This mayor saw a homeless man with a 'Will work' sign. It gave him a great idea.

The city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, used to ticket people for panhandling. Now they're trying something new — something that's got a lot of locals excited.

Participants in Albuquerque's "There's a Better Way" initiative working on a city beautification project. All photos provided by the city of Albuquerque, used with permission.


Two days a week, an employee of a local homeless services organization drives a van around the city and asks homeless people if they want to work for the day.

"If they say yes, they hop in the van. We've already got a lunch for them, ready to go," Will Cole, the van driver, told Upworthy.

The idea was hatched by Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry, who saw it as a way to help, not punish, people in need.

"I was driving one day ... and I see a gentleman standing there with a sign that says: 'Will work,'" Berry told Upworthy. "So we decided to take the program to the next level."

The program, called "There's a Better Way," was started by Berry's administration to connect homeless people with employment, substance abuse, mental health, and housing services, and it recently expanded to include a program to connect homeless residents with jobs for the day.

"As a mayor, you want to be effective, and you want to do it in a way that's compassionate. And you also want to do it in a way that really maybe helps people get out of the circumstances that they're in," Berry said.

Those who say "yes" to the job offer work five-and-a-half hour shifts for $9/hour.

"We want to give the dignity of work for a day," Berry said. "The dignity of a day's work for a day's pay is a very good thing. It helps people stabilize, it helps them with their self-confidence, and it helps them get back on their feet."

The work often includes pulling weeds, picking up trash, or engaging in other beautification projects around the city. According to Mayor Berry, out of every 12-14 people Cole asks, 10 say yes to the gig.

At the end of their day, Cole's van drops the workers off at St. Martin's Hospitality Center where they have access to food, shelter, and other services if they choose.

"This could be anyone of us," Vicky Palmer, Associate Executive Director of St. Martin's, told Upworthy. "There are so many people who are a paycheck away, and to stigmatize somebody because they're homeless without even knowing the reason why, that's why we're in the business we're in."

Since the program began last year, it has been so successful that Berry just announced it is expanding.

It will increase operations from two days a week to four, with an additional $181,000 in its budget.

Berry credits the community for supporting "There's a Better Way," not only through donations but through taking initiative and reaching out. Since the city linked its homeless services to its 311 help line, over 7,200 people have called 311 offering help or asking to be helped. The equivalent of 128 city blocks have been cleaned of nearly 50,000 pounds of weeds and trash.

The city's new 311 sign, urging homeless residents to seek help and community members to reach out.

According to Palmer, one of the biggest successes of the program has been humanizing a group of people who often don't get a fair shake.

"It's frustrating when you're sitting in your car and somebody's trying to get money from you, but they're human beings," Palmer said. "It's really hard for us to take that stance because that could be my mother. It could be my brother."

"I think we have to have that compassion and approach so that we can end homelessness."

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Capital One

Brian Olesen never imagined he would end up homeless.

The former U.S. Air Force medic had led a full and active life, complete with a long career in the medical field, a 20-year marriage, and a love of anything aquatic. But after hip surgery and chronic back pain left him disabled in 2013, he lost his ability to work. Due to changes in eligibility requirements, he couldn't qualify for federal veteran housing programs. His back issues were difficult to prove medically, so he didn't qualify for disability. Though he'd worked his whole life, having no income for five years took its toll. He got evicted from a couple of apartments and found himself living on the streets.

But in 2018, two things completely turned Olesen's life around. He was able to both qualify for disability and to move into an affordable housing community in Miami's Goulds neighborhood called Karis Village.

When people think of affordable housing, they don't usually picture a place like Karis Village. The 88-unit development is brand new, and built with an attention to design that is not always expected for developments that serve as home to people on limited incomes. The apartments have tile floors, marble countertops, and all new appliances and furniture, and the grounds are beautiful and well-kept, with a playground and common areas for residents to gather.

Brian Olesen in his kitchen at Karis VillageCapital One

Karis Village isn't just a housing development; it's a home and a community. Half of the units are set aside for veterans who have experienced homelessness, like Olesen. The other half are largely occupied by single-parent families.

"To me, this building was just a gift," says Olesen. "All of the different parties that got together to put this building together… making half the building available to veterans. We've got no place to go."

Addressing veteran homelessness was one of the goals of Karis Village, which was built through a partnership that included Carrfour Supportive Housing — a mission-driven, not-for-profit affordable housing organization in southern Florida — and Capital One's Community Finance team. More than just an affordable place to live, the community has full-time staff on hand to help coordinate services—from addiction recovery programs to transportation options to job search and placement. Also included are peer counselors who provide emotional and psychological support for residents.

Karis Village, an affordable housing community in Miami, Florida.Capital One

Carrfour President and CEO Stephanie Berman says the core function of the services team on site is to build a supportive community.

"Often when you think of folks leaving homelessness and coming into housing, you think of shelters or some kind of traditional housing," she says. "You don't really think about a community, and that's really what we build and what we operate. What we're really striving to create is community. We find that our families thrive when you create a sense of community."

The intention to create a supportive community at Karis Village was a priority from the get go. Fabian Ramirez, a Capital Officer on Capital One's Community Finance team, says the bank did a listening tour in southern Florida to explore community development and affordable housing options in the area and to hear what was most needed. After deciding to partner with Carrfour, the bank provided not only an $8 million construction loan and a $25 million low income housing tax credit (LIHTC) investment to help build Karis Village, but it also kicked in a $250,000 social purpose grant to help fund the social support services that would be put in place for residents.

"It's not just all about providing the brick and mortar," says Ramirez. "It's about being able to contribute to the sustainability of the development and of the lives of the people who move into the building."


Capital One

Olesen says he and his fellow residents benefit greatly from the network of support services offered in the building. He says a counselor comes to meet with him once a month, sometimes right in his apartment. He also gets help maintaining a connection with the Veteran Affairs office. Other services include social workers and counselors for drug addiction and alcoholism.

Olesen loves being around other veterans, and he says hearing the sound of children playing keeps the community lively. He says anywhere else he could afford to live on disability wouldn't be nearly as nice and would likely involve shared kitchens and bathrooms and neighborhoods you wouldn't want to go out in at night.

If it weren't for Karis Village, Olesen says he doesn't know where he would be today: "I had nowhere to go and this is a safe, beautiful place to spend my retirement."

"I don't think they could have done a much better job of putting this place together and supplying us with what we need," he says. "I have so much appreciation for the ability to have a place to live. And then you add to that that it's beautiful and completely furnished and you didn't need to bring anything—I don't know what more you could ask for."

Karis Village and another development for veterans built the same year enabled the neighborhood of Goulds to meet the requirements set forth by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to declare an end to veteran homelessness in the area.

Ending veteran homelessness altogether is a complex task, but communities like Karis Village show how it can be done—and done well. When government agencies, non-profit organizations, and corporate funding programs come together to solve big problems, big solutions can be built and maintained.

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