Spreading Across the Nation: Could Milwaukee Try This Approach to Panhandling?

What do you do when you pull up to a red light and see someone asking for money on the corner?

The City of Milwaukee hopes you don't hand over cash, and instead give to a charity. It's an initiative that's been in place almost a year.

Gina Wozniak works at Central Bark, right off one of Milwaukee's most popular panhandling spots. 
"I see people hanging out on our corners. Off the freeway ramps. Sometimes in our parking lot. Sometimes on the side of our building," said Wozniak.

It's been a problem at the dog daycare. Dogs and people have been bothered.

"I get customers that come in and say there's someone in the parking lot who's bothering me, or there's someone outside who's making me uncomfortable," said Wozniak.
Wozniak says they've found garbage, clothes, needles, and people on their front stoop.

Last year Milwaukee came up with a solution asking people to keep the change. Signs have been been posted on street corners that often host panhandlers since spring. They are up at the same intersection as the Central Bark. 

"It doesn't help to give someone a dollar or two at a time. It's better they come in and work with them get treatment on whatever there problem is," said Alderman Terry Witkowski, District 13.

Witkowski proposed the "Keep the Change" initiative after his constituents informed him of a panhandling problem. 

"Keep the Change" encourages people to give money to charities, not individual panhandlers. The city offers resources on their website.

Milwaukee just passed a new ordinance in October, banning loitering on some medians across the city. Loitering is not allowed on medians less than five feet, but CBS 58 found many panhandlers on the medians, right next to "Keep the Change" signs. It begs the question, "Is this the right approach?"

CBS 58 asked police and city officials if Milwaukee's panhandling efforts are working. "Keep the Change" is difficult to measure, but the city is asking nearby businesses and neighbors if they've seen a difference on street corners.

Milwaukee Police don't have citation numbers to provide. The ordinance for city medians went into effect less than two weeks ago, on October 28th.

A handful of cities have tried something different. Chicago, Seattle, Honolulu, Anchorage, Austin, Denver have all taken part in a unique program. The idea started in Albuquerque, by their mayor, Richard Berry. 

"I was driving home from lunch, and I saw a fellow with a sign saying, 'I need a job,' and we've all seen that in our communities. I came back, talked to my chief of staff, and said, 'Okay, the man needs a job let's give him a job,'" said Berry.

The program is called "There's a Better Way." It started about a year ago. 

"...to try to get panhandlers off the corner, and we're doing it by offering them employment for the day. Nine dollars cash, and we work with city employees and non-profits to pull weeds, pick up trash. We've beautified over 250 city blocks so far," said Berry.

A truck drives around to pick panhandlers up off the streets. They are paid nine dollars an hour, and when the day is done, they're paid cash. They're also connected to mental health and substance abuse treatment. CBS 58 spoke with Mayor Barry in Albuquerque over Skype.
"We went and took an old van out of our motor pool; an old 2006 Dodge. It wasn't being used for anything else. We wrapped it, made sure the breaks and everything else was safe. We took $50,000 and gave it to a local non-profit called St. Martins Hospitality Center. They act as the fiscal agent and also run the program for us, and we got started. We called it a pilot project 2 days a week. Now we've doubled it to four days a week, and we're looking at the next logical steps in Albuquerque," said Berry.

Mayor Berry says the program will continue to run as long as it is working. So far, 180 people have gotten permanent employment, and 136 have received help.

Albuquerque's "There's a Better Way" program started by budgeting $50,000 from the city's budget. After the program's success, $181,000 was allocated in this year's budget.

CBS 58 asked Alderman Witkowski if "There's a Better Way" could this work in Milwaukee. He blames politics in the state capitol for cutting the city budge, and says Milwaukee simply can't fund something like the program in Albuquerque. 

Mayor Berry believes it's worth looking into as a long term solution. 

"We're telling folks there's a better way than handing 5 bucks out your window for someone to maybe buy drugs or alcohol with. Why don't we have more of a collective impact as a city. Let's give people people a day job, the dignity of work, and let them know that we believe in them and see them as members of our community," said Berry.

For more information on "There's a Better Way," visit the City of Albuquerque's website.

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