The city of Lexington is launching a new jobs program that will pick up homeless people and panhandlers each day and take them to job sites in an effort to reverse a surge in panhandling.
Mayor Jim Gray announced the new program at a news conference Tuesday. The jobs program is modeled after a program in Albuquerque, N.M. A van will travel to areas frequented by homeless people or panhandlers, pick them up and take them to a job site. They will be paid $9 an hour, higher than minimum wage.
The program is part of a multi-pronged effort that the city is deploying in response to a surge in panhandling in recent months.
“We are offering a hand up to those who are asking for a handout in our streets,” Gray said. “We are offering a ride to people who want a job.”
The “End Panhandling Now!” van will be operated by New Life Day Center. With approval from the Urban County Council, the city plans to donate the city-owned van to the organization. The initial cost of the program is $50,000. City officials said there is money in the current budget for the program.
But they hope private donations will keep the program afloat in coming years.
Instead of giving change to panhandlers, Gray encouraged residents to give to LexGive.com, which will help support the jobs van and will hopefully pay for the cost of the program. The United Way’s 2-1-1 program is administering LexGive and offers free resource referral to those needing help.
Steve Polston, director of the New Life Day Center, said a test run will be next week, but the group will officially launch the program on May 8. Polston and Charlie Lanter, former director of the city’s Office of Homelessness Prevention and Intervention, visited the Albuquerque program and liked what they saw.
Lanter said the Albuquerque program started with one van and had to add more vans because of its popularity. The program will first focus on city beautification projects but private businesses that want day labor can also participate in the program, city officials said Tuesday.
Lanter said the majority of people panhandling on city streets are not homeless.
“Very few of the panhandlers are literally homeless. We know most of the people here who are homeless. We work with them every day,” Lanter said.
In February, the state Supreme Court struck down a 2007 Lexington ordinance that prohibits panhandling on public streets or intersections, saying it violated the First Amendment. Since the ordinance was tossed, the number of people asking for money on Lexington streets and complaints about panhandling has skyrocketed, Lexington police and council members say.
Last week, Lexington officials announced that the city is stepping up police patrols in downtown Lexington and is fast-tracking an ordinance that would focus on pedestrian and traffic safety to replace the ordinance that was struck down earlier this year. That ordinance will be discussed at a May 2 meeting of the Urban County Council General Government and Social Services Committee.
The city also is stepping up a campaign encouraging people not to give to panhandlers. Instead, people should give to those social service groups that serve the homeless. The city has printed thousands of fliers encouraging people not to give to panhandlers. Gray has said that a more targeted marketing campaign is in the works.
In the next few weeks, the city will erect signs at intersections asking people not to give cash to panhandlers. There also will be information in LexServ bills and through public service announcements.