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A city that puts panhandlers to work

Jobs for panhandlers

Portland, Maine, wants to get panhandlers off the streets -- by putting them to work.

The city manager’s office is exploring getting homeless people off the street or sidewalk by offering them part-time jobs working in the city’s parks, CBS 13 reported. The work offers a minimum wage of $10.68 an hour.

Portland officials took inspiration from a similar program in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that started in 2015 and got nationwide attention. About 100 people who used the program found permanent work, the Washington Post reported, and nearly 1,700 received day jobs, according to the city.

Starting in mid-April, Portland city workers will offer jobs to a small number of panhandlers doing light labor in local parks that city workers don’t have time to do, said Jessica Grondin, a spokeswoman with the city manager’s office. The 36-week program will cost about $42,000, which will be fully covered by a grant, she said. It’s enough to employ five people a day, two days a week. 

“We’ll see how it goes and then hopefully we can expand it,” Grondin said.

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CBS 13 found lots of enthusiasm for the pilot project, including from Terry Walters, a homeless woman who jumped at the chance to work for pay.

“I’d take a job in a heartbeat. I sure would,” she said.

Polls show that the vast majority of Americans support work requirements for people getting financial or social assistance. About 83 percent in a recent poll said asking welfare recipients to work was fair, noted Ron Haskins, the co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution.

“It’s in the American DNA that people ought to work,” he said.

Portland, which has a population of 66,000, tried to ban panhandling on street medians several years ago, but a court found the law unconstitutional. The city’s homeless population has increased by 72 percent since 2011, reaching nearly 500 as of January, according to Maine’s housing services agency

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“Most of [the panhandlers] are pretty well-known to us,” Grondin said. “They might have homes, but don’t have other resources that might give them full-time employment.” 

In addition to paying needy people to pick up trash or work in a garden, the city will connect them with resources like job training, addiction treatment or health services, she said. Health data show that homeless people are much more likely to suffer from a mental illness or substance abuses than the general population.

“If you’re given services as well as given the opportunity to work, the services will reinforce the work and make it more likely that people will be able to persist for a fair length of time,” said Haskins, who was instrumental in the 1996 welfare reform law that ushered in work requirements and dramatically scaled back cash assistance for the poor.

But while he praised Portland’s initiative, he cautioned that it would likely have limited effects, simply because programs that successfully break down barriers to work are few and far between. As he discovered after welfare reform, he said, even when chronically unemployed people want and get a job, maintaining it can be hard for reasons ranging from parenting responsibilities to difficulty getting transportation.

“Programs that are permanently successful are very rare,” he said.

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