‘A Better Way’ program offers hope to people panhandling in Tulsa

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Linda Boyle took part in the “A Better Way” program Wednesday. KASSIE MCCLUNG/The Frontier
Linda Boyle doesn’t want to depend on panhandling for money.

She’s embarrassed to ask passersby for their pocket change, and she doesn’t make much.

She wants to work.

“It’s people watching you, looking at you, judging you. Guilt,” Boyle said. “It’s just hard because I know I’m very capable of working, I just am not able to find a fit for me yet.”

Boyle, 49, wants a steadier income, and she wants her five children to be proud of her. That’s why she spent Wednesday cleaning up Tulsa parks and visiting with social workers who can get her connected to services.

She was participating in the “A Better Way” program for the first time. The program, which launched March 7, is a collaboration between Mental Health Association Oklahoma, the city of Tulsa and Tulsa Area United Way.

A Better Way provides people who panhandle an alternative three times per week. The program offers cash in exchange for a day’s work, and ultimately aims to connect people to services to get them employed and housed.

The program runs Monday, Wednesday and Friday from about 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. On Mondays and Fridays, A Better Way’s green-marked van drives around Tulsa making stops at “hot spot” areas that are known for panhandling or homelessness.

On Wednesdays, the van picks people up at Denver House, 252 W. 17th Pl., MHAO’s drop-in center. The program typically has about seven people each day.

Boyle hopes MHAO can help connect her to a job suited for her and onto Social Security disability benefits.

She once worked at an animal clinic before health problems made that impossible for her to maintain, she said. In 2011, Boyle’s aneurysm burst suddenly. Her headaches have thwarted most of her job options since.

So Boyle started panhandling to try to make ends meet, and it has changed her perspective.

“I recognize that I used to be pretty cynical about people like that — like me,” Boyle said. “I used to think, ‘Oh get a job’ and stuff like that. Now it’s like, you know, it changes your whole perspective on life.”

But Boyle felt hopeful on Wednesday. At the end of the day, she took home $65 in cash. That’s more than the $10 to $15 she would usually get panhandling.

“I’m just thankful that no matter how hard it is for me to be out there that I’m able to still keep going, and I’m trying to work on a way to get my kids proud of me again,” Boyle said. “It means everything to me. I love my children, and I love my family.”

‘A better way’
Lisa Reser, service navigator at MHAO, works with A Better Way, and helps connect people to services. She said the program improves each day.

“That’s kinda what has been exciting,” Reser said. “It’s just getting much easier every time. People are starting to recognize the van and everyone is really eager to work with us.”

Alex Aguilar, director of MHAO’s Employment First program who oversees A Better Way, said the program has taken off, and demand is high.

“We really hit the ground running,” she said. “We had started out with crews of about six and now we’re at crews of eight a day.”

For now, eight is the program’s capacity. A Better Way has a wait list. There hasn’t been many repeat workers, Aguilar said, but that’s the way the organization wants it to be.

“We’ve tried to limit it to that just because so many people are interested in it,” Aguilar said. “Of course, we love to provide the opportunity for people as often as we can.

“It’s not a day labor thing, it’s not a sustainable employment thing. It really is just a launch pad to get people into better employment and off of the streets and out of panhandling.”

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Kassie McClung

Staff writer

Kassie McClung reports on health, criminal justice and other state issues. Contact: Kassie@readfrontier.com or 918-935-1044.
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