Springs Rescue Mission considers outcomes of Albuquerque program 

click to enlarge Local charities are looking for new ways to address panhandling and other issues. - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • Local charities are looking for new ways to address panhandling and other issues.

In September 2015, the city of Albuquerque committed $50,000 to a plan it hoped would prove to be both an empathetic and effective response to the city's panhandling problem.

By March of this year, the city's mayor, Richard Berry, was so convinced of the program's success he committed an additional $181,000 to expand it, the Albuquerque Journal reports. The concept was simple: Give panhandlers a job.

Called "There's a Better Way," the Albuquerque program is a partnership between the city and a local charity. A van is driven around the city, making stops to ask local panhandlers if they would like a job for the day. Those who agree are driven to different locales to perform basic jobs, like picking up trash and pulling weeds. They're given lunch and paid $9 an hour in cash for their work. At the end of the workday, they're offered social services to help get them off the street.

Nearly a quarter of the workers in Albuquerque had taken advantage of the offer for further help by the end of March, according to the Journal, and the workers had cleaned the equivalent of 128 city blocks of close to 50,000 pounds of trash and weeds.

The program works in conjunction with signs the city has posted urging people to give to charities instead of panhandlers and to call the help line to either contribute to or receive help from the city's homeless providers. (The Colorado Springs equivalent of that helpline is 2-1-1.)

The Albuquerque model is part of a growing trend for homeless service providers, one that seeks to involve the homeless in helping themselves. It also encourages charities to look less at what has been done to help the needy (such as meals served or nights provided by a shelter) and more at outcomes, such as how many homeless people have been able to successfully get off the streets.

Jackie Jaramillo, senior director of strategic initiatives at Springs Rescue Mission in Colorado Springs, says her nonprofit is looking for more ways to incorporate the philosophy.

"We need to work with people not for people," she says.

SRM has started asking the homeless what they need, an exercise that has led to the formulation of a major housing project. The nonprofit is even considering mimicking that Albuquerque system. While it's very early in the process, if the pieces come together, such a system could be online sometime next year.

Springs Rescue Mission already has two social enterprises — or businesses aimed at a social good — in this case giving homeless people jobs.

If adopted, the Albuquerque model would be the third (the others are a candle business and a catering company). Ben Robb, SRM's development director, says the Albuquerque idea is "in its infancy."

But, he adds, "We're always looking for ways to improve our programming and to bring innovative new ideas to Colorado Springs, especially if it helps the people we serve get employment."

Aimee Cox, the city's community development manager, says Colorado Springs won't consider funding such a program until SRM finishes part of its expansion in November, which includes additional year-round shelter beds, for a total of 150. That's because the city wouldn't want to give a person a job for a day only to leave him or her on the streets at night, she says.

But a year from now, Cox says the city would likely at least consider a grant for such a program, as it could be an effective way of controlling panhandling while avoiding laws that seek to outlaw a behavior that the courts have found to be a First Amendment right (a lesson the city has learned from ill-fated attempts at reining in panhandling in recent years). In fact, Cox has already talked to city leaders in Albuquerque.

Jaramillo says looking for new ways to address panhandling is just part of a larger transformation at SRM. Last summer, she worked with an intern to survey the nonprofit's directors, staff, volunteers and clients. She asked them what was working, what wasn't and what they could do better. One of the top remarks from SRM's homeless clients was that they needed a permanent place to call home.

"That was something that just hit us in the gut," she says, "and we said, 'Yeah, you're right.' ... It was obvious to them, but it wasn't as obvious to us."

As a result of that feedback, SRM is planning a major project that could add 65 studio apartments, available as permanent supportive housing to homeless individuals if it's approved.

That's in addition to a $13.8 million expansion in the works, which will offer 150 year-round shelter beds, a welcome center, a bigger kitchen and dining area, a day center and other amenities.

Jaramillo says other changes at SRM are more subtle. For instance, she says while no client at the shelter would be required to do work, they'll be asking longer-term clients to consider helping care for plants in an inner courtyard, or do other tasks that help build the community.

Matt Parkhouse, a retired nurse and longtime local homeless advocate, says he's long thought homeless charities focus too much on what feels good for the giver.

Both Parkhouse and SRM's Jaramillo say they've been influenced by the same book, Robert D. Lupton's Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help, and How to Reverse It. The book rails against traditional models that give without question or requirements, and advocates that charities adapt a results-based approach.

In the 1980s and '90s, Parkhouse helped run the predecessors to the Salvation Army's New Hope Shelter and Marian House Soup Kitchen. He says he sometimes still runs into homeless people he worked with 20 years ago. "They're still in the soup kitchen line," he says. "No one has stood in front of them and [said], 'Good God, man, what needs to happen to end this?'"

The problem, Parkhouse says, is "we don't really look at the unintended consequences of giving stuff."

During the Great Recession, he recalls, "tent cities" packed with homeless people sprang up along the city's creeks. Kindhearted locals showered the camps with stuffed animals, blankets, presents and food. But their cars often blocked police access to the camps, creating safety concerns. And all that stuff became so overwhelming that piles of it were often burned in campfires.

The key lesson here, Parkhouse says, is none of that charity helped get people out of the tent cities. Really, it kept them there.

But consider what happens when someone gets a job instead.

"The self esteem goes up — just the mental status, they're less depressed," Parkhouse says. "For good or bad, a lot of Americans' self-worth — it's tied up in their job."

The same concept can be applied in other situations. Jaramillo, for instance, points to the way SRM transformed its Christmas giving program. In the past, donors would "adopt" a family and go to their house, presents in hand.

The problem, she says, is parents who can't afford Christmas presents were often embarrassed by the experience. So, working with Woodmen Valley Chapel, Jaramillo has created a store where parents purchase their kids' presents at 10 percent of the cost and givers wrap presents for them. Parents who can't afford to pay anything can exchange community service for a voucher.

"It's still meeting the need," she says, "but it's doing it with so much more respect and dignity."

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