Dana Burnell said he’d rather be working.
But that’s difficult when you’re homeless and struggling with substance abuse issues, he said, standing at the intersection of Somerset and Franklin streets in Portland holding a cardboard sign that asks for money so he can buy something to eat.
“I’ve always been a working man,” he said on a recent weekday morning, shortly before a driver handed him $2. “I write ‘work’ on my sign and get few offers.”
Soon, panhandlers such as Burnell may not have to look far to find work.
City officials are working on a 36-week pilot program to offer day jobs to panhandlers. A city social worker would drive a van around to busy intersections and offer panhandlers a chance to earn $10.68 an hour cleaning up parks and other light labor jobs. They would be paid at the end of each day.
Panhandling has been a growing concern in U.S. cities such as Portland, where business owners worry the practice puts a damper on tourism and some residents and visitors complain about panhandlers asking for money on sidewalks and at stoplights. In recent years, panhandlers have spread into smaller communities and staked out street corners in places such as Biddeford, Scarborough, South Portland, Wells, Augusta and Bangor.
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Communities’ responses have ranged from passing ordinances that restrict begging to discouraging people from giving directly to panhandlers.
Two years ago, Augusta’s police chief grew so frustrated with panhandlers that he took a day off to stand at an intersection with a cardboard sign telling people to donate to charities, rather than panhandlers.
In 2015, Bangor police sent out a similar message on Facebook about donating to charities, prompting a dozen people to panhandle in front of the police station in protest.
Portland, like Bangor, has an ordinance against aggressive panhandling. In 2013, Portland banned loitering and panhandling on street medians, citing public safety concerns. The law for street medians was challenged by several residents and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, and ultimately was deemed an unconstitutional infringement on free speech by the courts.
Similar bans were discussed in Bangor and Biddeford, but dropped. Bangor’s police department now collects donations of mittens and gift cards to distribute to those in need. Biddeford City Manager James Bennett said his city would still like to do something. “If we had a workable solution, there would be interest in it,” Bennett said.
With court decisions striking down restrictions, many communities around the country are looking for more constructive ways to tackle panhandling and homelessness, according to Eric Tars, a senior attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that is dedicated to ending and preventing homelessness.
Cities such as New Haven, Connecticut; Orlando, Florida; and Denver, Colorado, have begun installing brightly colored parking-style meters where well-intentioned visitors and residents can make donations to local nonprofits rather than hand money to panhandlers.
A dozen meters installed in Orlando have raised about $2,250 since 2011, according to The Associated Press, while Denver has raised $100,000 a year by using the meters, collection boxes near airport security checkpoints and a new program that allows people to text donations.
In Portland, a downtown merchants organization has formed its own group to look at ways to address panhandling, which local business owners believe is a black eye on the city’s tourism industry. Casey Gilbert, executive director of Portland Downtown, said it’s too soon to say what recommendations the group will make.
‘PORTLAND OPPORTUNITY CREW’
The latest creative response to panhandling is to offer jobs.
Communities such as San Jose, California, and Chicago are trying innovative work programs for panhandlers, and publicity about a new work program in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is helping to spread the idea, Tars said.
“It is in line with the best evidence out there about taking a constructive, alternative approach rather than criminalizing homelessness,” Tars said.
While Albuquerque is nearly eight times the size of Portland – a population of nearly 545,852 compared to Portland’s nearly 67,000 residents – Portland City Manager Jon Jennings hopes to replicate some of the success of Albuquerque’s program.
“We know there are still going to be people standing on street corners,” Jennings said. “But we’re trying to help people who feel they have to do that and give them hope for a positive future.”
The proposal to create the “Portland Opportunity Crew,” as it is being called, originallywas due to go before the City Council’s Health and Human Services Committee on Feb. 14, but it was rescheduled to March 28 to allow staff more time to fine-tune the details.
The goal is not only to reduce the number of panhandlers standing at intersections, but also to connect people with social services that could put them on a path to healthier and more productive, stable lives, officials said.
“We want to make sure people have opportunities in the city and they aren’t relegated to panhandling as their only way to make ends meet,” said City Councilor Belinda Ray, who leads the Health and Human Services Committee. “It’s an exciting idea to think we might be able to do something, but I need to see the details before I weigh in.”
According to a draft proposal, Portland’s program would run two days a week from April to November.
An employee in the city’s Social Services Division would drive a city-owned van to popular panhandling intersections and offer people a day’s worth of work cleaning city parks and public spaces and doing some light landscaping. The city would accept the first five people who agree to work each day.
Participants would be paid the city’s minimum wage of $10.68 an hour – which is higher than the state minimum of $9 an hour – for a six-hour day. They would also get breakfast, lunch and water.
At the end of the day, they would be taken to the city’s Social Services Division so they can not only get paid, but also be offered other services, such job training and other support. Some panhandlers could get longer-term employment with the city, or with local landscaping companies that may partner with the city.
The city would place signs at busy intersections telling people about the program. Eventually, the city would like to add some sort of fundraising component for local charities, according to Julie Sullivan, the senior adviser to the city manager who will present the recommendation to the council committee.
