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Solving Homelessness: Start with Dignity, Not Dollars

by Jeff Powers, published

"Every life deserves a certain amount of dignity, no matter how poor or damaged the shell that carries it." - Rick Bragg

The challenge in solving the homelessness problem in this country is that it takes heart, consistency, and courage. And in our fast-paced, gotta-have-it-yesterday world, far too few politicians possess all three qualities.

Homelessness isn't a political issue; it's a human issue. Yet every time the subject is raised, we search for answers in our politics, which inevitably leads us to our comfortable corners.

Democrats blame Republicans for inaction. Republicans blame Democrats for spending money on programs that result in reliance on the government, rather than responsibility. The result: the focus is lost, nothing gets accomplished.

Enter Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry.

It doesn't matter his political affiliation; what matters is that he had an idea and acted to make his city a better, more enriching place.

Mayors across the United States should be asking themselves one question: Are your solutions to panhandling working?

Chances are if that solution is punitive and your city is handing out tickets to panhandlers, the answer is probably no.

Berry recognized that the most valuable "thing" a person has is their labor, and he applied it to his streets.

Berry created the program, "There's A Better Way." Everyday, using a city-owned van, and partnering with a local non-profit, the program coordinator drives around the city, picking up homeless hires for the day.

The panhandlers make $9/hour, are fed, and then connected with counseling services to manage their mental health and re-enter society.

The result:

  • 400 city blocks in the city of Albuquerque have been cleaned up
  • 117,000 pounds of trash have been removed
  • More than 1,700 homeless have taken part in program
  • 216 have received long term employment opportunities

But Berry wanted more. So he coupled his "There's A Better Way" effort with "Albuquerque Heading Home," a housing first model where the city houses the chronically homeless.

To date, 650 of Albuquerque's most at-risk homeless have a place to live and are piecing their lives back together.

Albuquerque’s city leaders noticed that two critical things happen when you empower people with your trust: 1) their dignity rises, and 2) they become valuable members of society.

Homeless experts across New Mexico have noted that earning $9/hr (above New Mexico minimum wage) teaches them the value of teamwork, brings them out of their mental isolation, and re-engages their spirit.

Some say the value of those attributes for a community cannot be measured.

But that's not true, they can be measured. Just look at what the two programs have meant to the homeless population in Albuquerque:

  1. 80% reduction in unsheltered homelessness
  2. 40% reduction in chronic homelessness
  3. A virtual end to Veterans homelessness

Does this mean every city can achieve these results? No. But word is spreading.

Chicago, Denver, Dallas, and Seattle have all contacted Albuquerque and are working toward similar programs in their respective cities.

Perhaps solutions to the homelessness crisis requires a recognition of the value of dignity over dollars.

Sounds simple, but for some reason it's been lost on so many city leaders trying to find a cure for an ever-growing problem.

Government can be an answer. Government can be the problem. And sometimes, the solution doesn’t fit so neatly into a purely ideological perspective.

Photo Credit: alexkich /

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