By Mark Carlisle
Glendale City Council is considering and likely to add a work-for-pay homeless program for next fiscal year, which begins July 1.
In the Tuesday, May 22 Council meeting, a majority of councilmembers spoke in support of the one-year, $100,000 pilot program, which emulates the “There’s A Better Way” program started in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 2015 and spread to many other cities, including Tempe and Tucson.
Council reached consensus to move forward with planning for the program. The topic will come back before Council Tuesday, June 12.
The program would involve the city contracting a nonprofit group to travel around Glendale in a van or bus a few days each week, picking up panhandlers and other homeless people and taking them to sites to pay them minimum wage do work, mainly trash pickup, that the city needs done anyway.
After the workers are paid, the nonprofit workers would connect them with resources available to the homeless and possibly introduce them to case managers.
Mayor Jerry Weiers, who suggested the program and visited Albuquerque for a day to observe its program, said that while the program provides these people with much-needed money and the dignity of work, it is not about trying to provide full-time employment but as a foot in the door to connect them to resources they can use to improve their lives.
“The words that they used in Albuquerque is it’s a hook for these nonprofits to have the opportunity to get them to a place where they can say, ‘Here’s some folks over here that can help you with this problem; here’s some folks over here that can help you with this,’” he said.
The mayor said many homeless people are reluctant to accept help until someone forms a relationship with them and builds trust.
In her presentation to Council, community services director Stephanie Small said Glendale’s Community Development Advisory Committee has requested for the program about $41,000 of federal dollars available to Glendale, which would cover nearly half of the first year’s cost if approved by the Department for Housing and Urban Development.
Of the six cities with the program that city staff researched, none used federal money for the program, but paid it out of their general fund.
City officials discussed leveraging more of the cost by seeking support from businesses and nonprofits. Any remaining cost would come out of the general fund.
Yucca District Councilwoman Joyce Clark supported moving forward with the program but said she wanted to see more data on Albuquerque’s program and concrete ways to measure the success of Glendale’s program to ensure that it would be cost-effective and that the city would not be throwing away money on a “do-good program with limited results.”
The mayor is hopeful that much of the cost would be money the city spends anyway.
Mayor Weiers brought up field operations director Michelle Woytenko, who said the city currently spends just over $50,000 per year collecting trash that’s blown away from the city landfill. Some of that money, she said, could be reallocated to the Better Way program, if it accomplishes the same task.
The mayor said a homeless man he spoke to participating in Albuquerque’s program said that the money he receives helps him survive another few days and keeps him from resorting to desperate measures like breaking into homes or shoplifting.
“I think this is a cost-saving (measure) for the city rather than a cost that we have to incur,” Mayor Weiers said. “But with that said, it also is less police responding to theft within stores, break-ins into homes, our jails being tied up and transportation if we take them down to county.”
Mayor Weiers also said having fewer panhandlers on the street makes the city look better to tourists.
Staff’s presentation to Council outlined a four-hour shift, but Council requested they increase it to five. The mayor said that the program shouldn’t take up the full day because they’ll want to have time to connect the workers to resources.
The workers would be paid in cash, and the work would have to adhere to federal and state laws, such as ensuring the workers are eligible to work in Arizona and are sober. The nonprofit group the city contracts with would be responsible for adhering to those laws.
Mayor Weiers said another homeless man he talked to in Albuquerque said the program forces him to stay sober, because they won’t take him if he’s not.
The mayor has identified the Phoenix Rescue Mission, which runs Glendale’s Hope for Hunger Food Bank, 5605 N. 55th Ave., as the group he’d like to take on the program, but that is not definite. Ms. Small pointed out the city would need to go through a procurement process to decide which group to partner with.
If a worker is paid over $600 for the year, there are IRS forms to fill out. Most other cities cut off workers before passing that amount, which would be the 11th five-hour shift for Glendale.
It would be up to the nonprofit to decide if they want to go through the trouble of filling out the forms, but the goal of the program is to have advanced workers to the next steps of reintegration by that point.
Ocotillo District Councilman Jamie Aldama said he’s met several homeless people in Glendale with strong skills who were in good positions before losing their jobs and their homes. Ms. Small agreed with him.
“We have many individuals within our homeless community that have everything from a high school diploma to a PhD,” Ms. Small said. “Everybody just has a different circumstance that they may have come across as to why they have found themselves to be homeless and living on the street.”
Mr. Aldama hoped the program would provide opportunities for these skilled people beyond just trash pickup. Ms. Small said that the program itself is only meant to provide “quick opportunities” for homeless individuals to make money. However, some of the supportive services they are connected to are workforce initiatives with groups like Goodwill, Salvation Army or Maricopa County that can get them better jobs with a workable wage and can support them affording a rental of an apartment or house.
Mr. Aldama said that while this program won’t solve the city’s homeless problem, it will be a good step.
“We owe it to the citizens to do something. And this is not a solve-all. This is not going to solve all of the Glendale homeless situation, we know that. Starting a pilot program is appropriate,” he said.