Despite knowing better we all too quickly determine that the homeless population has earned itself its fate—addiction, bad decisions, laziness, etc. This serves as a coping mechanism of sorts to then justify our own indifference towards these marginalized groups, who if we spoke to we would be quick to learn and understand that no, in fact, addiction is a health problem, not a criminal act, that they found themselves in a system where circumstances made decisions a lot harder than we would normally acknowledge, and that no, these people are not lazy, but are desperate for work, for livelihood, just like any one of us. But most of us don’t take the time to interact with or make a legitimate effort to understand their strife; but one mayor has found a way to actively combat the stigma and produce results.
Enter Richard Berry, mayor of the city of Albuquerque. The history of the mayor is interesting enough, as he was the first Republican mayor of the city in New Mexico in over 30 years, a city otherwise largely dominated by Democrats. Mayor Richard Berry, as a recent piece in the Washington Post explains, drove around the city talking with homeless people to try to understand their strife and better craft legislative solutions that would ultimately serve this population. One key aspect of his approach was that instead of assuming that these individuals didn’t want to work and were stuck in a rut of laziness, the mayor instead asked them about work and their willingness to find it. The issue was, they were having difficulty going to work, and as such, Mayor Berry had the idea of bringing work to them.
The city sends out a van to pick up homeless individuals interested in work, finds them day jobs—such as clearing litter and weeds—pays them over minimum wage, at $9-per-hour, offers lunch, and then provides overnight shelter. Many people have been able to thereby find permanent employment through connections made in the program, as well as doing communal good for society.
There has in recent years been a frightening surge in the criminalization of homelessness. Some measures have been characterized as outright brutal, such as the introduction of metal spikes on public spaces like outside buildings, or unnecessary arms on park benches to prevent sleeping, all falling under the category of “defensive architecture.” And these measures are not excluded to a legislative and private company effort to make life more difficult for homeless populations, but are entirely reflective of the sort of attitude and culture we have been harboring and brewing in our society, as hate crimes against homeless people skyrocket.
The simple idea behind Mayor Berry’s initiative is to first and foremost acknowledge their plight. Bring work to them, upon realizing that most generalizations about homeless people are farfetched and false. And we must acknowledge that it may be more difficult to get a job when one doesn’t have a regular mailing address, a reliable phone at which they can be contacted, the means to keep and present a socially neat appearance, a lack of transportation, poor credit scores, major gaps on resumes if they have one, etc. All of these day-to-day realities make the acquisition and retention of employment significantly more challenging than for nearly any other class of people, who have been afforded these necessities through one means or another.
But jumpstarting their job opportunities through public service, especially when they are appropriately compensated for their work and given food, shelter, and the ability to network and branch out to explore new opportunities is a necessary first step that cities should begin to consider. As always, however, much of the grunt work to be done must manifest from the bottom-up, focusing on shifting our own deeply ingrained societal expectations and attitudes when it comes to one of the most vulnerable populations, a cosmic fate of sorts that could have been doled out to any one of us if the particular circumstances presented themselves to us as they did to them.
This article was written by Amar Ojha, founder and writer at dusk magazine.