For years, city officials in Portland, Maine, have attempted to address the rising number of panhandlers on sidewalks or standing in medians – begging for money on the streets.
This summer, Portland is trying something new: hiring them.
“We’re really trying to break down the barriers, getting people on the path to sufficiency,” said Aaron Geyer, Portland’s General Assistance Program.
Geyer has helped launch Portland’s “Opportunity Crew,” a pilot program that hires panhandlers for jobs like trash clean-up in city parks.
So far, two people are working, and two more are completing the paper work to join.
“It’s a huge success, thus far,” said Geyer.
Workers typically do six hour shifts, two days a week. The city pays them minimum wage: $10.68 an hour.
“I don’t mind it at all,” said Peter Laroche. “It’s better than what I was doing.”
Laroche was the first person to sign up for the Opportunity Crew. He’s been picking up trash for two weeks, and already sees a difference in himself.
“I’m getting my work ethic back, after being in a hard spot for a while,” he said. Laroche was homeless for two years, and panhandled for three.
“I really don’t want to be out there, degrading myself,” he said.
City employees have been trying to recruit panhandlers to join the Opportunity Crew by visiting them on street corners and medians, explaining that they can help them get identification and fill out the proper paperwork.
“I think inherently folks don’t wake up in the morning wanting to panhandle,” said Geyer.
Portland’ Opportunity Crew is modeled after a successful program in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Portland City Manager Jon Jennings read about it, and asked staff to implement something similar in Maine’s largest city.
For years, Portland has struggled with ways to address the rising number of homeless and panhandlers. Tourists and business owners have complained, and city officials have tried different ordinances to discourage the practice. But the panhandling persisted.
City leaders believe this new approach could put panhandlers on the path to employment.
“Our goal is to put Portland residents in the best possible position to succeed,” said Geyer.
The pilot program runs until November. So far, the Opportunity Crew has cleaned up Portland’s Back Cove, Eastern Prom trail and Tukey’s Bridge, and the Franklin Arterial median area.