What if, instead of giving panhandlers a dollar or some spare change, we gave them a day's work? That's what Calvary Episcopal Church is proposing with a new program aimed at getting panhandlers off the streets and into odd jobs picking up litter or clearing out weeds.
Earlier this week, Calvary hosted a summit for area homeless agencies, business leaders, and government officials in the hopes of gaining both financial support and a commitment from city and county leaders to partner with them on their Willing to Work Memphis program.
Willing to Work would be modeled after a successful program in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in which a volunteer drives a van around town picking up panhandlers and offering them temporary work provided by that city's public works department. Those who participate make $9 an hour. Since Albuquerque's program launched last September, 17 participants have transitioned into full-time jobs, and 11 people have been enrolled in mental health services.
The Rev. Christopher Girata of Calvary Episcopal said a similar program could be launched in Memphis for $150,000, which he said would cover the cost of the van, gas, lunches, and storage for participants' belongings (and even pets) while they work. Ideally, Memphis' public works department would identify work sites, and payment for the day's work would be donated by partnering agencies.
"No one agency or church needs to shoulder this burden alone. We can do it together," Girata said.
He said some aspects of the program would require city or county oversight, such as how to handle background checks for the temporary workers and training for the van driver to be able to "roughly evaluate a person's capacity for employment." He recommended that drivers not Breathalyze potential workers but rather determine sobriety by monitoring a person's behavior.
At the summit, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell both voiced support for the program. Strickland said he'd talk with the city's public works department about the proposal. Luttrell said the county appropriates funds annually for blight remediation, and he thought those funds might be able to help support the program.
Kevin Kane, CEO of the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau, said his organization would offer some financial support as well.
"We have visitors who come here from all over the world, and they're often alarmed by our aggressive panhandlers," Kane said.
But Kane cautioned that some panhandlers around town are part of a network of people who aren't actually homeless, and he advised that the program should include some way to screen out people who don't actually need the services.
Girata told those at the summit that, when he first moved to Memphis, he was struck by all the "No Panhandling" posters in downtown windows.
"Rather than punitively saying 'You can't do that,' why don't we give them an option instead of panhandling?" Girata asked.
Calvary will host a follow-up meeting on Wednesday, February 24th at 4 p.m. for homelessness agencies, business groups, downtown stakeholders, and anyone who would like to help support the program.