Portland work program for panhandlers takes root on city properties

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PORTLAND — It was a good day to work outdoors May 18.

Sean O’Brien and Peter LaRoche made the most of it while collecting litter along Back Cove.

“This is a way to do good for the environment and be part of the community,” said LaRoche, who is a member of the fledgling Portland Opportunity Crew.

For six hours a day on Wednesdays and Thursdays, people who have been panhandling at city intersections can work by cleaning public properties. The municipal program began at the beginning of this month and will run through November.

The majority of the $42,000 in funding comes from proceeds of the sale of the city Cotton Street parking lot, which sits between Spring and Free streets.

Social Services Program Manager Aaron Geyer said the city will also seek private donations and look into the idea of extending the program into the winter months.

“People don’t wake up and inherently want to panhandle,” he said.

Crew employees are paid $10.68 per hour, the city’s minimum wage, and are also provided breakfast and lunch made at the Barron Center, the city-owned assisted living and rehabilitation facility on Brighton Avenue.

With a van from the city’s Park’s Recreation & Facilities Department, employees can be driven to jobs through the city.

“We are not limited to where we can go,” Human Services Counselor Matthew Pryor said.

Pryor conducted a survey last fall of people who ask for cash while standing at city intersections and median strips and found a high interest in some kind of work program.

He also found nearly everyone he asked said they endured some kind of harassment while seeking contributions.

“It does happen once or twice a day,” LaRoche said. “People throw handfuls of pennies at you or tell you to get a job.”

O’Brien said he cobbles together part-time jobs to make ends meet, but also panhandles. A native of New Gloucester, he lives with a friend in Portland, but also stayed at the Oxford Street Shelter for about 1 1/2 years.

“This is a good thing to do, help clean up the city. It is an easy job,” he said.

Finding the money for a security deposit and first month’s rent for his own apartment is not as easy, he added.

“You have to save every dime,” O’Brien said.

The Portland Opportunity Crew is patterned after programs in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and San Jose, California, and is a means of responding to city panhandlers.

In 2013, city councilors voted to ban loitering on city median strips, a law struck down in U.S. District Court in Maine on Feb. 12, 2014. The city lost its appeal to the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston in 2015, and eventually paid $175,000 to three plaintiffs.

To help staff the city crews, the city is working with temp agencies Workforce Solutions and People Ready. This also allows participant the chance to get job training and employment support.

“We are promoting self-sufficiency and trying to create a pathway back for people,” Geyer said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Peter LaRoche fills a bag with litter May 18 at Back Cove. As part of the new Portland Opportunity Crew, he can work for the city two days a week through early fall.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.