to hand a couple of dollars to someone that is in need. But if you talk to panhandlers, many of them will tell you that your few dollars don't necessarily go towards feeding the body, they go towards feeding an addiction. There's a better way.
My name is Richard Berry, and I have one of the best jobs in the world. I get to be the mayor of a great American city, Albuquerque, New Mexico. I was at lunch on July 17, 2015, in my great American city, and on my way back to city hall, I saw this gentleman standing on a corner. As you can see, he's holding a sign, and his sign says he wants a job. But if you look closer at the picture, you'll see he's standing underneath a blue sign, and that sign says, if you need help, if you need food or shelter or you'd like to donate, please call 311, our community service number.
So why is this guy standing underneath my sign with his sign? Well, we wondered if anybody would call that 311 sign, and as it turns out, they did — 11,000 times people called. I put those up in about 30 intersections. And we did connect them with food and shelter and services. But yet he's still standing under my sign with a sign that says he wants a job. It's simple: he wants a job. So I decided to do something rare in government. I decided to make the solution simpler rather than more complicated. I went back to my office, I gathered my staff around and I said, "We're going to take this man at his word, and others like him. The man says he wants a job, we're going to give him a job, and we're going to make our city an even better place in the meantime."
You see, Albuquerque is a beautiful place. We're a mile high, the Sandia Mountains on the east, the Rio Grande runs through the center of the city; we're the home of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. On a day like today, you could literally ski this morning and golf this afternoon. But there's always something to do — always weeds to pull, litter to pick up. If you're going to have an initiative like this in your city, you have to ask yourself two questions. First one is: Is there anything left to do in your city? And if the answer is no, would you please give me your mayor's phone number, because I need some advice.
But the second question you have to ask is this: Are your solutions to panhandling working? If you're like Albuquerque, and you're taking the punitive approach like we used to, handing out tickets to panhandlers or those who give them money, I'm going to suggest that your solutions aren't working, and I know you're not getting to the root of your problem in your city. So if you have something to do and you need people that need something to do, there's a better way. And the good news is, it's not that complicated.
This a 2006 Dodge van. It was in my motor pool not doing anything. We put some new tires on it, wrapped it with a logo. This van now goes out to street corners where our panhandlers are — we go to them. We stop the van, we get out, we ask them if they would like a day's work rather than panhandling for the day. And if you wondered if they really mean it — it takes us about an hour to fill this van up in the morning, because almost everybody we ask takes a job for the day.
But you need more than just a van. You need a super-fantastic human being to drive that van. And my super-fantastic human being, his name is Will. This is him in the yellow vest. Will works at our local nonprofit partner. He works with the homeless every day. The panhandlers trust him, he believes in them, he hustles. I like to say, "Where there's a Will, there's a way." So if you're going to do the Better Way campaign in your city, you need to find yourself a Will, because he's really one of the keys to making this successful in the city of Albuquerque.
You also need a great nonprofit partner. Ours is St. Martin's Hospitality Center. They've been in our community for over 30 years. They provide counseling, food, shelter, and if they don't provide it, they know somebody in our city that does. But they do something much more for me as the mayor. They provide agility. You see, it takes me two weeks, maybe two months sometimes, to onboard an employee with the city of Albuquerque. So you could imagine — my old Dodge van, my super-fantastic human being, Will, a great local nonprofit partner — they drive to the corner, there's a panhandler, they say, "Would you like to work for the day?" The panhandler says, "Yes," and Will says, "Great! I'll be back in six weeks to pick you up."
It wouldn't work. It's really important that we have that agility in our program. And they do the paperwork, they do the insurance, they do all of the other forms that I can't do quickly.
We pay our panhandlers nine dollars an hour. We feed them once at the jobsite. At the end of the day, our old Dodge van takes them right back to St. Martin's, and they get connected with counseling services.
So far, with the pilot program and a couple days a week, and a fantastic human being and a Dodge van, we've cleaned up 400 city blocks in the city of Albuquerque. We've picked up over 117,000 pounds of trash, weeds and litter. I don't know if you've ever weighed a tumbleweed, but they don't weigh much, so you can imagine the volume of material that we've picked up.
