Homelessness has become a dramatically more serious problem in Portland, Me., over the past few years. Since 2011, the city's homeless population has increased by 72 percent, reaching nearly 500 people in January 2016, according to the Maine State Housing Authority. That's over 40 percent of Maine's entire homeless population at the time of the survey.
And with homelessness comes panhandling, which often brings as little $10 to $20 a day to people with no other source of income. Panhandlers are also subject to extreme negative stigmas and even abuse on the streets, and their presence can discourage tourism in some areas. Portland currently has an ordinance against aggressive panhandling, and tried to ban the practice entirely in 2013, but a court ruled the ban unconstitutional.
Now, Portland is considering a new approach: giving panhandlers a job. Officials hope to start a 36-week pilot program called "Portland Opportunity Crew" in order to refine the concept and start changing people's lives – and the city itself – for the better.
The new program "is in line with the best evidence out there about taking a constructive, alternative approach rather than criminalizing homelessness," Eric Tars, a senior attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, told the Portland Press Herald.
The program would pay for a city social worker driving around busy intersections and offering day jobs cleaning up parks and other light-labor employment opportunities to panhandlers and homeless people. The workers would be paid the city's minimum wage of $10.68 an hour and be given a free breakfast, lunch, and water on the job. At the end of the six-hour work day, they would be brought to the city's Social Services Division for pay and for connections for other opportunities, including potential long-term employment.
Many panhandlers are "not currently engaged with us," Julie Sullivan, the senior adviser to the city manager, told the Press Herald. "We want to be able to get these folks to earn more money more safely, and get them hooked up with services."
Many panhandlers have expressed enthusiasm for the proposed project.
"I'd take a job in a heartbeat," Terry Walters, a homeless woman, told CBS News. "I sure would."
The Portland proposal is based on a similar program called "There's a Better Way," launched in 2015 in Albuquerque, NM, which has given over 1,689 day jobs over the past two years. The workers have removed 117,601 pounds of litter from 398 city blocks in that city, and 20 people have received housing through the program. Perhaps more significantly, 151 workers in the project were able to get access to mental health or substance abuse services.
"It's just simple enough it works great," Albuquerque's Mayor Richard Berry said in an interview with the Maine Sunday Telegram. "This has done a lot more than I thought it would. Our beautiful city is even better than before."
Portland is a much smaller city than its New Mexico counterpart, but supporters of the idea hope that the smaller-scale $42,000 pilot program in Maine will have a proportionally positive impact.
"We know there are still going to be people standing on street corners," Portland City Manager Jon Jennings told the Press Herald. "But we're trying to help people who feel they have to do that and give them hope for a positive future."