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Austin explores a new approach to helping the homeless

Monday, September 11, 2017 by Jack Craver

Austin leaders are considering whether to try out a simple strategy for helping the homeless: give them jobs.

The idea is based on a program in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that has gained national attention and been credited with connecting homeless people in that city to services and long-term employment. The program is pretty straightforward: A van drives around, offering panhandlers or others on the streets $9 an hour to do menial labor, including picking up trash or cleaning graffiti.

On Aug. 31, City Council adopted a resolution asking city staff to craft a pilot program to mirror the Albuquerque one.

“It seems like something that could be hugely beneficial in Austin,” said Council Member Ellen Troxclair, who authored the resolution.

Given that the program was brought to Albuquerque, a solidly Democratic city, by its first Republican mayor in more than a generation, it’s perhaps fitting that Austin’s program was spearheaded by Troxclair, the only self-identified conservative on Council.

Troxclair’s more left-leaning colleagues were also supportive of trying out the idea, but insisted on some tweaks to the original resolution.

Council Member Greg Casar proposed that anybody the city pays to work receive the city’s living wage of $13.50 an hour. Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo similarly said she would have “a real concern if they’re not making the living wage.”

Although Troxclair has voiced skepticism of the city’s living wage ordinance in the past, she did not object to the change.

Casar also wasn’t a fan of a provision of the resolution calling on the city manager to craft a public information campaign to teach people that giving to panhandlers “is not the best way to assist” the homeless.

“I wouldn’t feel comfortable telling the city manager to instruct folks not to give money to panhandlers,” he said.

Although Troxclair agreed to strike that part of the resolution, her aide later pointed out in an email to the Austin Monitor that Council approved a separate resolution authored by Council Member Ann Kitchen that directed the city manager to develop recommendations for “alternatives” to giving to panhandlers, including nonprofits that aid the homeless. That resolution specifically cited initiatives in other cities that have encouraged people to give to nonprofits rather than panhandlers, such as the “Keep the Change” campaign in Milwaukee.

Finally, at Casar’s request, a clause was added to the resolution asking city staff to explore potential barriers to employment for the homeless in Austin, specifically rules that may prevent people from selling things on the street.

The resolution initially proposed up to $125,000 in funds for the pilot program but the final version did not include a specific cost. Staff will report back to Council in January with a proposed program and funding for Council to approve.

Jo Kathryn Quinn, executive director of Caritas, a nonprofit that provides housing and other services to refugees and the homeless, expressed cautious optimism about the program but warned of some pitfalls.

“If people are picking up trash, I think that it’s really important that we give them as much dignity in that job as we can,” she told the Monitor, adding that she didn’t want a situation where the participants are mistaken for prison inmates.

Quinn also emphasized the need for the workers to be paid a living wage and that the program should be crafted with both experts in homelessness as well as people “who are actually going to be taking advantage of the program.”

Ann Howard, who heads the Ending Community Homeless Coalition, similarly stressed the need for the program participants to be treated with “dignity and respect about being employees.”

“I believe in work. I taught my children to work. We all work. I believe there’s dignity in earning your way,” she said.

Ideally, added Howard, the program will be able to offer “some choice” of work, from outdoor physical labor to clerical services or creative endeavors. All kinds of people with different skills and education find themselves on the streets, she said, recalling listening to a client who was a trained concert pianist play for a crowd at a shelter.

“This man experiencing homelessness was more talented than any of us,” she said.

As for panhandlers, Quinn said that whether to give to them is a decision she leaves to each individual. However, she stressed that not all panhandlers are homeless.

“A lot of the panhandling community are people who are trying to live on a Social Security income and they’re subsidizing that income by panhandling,” she said.

Howard said she was eager for the city to promote other ways that people could be charitable besides giving to panhandlers, adding that she was happy that anti-panhandling efforts were at least not focused on arresting or ticketing beggars. She also noted the dangers of panhandling, particularly for those seeking donations from motorists on major roads, who are often injured or killed.

“The act of giving is something we want to encourage,” she said. “But we want it to be done in a way that’s helpful.”

Photo by Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia (Homeless Please Help) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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