My city has 6,000 employees, and none better than my solid waste department. We send our trucks out at the end of the day, they help the panhandlers put into the truck the material they've picked up during the day, and we take it to the landfill. I'm lucky that I have city employees that are willing to work side by side with our panhandlers. They're lifting up our city while lifting up their lives. And like anything else — listen, it takes resources. But the good news is it doesn't take much. We started with an old van, a super-fantastic human being, a great local nonprofit and $50,000.
But we also had to have community trust. And fortunately, we had built that up in years prior to Better Way. We have a program called "Albuquerque Heading Home," a Housing First model where we house the chronically homeless, and when I told my community we wanted to do that differently, I said there's a smart way to do the right thing. We have now housed 650 chronically homeless, medically vulnerable — frankly, most likely to die on the streets in our city. We commissioned our university, they studied it. We could tell the taxpayers, we can save you 31.6 percent over the cost of leaving someone to struggle for survival on the streets. We've now saved over five million dollars while housing 650 people.
So we had that community trust, but we had to have a little bit more of an honest conversation also as a community, because we had to get people to understand that when they hand those five dollars out the window, they might actually be minimizing their opportunity to help the person in need, and here's why: that five dollars might go to buying some fast food today — a lot of times it goes to buying drugs and alcohol. That same five dollars, if you gave it to one of our shelters, could feed seven people today. And if you gave it to one of our local food banks or food pantries, we could actually feed 20 people with that money.
People ask,"Well, Albuquerque is 600,000 people — million, metro — this wouldn't work in our city, we're too big, we're too small." I disagree; if you have one panhandler on one city block, you can do this. If you live in a city of eight-and-half million people, you can do this. It doesn't matter what you do. It's not the work that you do, it's the dignity of the work. You could do anything. So I think any city could do this. And people say to me, "Mayor, that's just a little too simple. It can't work that way."
But I tell you what, friends: when you go to a street corner and you engage with a panhandler with dignity and respect, maybe for the first time in years, maybe in their life, and you tell them that you believe in them and that this is their city as much as it's your city, and that you actually need their help to make our place better, and you understand that this isn't the answer to all their problems, but at least it's a start, an amazing thing happens. When they get out on the jobsite and they start working together, you start seeing amazing things happen. They see teamwork; they see the fact that they can make a difference. And at the end of the day, when they get back to St. Martin's in that old Dodge van, they're much more likely to sign up for whatever services they need — substance abuse, mental health counseling, you name it.
So far with our pilot program, we've offered about 1,700 days of day work. We've connected 216 people to permanent employment opportunities. Twenty people actually qualified for our Housing First model, Heading Home, and they've been housed. And over 150 people have been connected to mental health substance abuse services through There's a Better Way.
This is me just two weeks ago, at St. Martin's, doing our point-in-time survey that we do every two years. I'm interviewing a gentleman who's homeless, like we do, getting his information, figuring out where he's from, how he got there, what we can do to help him. And you notice he's holding the same sign that the guy was holding in 2015, same sign I walked out with here today.
So you have to ask yourself: Is it really making a difference? Absolutely it's making a difference. Albuquerque is now one of the national leaders in combating some of the most stubborn and persistent social issues that we have. Combined with Albuquerque Heading Home, the Better Way program, Albuquerque has reduced unsheltered homelessness in our city by 80 percent last year. Since I took over as mayor, we've been able to reduce the chronic homeless population in our city by 40 percent. And by HUD's definition, we've gotten to functional zero, which means we've literally ended veteran homelessness in the city of Albuquerque, by being intentional.
So I'm happy to report that other cities are hearing about this, other mayors are calling us — Chicago, Seattle, Denver, Dallas — and are now starting to implement programs where they bring the dignity of work to the equation. And I can't wait to learn from them. I can't wait to see what their experiment looks like, what their pilot project looks like, so we can start taking a collective approach nationally through the dignity of work. And I want to commend them — the mayors, their communities, their nonprofits — for the work that they're doing.
So who's next? Are you and your city ready to step up? Are you ready to think differently about these persistent social issues? Are you ready to lift people up in your community through the dignity of work, and make your city profoundly better in many ways? Well, if you are, my friends, I promise you there is a better way.