Last fall, Katie and Trish Farr became stranded in Portland, without money or a place to stay.

The couple slept at the city-run Oxford Street Shelter and held cardboard signs on street medians a couple days a week near the interstate ramps at Forest Avenue and Franklin Street. On a good day they would make $40, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the shame of panhandling.

“We had scarves around our face. It was embarrassing,” said Katie Farr, 36.

But now, the couple plans to move into an apartment in Biddeford. They have temporary jobs and an offer of full-time work, and are getting assistance from a housing program intended to help people transition out of homelessness.

And the couple said they owe it all – the job and the housing assistance – to the Portland Opportunity Crew, a pilot program launched by the city to offer employment to panhandlers and people staying at the city’s homeless shelter. The pilot program has ended, but city officials say they hope to start an expanded version based on success stories like the Farrs’.

The city created the program last year as a way to reduce panhandling on city streets, which has generated complaints from businesses, residents and visitors alike. The jobs program was a new way of approaching the issue for the city, which in 2013 enacted an ordinance against standing in street medians that was eventually deemed an unconstitutional infringement on free speech by the courts.

Trish Farr, left, and Katie Farr pose outside of the Complete Labor office on Preble Street in Portland. The married couple are part of the Portland Opportunity Crew program, and got full-time work in Biddeford.

City Manager Jon Jennings said the first year of the program, modeled after a similar program in Albuquerque that has received a lot of national attention, was a resounding success. And he hopes to continue it next year and perhaps expand it, if funding is available.

“I’m very thrilled with how the pilot phase went,” Jennings said. “The goal is to continue the program.”

In addition to providing income and work experience to people who would otherwise be begging for money, the program seeks to connect people to other services, such as job training, General Assistance and other support programs like housing assistance.

And there were other benefits to the city. According to city officials, from May through November, crews picked up 310 bags of trash and collected 214 hypodermic needles at 114 sites throughout the city, including parks, trails and other public ways. Early participants expressed enthusiasm about the program.

City officials said they reached out to about 65 panhandlers to see if they wanted to work a day at the city’s minimum wage of $10.68 an hour while receiving breakfast, lunch and a connection to other city services. A total of 17 people agreed to give it a shot, they said.

Five of the 17 participants found continuing employment through the program and five others were linked with housing support. The Farrs, along with one other person, received help through STEP, the Stability Through Engagement Program, which provides short-term rental assistance. Two others received Shelter Care Plus, which is a housing voucher program for people with mental illness.

And the remainder of the workers continue to work with People Ready, a day-labor employment agency that administered the pilot program using city funds, city officials said.

Jennings said he hopes to have a “more robust” program next year. But, with the city expecting a difficult budget year, he is looking for other ways to raise money, including reaching out to the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce for support.

Chamber CEO Quincy Hentzel said the program was well-received by the businesses community when it was first announced. She plans to continue meeting with Jennings about how the pilot program worked before asking the board about offering support, either financially or by providing job opportunities.

“I think it’s an ingenious opportunity. I’m hoping we can keep it going,” she said. “Anyone we can get off the streets and into a job to me is a huge success.”

Launched in May, the 36-week pilot program offering work two to three days a week was funded with $42,000 that was a combination of federal Community Development Block Grants and a one-time allocation of proceeds from the sale of city land. Workers were paid a total of $20,530, city officials said.

Before working, participants must register with People Ready, a temp agency that pays the workers for the city. Workers are provided breakfast and lunch by the city and travel to work sites in a city-owned van. At the end of the day, workers are paid the city’s minimum wage of $10.68 an hour and are offered other city services.

Over the summer, the city began receiving public donations through its website or by texting “CREW” to 91999. That effort generated an additional $2,800 for the program, city officials said.

Casey Gilbert, executive director of Portland Downtown, a nonprofit group composed of downtown business owners, property owners and residents, said she would like to see the program continue.

“Our organization will continue to use our networks and communications channels to help spread the word in an effort to ensure the continued viability of the program,” Gilbert said. “While the outcomes may seem minor to some, to connect even a few people with housing and employment is a success in my book. 2017 was a pilot program with limited funding, but I believe that 2018 can be even better with wider support from the community.”

The Farrs called the program a “godsend.” They had come to Portland to help take care of a family member with cerebral palsy – Katie Farr has experience working as a medical assistant. They said they were told that they could no longer stay with their family, partly because of their marriage.

“We’ve always done well and to be put in a situation with nothing is really scary and hard,” Katie Farr said.

The couple was told about the Portland Opportunity Crew by a fellow panhandler and eventually got connected to it through the city’s homeless shelter. Working allowed them not only to get money, but it also allowed them to escape the depression of staying in the city shelter, waiting in line at the soup kitchen and coping with the stress of Preble Street’s Resource Center.

While many panhandlers are stereotyped as alcoholics, drug addicts or criminals, Trish Farr said that she and her wife are among those who are simply desperate to escape and find a more stable life. And working is a big part of that.

“Most people down there – all they need is a chance, but no one gives them one,” said Trish Farr, 31.

But that’s exactly what the Portland Opportunity Crew did. When the program ended in November, the Farrs worked temp jobs for Complete Labor and Staffing, another temporary agency in Portland, including cleaning offices and shoveling snow.

After proving they were serious about working, Complete Labor gave them a weekly work ticket at a food processing plant in Biddeford, they said. The agency also provides transportation from Portland to Biddeford and back. They plan on working directly for the company once they move into their new apartment.

The couple received housing assistance through the program. Next month, they plan to move into an apartment in Biddeford, and they have an offer of full-time work for $11 an hour. For the first year, they’ll pay 30 percent of their income on rent, thanks to a STEP housing voucher, which allows people to transition out of homelessness and into a more stable life.

“It helps your self esteem,” Trish Farr said of the Portland Opportunity Crew. “Once you get in the door and work and get your own money, it shows you (that) you can do it and there’s another way.”

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: randybillings

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