Two years ago, the city of Portland, Maine attempted to pass an ordinance to ban panhandlers from standing in the median to ask for money. The legislation didn’t pass, but the ongoing saga between the city and its homeless population continues. The new play, Anything Helps God Bless aims to expose the relationship between the city and its homeless. 

For Rick, a 46-year-old homeless man who refused to give his last name due to fear of police involvement, said the proposed ban meant a lack of freedom.

“There were some info wars going on,” Rick said. “It made freedom into a container for people to become unnoticed.”

For the play, Anything Helps God Bless Al D’Andrea and co-writer Margit Ahlin, along with a cast of 11, sought to create an accurate portrayal of homelessness and panhandling in Portland. The group conducted interviews, reviewed court transcripts, city council meeting videos, police calls for service and public surveys, among other things, to accumulate enough background to write a script. The play follows the story from when the ban was first proposed in 2012 until it was voted down in 2015.

Rick, a Portlander, plays the guitar with a battery-operated amplifier to attempt to get “two bucks” from passersbys in vehicles. 

“I’m just one of many folks that believes [the proposed ban] took away freedom,” Rick said. “I wouldn’t want to endanger anyone by standing in a small traffic island.”

D’Andrea said the proposed ordinance could be challenged on freedom of speech and first amendment grounds. 

“It was a local city ordinance, but the due process clause of the 14th amendment applied freedom of speech to the municipality,” he said.

In 2013 Portland’s City Council initially passed the ordinance, but it was appealed immediately. A 1st U.S District Court of Appeals deemed the ordinance unconstitutional in 2015. 

“There is no doubt that the ordinance imposes ‘serious burdens’ on speech,” appeals Judge David Barron wrote in his ruling. 

With new headlines coming across local news, Ahlin and D’Andrea strove to be “up to the minute” with Anything Helps God Bless, adapting the script up until showtime.

For a $20 stipend given to each “signer” they spoke with, D’Andrea, Ahlin and their cast “dove in” on a journey to “gather material” through the stories of panhandlers. 

Oftentimes, they said, panhandlers appeared drunk, high on drugs or to be suffering from a mental disorder. But the Anything Helps God Bless crew said they never ran into a problem when approaching them on the streets.

“Each one of them, regardless of their condition on that particular day gave a good amount of thoughtful responses to the questions that we posed to them,” Ahlin said. “Each of our teams ended up having an experience where a lot of material, insight was gathered and honesty was set forth.”

The show itself is “a conversation’ where all voices on all sides are heard,” according to a  description of the show. Ahlin said the show serves as a learning opportunity for the audience about homelessness and the city government.

Upon completion of the script, D’Andrea and Ahlin held two workshops with the cast and an audience to improve the performance in a live setting last December. The performances included audience talkbacks.

“People from both sides of the issue found themselves learning in their own attitudes and own beliefs that kind of surprised them,” Ahlin said. “Our audience seemed not to be affected just mentally and emotionally, but in their behavior.”

At least one of the panhandlers they interviewed saw the show, Ahlin said.  

The executive director of the Preble Street Resource Center,  Mark Swann, is one of the characters in the show. He offered advice to D’Andrea and Ahlin when attempting to locate the homeless citizens they interviewed.

“The other [signers] are hard to find,” Ahlin said. “The system works in such a way that people come in and get their needs taken care of in three weeks and then they’re off to some other aspect of their lives.”

Anything Helps God Bless was performed three times over the weekend and will be run once daily next Thursday-Sunday at the Portland Ballet Studio Theater. The theater is located approximately 1.1 miles from the Preble Street Resource Center, where a soup kitchen is along with nearby shelters, in downtown Portland.

D’Andrea serves as the artistic director of Snowlion Repertory Company. Ahlin is the producing director of Snowlion Repertory. The goal of their work is broader than entertainment, as performance helps to examine social issues, in this case homelessness.

“This is a piece that comes out of the tradition of our company, ‘collaborative creation,” Ahlin said during an interview.

“It’s everyone’s own personal situation,” Rick said. “I’m fighting money all together.”

D’Andrea understands Rick’s point of view and has a goal for the play to inspire help for the homeless.

“Our goal is to illuminate the issues and get the community thinking, talking and responding to the issues and needs of the community,” D’Andrea said.

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