THE EXPERIENCE IN ALBUQUERQUE
The pilot program would cost $42,000, primarily for wages, food, fuel for the van and city staffing. Sullivan said the city is seeking funding through foundations and grants, including an application through the city’s Community Development Block Grant program, which is intended to help low-income people and neighborhoods.
Sullivan said the program is different from workfare, which requires able-bodied recipients who work in order to receive General Assistance.
Panhandlers don’t always have contact with city social service workers, she said.
“They’re not currently engaged with us,” Sullivan said. “We want to be able to get these folks to earn more money more safely, and get them hooked up with services.”
That approach has worked well in Albuquerque, according to Mayor Richard Berry, who launched “There’s a Better Way” in 2015.
According to data on the city’s website, 1,689 day jobs have been given as of Feb. 6, resulting in the cleanup of 398 city blocks, including the removal of 117,601 pounds of litter. Twenty people have received housing through the program and 151 people have received mental health or substance abuse services.
“It’s just simple enough it works great,” 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.”
Berry said prospective workers are receptive when approached with dignity and respect and become more motivated when someone believes in their ability to accomplish something.
“It’s amazing what people can do when you give them a chance,” he said.
Albuquerque relies on a local nonprofit agency that focuses on homelessness to administer and run the program, while the city provides funding. Signs are placed at busy intersections, encouraging people to donate to nonprofits through a website that is operated by their local United Way.
Albuquerque’s program began with a $50,000 budget, but now receives $181,000 a year. Community donations have reached nearly $60,000. “Now I can tell my City Council it was a good investment,” Berry said.
Kellie Tillerson, the employment director of the St. Martin’s Hospitality Center, the nonprofit homeless agency that has partnered with the city, said the additional funding has allowed them to expand the program from two days a week to four days.
The program has provided work to 488 people, she said, noting that more than 200 of those people have accessed employment services.
“We have business owners, homeowners, and other agencies that hire our workers for small jobs” for one day at a time, she said. “This program has proven to be a good way to fill the gap in employment while the workers access our Job Development services and seek permanent employment.”
Berry said he would advise Portland to keep the program simple and agile by partnering with a local nonprofit. It should also have crews working in high-profile areas and neighborhoods, so the community can develop a connection to the program.
THE REACTION FROM PANHANDLERS
There appears to be some street-level interest in the program in Portland, based on a city survey and on interviews with panhandlers by the Maine Sunday Telegram.
Sullivan said city staff surveyed 30 panhandlers last October, half of whom were homeless. She said 85 percent of them said they’d be interested in participating in such a program. Nearly half indicated they panhandle seven days a week and 75 percent said they make only $10 to $20 a day. Three out of four people said they had a long-term mental health or physical disability and 60 percent said they had substance abuse issues, Sullivan said.
Burnell is one of the panhandlers who said he would happily take a job.
“I would definitely hop in the van,” Burnell said. “I would much rather be working than be out here getting hollered at.”
A number of people interviewed by the newspaper said some panhandlers would be unwilling or unable to participate in the program.
Aaron Root said he has health issues that require blood transfusions and prevent him from working. The 41-year-old flies a cardboard sign seven days a week at various locations near Brighton Avenue at the Portland-Westbrook line. He said he is trying to get on disability for his medical condition and has a housing voucher, but can’t find an apartment. If he earns enough money on a street corner, he and his girlfriend stay at the Motel 6. If not, they take a bus into town and stay at the city shelter.
“(Recently), I’m spending a week in the hospital every month,” Root said. “It’s tough to find an employer who will work with that.”
Homeless through “a series of unfortunate events and bad decisions,” Root said he takes no pleasure in panhandling.
“I hate it,” he said. “With every car that passes by, a piece of my soul goes away. For every little bit I get, my soul goes away a little bit more.”
At another nearby intersection, Bryan Tardiff voiced support for the city program, but also warned that some panhandlers make more per hour than the city would pay. The 22-year-old said he can make $80 to $100 in as little as two hours flying a sign, enough to outweigh the shame and abuse that come with panhandling, including people yelling at him and throwing full cups of soda at him.
“I make more money flying a sign than I do at a full-time job,” he said.
ADVOCATES EMPHASIZE VOLUNTEER ASPECT
Bill Higgins, an advocate for Preble Street’s Homeless Voices for Justice, a Portland-based advocacy group of people who have experienced homelessness, said the city needs to make it clear that working is optional and city staff should not pressure people to participate.
“It’s got to be presented as a volunteer thing, and they have to tell the people exactly what they will be doing for work that day, so they’ll have the opportunity to make a sound decision,” Higgins said. “They have the right to be standing there. (The city doesn’t) have the right to force anyone to do anything.”
Tars, the attorney from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, shared similar concerns. He worried that the community may take a more negative view of disabled panhandlers who cannot participate in the program.
“Most people have either a physical or mental disability that prevents them from doing this. If you make this as an option, the city will find no shortage of people,” he said. “Those who don’t – or can’t – because of a disability shouldn’t be penalized or viewed more dimly.”
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: