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Richard Berry: How Can Cities Create Opportunities For The Homeless?

Sep 28, 2018
Originally published on October 11, 2018 11:34 am

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Building Humane Cities.

About Richard Berry's TED Talk

As Albuquerque's mayor, Richard Berry tried a new approach to addressing panhandling: offering work and connecting homeless with city services. He says it's a more humane option more cities can try.

About Richard Berry

Richard Berry served as the mayor of Albuquerque from 2009 to 2017. In 2015, Berry started the "There's a Better Way" campaign, a work program that tries to combat the city's problem of panhandling and homelessness by offering day jobs to homeless residents.

Prior to that program, Berry launched "Heading Home," a program that provides housing to the chronically homeless. Before serving as mayor, Berry was a two term member of the New Mexico House of Representatives.

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On the show today, building humane cities - ideas about many of the challenges that cities now face.


RICHARD BERRY: When you're mayor for eight years, you get a chance to meet people from all over.

RAZ: This is Richard Berry. He was the mayor of Albuquerque, N.M., from 2009 to 2017.

BERRY: And you'll meet people at the grocery store. You'll meet people on the street. You start having conversations. You'll do deep dives in your community. And you start becoming keenly aware that, as much as you think you understand, you just haven't walked a mile in those shoes.

RAZ: During Richard's time as mayor, Albuquerque saw a spike in its homeless population and lots more people panhandling in the streets. And so Richard wanted to come up with a more humane approach for how to deal with it.

BERRY: So I saw a gentleman on July 15, 2015 - I believe was the day. I was on my way back to City Hall from a lunch meeting. And he was holding a sign that said he wants a job. And listen. I'm a B student, and I'm not a genius, but I went back to my staff, and I said, listen. I saw a gentleman holding a sign that said he wants a job. Why don't we do something different? Why don't we make government less complicated rather than more complicated? Why don't we take this man at his word? And I grew up in Nebraska around a rural environment. I knew there was dignity in work. I saw people, including my grandparents and my parents, work hard. And there's just something about having a reason to get up in the morning and accomplish something that's been ingrained in me since I was a child. And so we just wanted to take that and present an opportunity.


BERRY: This is a story about what happened in my city when we decided to think differently about panhandling and lift people up through the dignity of work.

RAZ: Here's more from Richard Berry on the TED stage.


BERRY: We call it There's A Better Way because I believe there's a better way to get the money you need than panhandling on the corner. I believe there's a better way to help your brothers and sisters in need than handing a few dollars out the car window. We know there's dignity in work. We also know that people are much more likely to invest in themselves if they believe that their community is willing to invest in them first.

And because we're all wired to be kind and compassionate, it always feels good to hand a couple of dollars to someone that is in need. But if you talk to panhandlers, many of them will tell you that your few dollars don't necessarily go towards feeding the body. They go towards feeding an addiction. You see, Albuquerque's a beautiful place. We're a mile high. The Sandia Mountains on the east - the Rio Grande runs through the center of our city. But there's always something to do, always weeds to pull, litter to pick up. So if you're going to have an initiative like this in your city, you have to ask yourself two questions. First one is, is there anything left to do in your city? Then if the answer is no, would you please give me your mayor's phone number...


BERRY: ...Because I need some advice.


BERRY: But the second question you have to ask is this - are your solutions to panhandling working? If you're taking the punitive approach, I'm going to suggest that your solutions aren't working. And I know you're not getting to the root of the problem in your city. So if you have something to do, you need people that need something to do, the good news is it's not that complicated.


RAZ: So what'd you do?

BERRY: We took an old van from our motor pool, an old Dodge van, put some tires on it, made sure the brakes worked. And then we reached out to St. Martin's HopeWorks in Albuquerque, and we asked for their help. They're a nonprofit that works with the homeless. And they do a lot of great things from feeding programs to housing programs to employment programs. We took $50,000. We created a pilot program. And we hired them to be the facilitators, to do the paperwork, to pay the individuals that worked for the day, to do all of the functional things that needed to be done to run the program.

But more importantly, we had this notion that if you lift somebody up for the day, they are naturally going to feel better about themselves, about their circumstances. Somebody believed in them today. And they may have an opportunity and may be inclined to try to reach out for some of the services that maybe they hadn't reached out for before. So we wanted to make those available.

And of the 7,000 jobs that have been created - day jobs - through the Better Way program, we've been able to impact almost 1,600 or 1,700 people. And of those, 365 of them have actually reached out for mental health services, substance abuse services, the things that they need to do to make improvements in their lives. And so it's just a different way of looking at the situation rather than handing $5 out your window, which, frankly, I'm convinced isn't the way to help anybody off the corner.


BERRY: It doesn't take much. We started with an old van, a great, local nonprofit and $50,000. But we also had to have community trust. And fortunately, we had built that up in years prior to Better Way. We have a program called Albuquerque Heading Home, a housing-first model where we house the chronically homeless. And when I told my community we wanted to do that differently, I said there's a smart way to do the right thing.

We have now housed 650 chronically homeless, medically vulnerable, frankly, most likely to die in the streets in our city. Combined with Albuquerque Heading Home, the Better Way program, Albuquerque has reduced unsheltered homelessness in our city by 80 percent. We've been able to reduce the chronic homeless population in our city by 40 percent.

RAZ: So, I mean, everything you're saying to me, you know, makes perfect sense. I love this. But to a lot of people, this would still be controversial, right? People might not want the government to be so involved. I mean, and you've probably heard this before.

BERRY: Well, we put a call out to our community for donations, and we've received over $60,000 in donations from the community to help pay for this day work. And so it's not just government.

RAZ: Right. Yeah.

BERRY: You know, and if you've been in public office for any time and you're not convinced already that government can't do everything, you're probably not paying attention. And if we just look at this thing through a collective impact lens, we can make a bigger difference in more people's lives. And we can do it as a community and be proud of that.

RAZ: Yeah. And I mean, despite the fact that clearly, this has had some impact in Albuquerque, I mean, people shouldn't expect that, all of a sudden, this is going to eradicate the homelessness problem or stop panhandling entirely, right?

BERRY: Well, we shouldn't be afraid to try hard things, either from a policy standpoint or from a community standpoint, just because it looks daunting. If you stick with it, you can actually make a difference. And we were able to do that. But then, as you find out as a mayor, you get up the next day, and there's another issue. There's another challenge. Something changes. The economy goes up. The economy goes down. And so you can't rely on one thing, and you just - you can't stand idly by. You have to continually try to look for best practices.

RAZ: Yeah.

BERRY: And so it goes when you're mayor of a major American city or if you're mayor of even a smaller community. You see people on their worst day. You see things happen that keep you up at night. And most of the time, you see people thriving, and you see people helping each other. But you never lose the sense that there's just a long way to go everywhere. That's what being humane and being compassionate is about. So you just try to build a mix of opportunities for people so that they can lift each other up because government can't just do it all. It has to be neighbor lifting up neighbor.

RAZ: Richard Berry - he's the former mayor of Albuquerque. You can see his entire talk at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.