ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – Timothy Puente holds a small cardboard sign and sits on a slice of concrete that panhandlers call the “gold mine.”
“I’m homeless right now,” Puente said.
He often stands at the corner where Interstate 25, Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Oak Street NE meet. Cars quickly come to a standstill and their drivers see Puente panhandling. Several homeless people say it’s a lucrative corner.
“I appreciate everything that someone does for me,” Puente said.
He sits patiently unless a driver motions him over for a dollar or some change. The law allows him to sit and panhandle as long as he doesn’t block traffic, approach drivers without being summoned or he’s not violent. That would be aggressive panhandling, which is illegal.
Puente says police still harass him.
“They scream at you, yell at you: ‘If I see you again, I’m going to do this and that to ya.’ I’ve been threatened by the police,” he said.
In the past, the Albuquerque Police Department has done little to enforce the city’s aggressive panhandling ordinance. In more than five years police have cited 11 people for aggressive panhandling, according to Metropolitan Court records. One of those citations was issued in the past six months.
Almost 11 cases were eventually dismissed or pleaded down to lesser charges.
One man who said his name was Connor begged for money at the “gold mine” corner. He said he’s due in court May 19th to answer an aggressive panhandling charge. He told News 13 he’s not worried about the citation and he’ll be back on the streets panhandling again. Connor he said does an unofficial “social study” with his signs to see which drivers like the best and pay the most. He said one read “could have been a doctor, could have been a lawyer but instead I’m an unpaid poet.”
KRQE New 13 asked for a comment from the Albuquerque Police Department in late April. A week later, Mayor Richard Berry announced a program called “There’s a Better Way,” which asks residents to not give money to panhandlers. Instead, Berry asked people to donate to United Way of Central New Mexico. The city is also putting up signs at 11 of the busiest panhandler street corners asking people to call 311 for city services like food, shelter and mental health.
After the news conference, APD commented on the low number of panhandling citations police issued.
“In all honesty we don’t enforce it that often,” APD spokesman Tanner Tixier said about the ordinance. “Man power issues. We’ve got a lot more pressing issues to take care of than panhandlers at this time.”
Tixier said officer don’t arrest people for aggressive panhandling. It’s a petty misdemeanor charge. The law says the first violation is a written warning. The second violation can carry up to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine.
Visitors to Nob Hill, the University of New Mexico area and Downtown Albuquerque said there is a congregation of aggressive panhandlers.
“It’s usually the same ones over and over. Some of them I know by frist hand, their name, I know their name,” said Anthony Santillanes, who works in Nob Hill.
The Safety in Public Places Ordinance was written in 2004 by city councilors who cited “an increase in aggressive panhandling throughout the city (that) has become extremely disturbing and disruptive to residents and businesses, and has contributed not only to the loss of access to and enjoyment of public places, but also to an enhanced sense of fear, intimidation and disorder among the general population.”
The ordinance says panhandlers can’t approach or follow pedestrians, solicit money from persons at or near banks, automated teller machines, bus stops, or standing in lines. The original ordinance also prohibited people from begging in Nob Hill and in Downtown Albuquerque.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico filed a lawsuit against the city, contending the ordinance was too vague and too broad and violated the constitutional protections of free speech and due process. The ACLU was successful and the ordinance was amended.
Now, panhandlers cannot ask for money in Nob Hill and Downtown Albuquerque after dark.
Panhandlers like Puente say they’re just trying to collect a few bucks to live, but some residents say it’s an unwanted sight.
“It just makes Albuquerque look like a bad place,” said Albuquerque resident Ashley Garcia.