PORTLAND, Maine — Cleaning trash and landscaping public parks might not be glamorous work, but Derek Cote says it beats begging for change in a traffic median at rush hour, and he’s looking forward to his hometown giving him a chance to do it.
“As soon as I get an ID, I’ll be doing it,” Cote, 33, a panhandler in Maine’s largest city, said while holding a sign that read: “Homeless, spare a buck.”
Cote’s home of Portland, Maine, is the latest city in the U.S. to try to cut down panhandling by taking people from curbside begging to municipal jobs such as cleaning walking trails and picking up litter.
The city launched the “Portland Opportunity Crew” this month, and the program is employing panhandlers to do landscaping and clean up public areas at the minimum wage of $10.68 per hour. Cities including Albuquerque, New Mexico, and San Jose, California, and Chicago have tried similar programs with varying degrees of success.
Portland is a city of about 67,000 people with a homeless population of a few hundred, making it much smaller than other cities that have tried similar programs. But panhandlers are a common sight on downtown streets and traffic medians around the city.
The program launched May 4 and immediately signed up four people, said Jessica Grondin, a spokeswoman for the city. The effort is a pilot program that is expected to last until November, she said.
“First and foremost, it’s to get people job training and employment support services so they can have good futures and long-term employment,” she said. “If the result of that is less panhandling, that’s all for the better.”
The program will cost the city $42,000 this year. Social service workers have been reaching out to panhandlers to let them know about the program, and will set up signs at intersections to let them know that it’s underway. Workers will be paid via a debit card, so they will not need to cash paychecks, though the program hopes to link people with banks, Grondin said.
Despite the high hopes, some in Portland’s homeless community have been resistant about the program. Officials are hopeful the program will get a good reputation in the community if they are able to link hundreds of people with jobs, as Albuquerque did last year.
But for William Conley, a 57-year-old veteran who panhandles near the waterfront, not wanting to participate is a matter of pride.
“I’m not cleaning trash up,” Conley said. “I’d rather suffer and go without.”
Portland’s history with its homeless community includes a failed attempt to ban loitering and panhandling on street medians four years ago. The measure was deemed unconstitutional, and an infringement of free speech, by courts.
But downtown merchants have kept looking for a solution to panhandling, and are supporting the jobs effort. Portland Downtown Executive Director Casey Gilbert said her group encouraged the city to try the program.
“This program is going to provide for better outcomes for cleanliness in the city as well,” she said. “We’re hoping this is going to be a win-win.”