The last time Ernie Barela panhandled, he made about 30 bucks. That cash lasted him two weeks.
Barela usually gets by in Santa Fe on his monthly checks: $245 in welfare and $150 in food stamps. But every once in a while he’ll order more fast food than he can afford and find himself short at the end of the month. To get over the hump, Barela might “fly a sign” somewhere on Cerrillos Road.
Panhandling takes preparation. As Barela explains, “There’s an art to it.” He’ll stop shaving for two days and throw on some raggedy clothes to engender sympathy. He served in the Army years ago, which makes for effective signage. “You could try to smile or you could look sad. If you look at somebody rudely, they’ll call the police on you,” Barela says.
Barela plans to speak on a panel this Friday titled “Why Am I Homeless? Why Do I Panhandle?” Organized by the grassroots group Santa Fe Need and Deed, the forum offers locals a chance to hear straight from the people who spend time on the street.
“It’s for people to hear what it’s like and to stop making assumptions based on what they think it’s like,” says Martha Hamblen, executive director of Need and Deed.
Christ Church Santa Fe will host. Homeless attendees can obtain a monthly bus pass or $10 gift card to Smith’s. Pizza 9 plans to deliver eight pizzas and plates and napkins, which will be available before the event kicks off at 1 pm.
To get ready, Sylvia, a community outreach coordinator for Need and Deed, hands out fliers for the forum to bench-sitters outside Pete’s Place, the nickname for the city-owned Santa Fe Resource and Opportunity Center. They read: “Your life experience is priceless. Your story matters.”
Another stack of fliers intended for the general public advertises that city police Chief Patrick Gallagher plans to attend. (Gallagher did not return requests from comment. Santa Fe Police spokesman Greg Gurulé tells SFR the department plans to send a representative, but could not confirm whether it would be Gallagher.)
City Council in 2010 passed an ordinance outlining where (on public property, but not near bus stops or ATMs), when (whenever, except for in the business capitol zoning district—which encompasses downtown and stretches of the Cerrillos Road corridor near St. Francis Drive and Baca Street—where it’s restricted before dusk and after dawn) and how (not aggressively) panhandlers may ask for money.
According to the ordinance, those who panhandle outside the parameters for the first time get a warning. Second offenses prompt a citation. Third time’s an arrest. The rules overturned a blanket ban on the practice that civil rights groups called unconstitutional.
Police officers earlier this year handed out their own fliers listing the panhandling provisions to downtown shopkeepers and members of the chamber of commerce. “Remember, panhandling is legal in certain situations and people should be judged by their criminal or outrageous behavior,” it reads. Officers may hand out the same flier at the community forum, according to Gurulé.
Before heading to Pete’s Place, Sylvia stopped by the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce office on St. Michael’s Drive to present a personal invitation to the largest business group in the city.
“I just want you all to have a voice,” she tells Simon Brackley, chamber CEO and President. Brackley asks Sylvia to post a flier in his window and says he’ll try to get someone at the event. No promises, though. He notes that a week’s notice is a bit short. Sylvia replies that she’s emailed the chamber several times.
"I need them to hear it from the horse’s mouth. It can’t always come from the police."
“I need them to hear it from the horse’s mouth. It can’t always come from the police,” she says later.
Sylvia lived in a tent when the going got rough, but now she lives in Section 8 housing. She got hooked up with Need and Deed years ago when Hamblen stopped by the shelter to hand out bus passes (the group no longer does this).
Friday’s forum evolved out of community meetings held every Monday at 2 pm by Need and Deed at Westminster Presbyterian Church, where volunteers serve hot meals (this week, beef stew) and distribute bags stocked with soap, shaving cream and toothbrushes. Racks of donated clothes are available for the taking. Hamblen invites homeless attendees to say whatever they’re feeling, with the expectation that nothing leaves the room: “We just let them talk because a lot of times people don’t have somebody to talk to that cares about them all week long.”
Hamblen, who founded the group five years ago, aims to bring in regulars for long-term mentoring. She says, “As a society, we can always do more than what we’re doing. It behooves us to care more.”
“Why Am I Homeless? Why Do I Panhandle?“
1 pm Friday Sept. 30. Free.
Christ Church Santa Fe,
1213 Don Gaspar Ave.,