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Albuquerque mayor: Here’s a crazy idea, let’s give homeless people jobs

November 26, 2015 at 6:35 PM EDT
There are more than 1,400 homeless people in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Now though, the state is working to get those people off the streets, by giving them jobs and living areas. Special Correspondent Kathleen McCleery reports on the city’s efforts.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Next, how the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, is paying panhandlers to work and moving homeless people into housing — and saving taxpayers money in the process. Special correspondent Kathleen McCleery has our report.

WILLIAM COLE: Lunch and breakfast snack prepared today.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: It`s 7:00 on a Tuesday morning, and William Cole is packing a cooler full of lunches.

WILLIAM COLE: One of our first stops will be right here at I-40 and Fourth Street. We`ve got a guy right here we can get. Good morning, sir.

MAN: Good morning.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Twice a week, Cole drives a van along through Albuquerque`s busy streets.

WILLIAM COLE: We`re looking for panhandlers, homeless people, anyone who looks like they`re interested and need help. How you guys doing?

MAN: All right, man.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Nearly everyone William approaches gets in the van. The aim is to get them off the streets and to a city job site where they`ll pull weeds and pick up trash, including items left by fellow homeless.

WILLIAM COLE: What they`re doing is refuse removal and getting rid of weeds, overgrowth, and just trying to beautify the city.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: They work hard for five hours. Some come back week after week. The pay is $9 an hour, $1.50 more than the minimum wage.

MAN: Anybody want a yogurt?

MAN: Yes.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Plus, they get lunch.

MAN: We`ll see you later.

MAN: Twenty, $40, $45.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: The cash they get means a lot to the workers.

DAVID GONZALEZ, Program Participant: Instead of going to the mission, at least you go to go to Burger King and McDonald`s, and you go back to the room and you sleep nice and comfortable instead of sleeping on the cardboard.

JESSICA SALAZAR, Program Participant: I got to put some money in my pocket. I helped clean up the community, and it`s a good feeling.

ROBERT GAUFELDE, Program Participant: Here at least I got a good day`s worth of work in. I don`t feel bad because, I mean, I honestly worked and earned my wages.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: The program is the brainchild of Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry.

MAYOR RICHARD BERRY, Albuquerque: I was driving in my car one day and I was at the stop light and there was a gentleman holding a sign that says, “will work.” So I came back to the office and I told my staff, “We`re going to take these folks up on their offer.”

Instead of being punitive and giving somebody a ticket for standing on the corner of panhandle, why don`t we give them a better opportunity?

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: The mayor struck a partnership with St. Martin Hospitality Center, a nonprofit organization. The city contributes the van plus wages for the drivers and the workers. St. Martins runs the program and offers a variety of other services, says executive director, Father Rusty Smith.

FATHER RUSTY SMITH, St. Martin Hospitality Center: We serve between 300 and 500 meals a day. We provide laundry services at no cost to our clients. We provide showers. We also provide long-term storage that allows them to take the precious things they have and keep them in a safe place.

Our clients have no address, and so this is a place where they can get all of their important mail. We also have a huge mental health facility, and we address all the major causes of homelessness and try to resolve them on this campus.

MAN: I`m homeless, I`m hungry.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: St. Martin sends an outreach team to comb city parks and other spots. They`re called Angels in Orange, and they bring hot soup, blankets and offers of help to those who suffer mental and physical ailments. Mental illness is a large contributor to homelessness.

Albuquerque made national news last year when police shot and killed James Boyd, a homeless man, in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains.

RUSY SMITH: Mr. Boyd was a client of ours and I buried Mr. Boyd. And he was someone who had severe mental health issues. Mr. Boyd`s death was a wake-up call. He brought homelessness to the face and to the awareness of everybody in our community.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Even more attention came when the Boyd family got a $5 million settlement from the city and decided to donate $200,000 of it to homeless organizations. The official count of the homeless in Albuquerque was about 1,400 last year.

WOMAN: Showers!

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: But Father Rusty says his organization serves about 7,000 people annually.

RUSTY SMITH: We count those who are both homeless as well as those who are marginally poor. And so, we serve a much larger population.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Albuquerque`s homeless problem may seem small compared with larger metropolitan areas. But New Mexico has long been one of the poorest states, ranking second worst last year with one in five of its 2 million residents living below the federal poverty line.

The city`s attack on homelessness includes an effort adapted from a national move to put housing first. It focuses on the chronically homeless, those most likely to die on the streets.

WOMAN: Well, it`s good that you made it in here.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Dennis Plummer runs heading home.

DENNIS PLUMMER, CEO, Heading Home: We have everything from emergency shelter to permanent supportive housing, and we act as a backbone organization of a collaboration focused on medically vulnerable, chronically homeless persons and getting them to permanent, supportive housing.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Kenneth Barbour, a veteran who suffers from seizures and post-traumatic stress disorder, got his apartment in August after being homeless off and on for three years.

KENNETH BARBOUR, Veteran: It`s a loft apartment, and it`s got a beautiful fireplace. I got a beautiful bedroom. They furnished all my furniture, and utensils, cooking, food, if I need food.

DENNIS PLUMMER: The first major surgery you`ve had.


KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Heading home also offers beds for those discharged from hospitals with no place to go.

DENNIS PLUMMER: You have people here that are recovering from surgery. One of our earlier residents in the beds needed a quadruple bypass. The doctor refused to do the operation because his recovery would have been in the street. Once we were able to say, “We have a medical respite bed” they could do the quadruple bypass.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: What`s the cost?

DENNIS PLUMMER: The cost for us very minimal, so our cost is $150 a night. If that same person had been in the hospital, you know what hospital costs are like, easily $600 to $4,000 a day, depending on the care that`s needed.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: The payback from the various programs is great, says the mayor, and keeps the homeless out of hospitals and jails. We met in a coffee shop run by St. Martin`s that gives job training to those who have been homeless.

MAYOR RICHARD BERRY: We think we can put people in housing and get them stabilized for less money than letting them sleep under the overpass and we commissioned the University of New Mexico to do the study and sure enough it costs about 31 percent less to get people housed and stabilized than to let them go to the emergency room every time they need medical care or to live in crisis in a constant state of struggle on the streets.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Whether the van program will make a difference isn`t clear yet. It`s only been running since September. And so far, it has served just a tiny fraction of the homeless population.

Any concern about the scale, one van, 10 people at a time, twice a week?

MAYOR RICHARD BERRY: Hey, you know, plant a little mustard seed and it grows to — you know, that`s what we`re trying to do.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: The program has attracted the attention of mayors from Seattle to Pittsburgh. Thirty-seven have called already asking how it`s done.

MAYOR RICHARD BERRY: Albuquerque is a big American city. But yet we`re small enough to where we can be agile and nimble and can try new things. This is working here. If you are a smaller city, you could do it on a smaller scale. If you`re a larger city, on a larger scale.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Berry says he plans to ramp up the van program next year.

I`m Kathleen McCleery for the PBS NEWSHOUR in Albuquerque, New Mexico.