Pete LaRoche works in May 2017 picking up trash along Back Cove as part of the Portland Opportunity Crew. He said it was better than standing on a street median begging for money. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

More than a dozen businesses have donated the money needed to continue Portland’s jobs-for-panhandlers program into the fall.

The city launched the Portland Opportunity Crew last year to reduce panhandling on city streets, which has generated complaints from businesses, residents and visitors alike. Modeled after a similar approach in Albuquerque, the seasonal program offers employment to panhandlers and people staying at the city’s homeless shelter. At the end of the pilot phase, Portland officials called it a success and hoped to continue it this year. The program restarted in May with leftover money, but those funds would dry up in July.

So the city sought donations from local businesses, and on Tuesday, the Portland Community Chamber of Commerce delivered a check for $13,000, enough to fund the crew for 10 weeks. The money came from 13 businesses, located from the Old Port to Bayside. The city also announced an additional $5,000 donation from the Maine Community Foundation via one of its members and a $500 donation from a local family. The money will allow the Portland Opportunity Crew to run through the fall, like last year.

“We’re so thankful the chamber recognized the impact this program has on our community and enthusiastically stepped up to mobilize its members and provide this crucial funding source,” City Manager Jon Jennings said. “The reality is we must rely on public-private partnerships to sustain this program, and so we’re very grateful to the businesses, organizations and people who have recently contributed financially.”

Quincy Hentzel, CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the business community has been interested in and supportive of the program.

“The mission of the Portland Opportunity Crew is to help people find pathways to employment and to help people find economic security,” Hentzel said. “Those are two primary objectives of the chamber. It seemed like a natural program for the business community to rally around.”

Hentzel’s group is the parent organization of the Portland Community Chamber of Commerce.

The program provides work for six people two days a week from spring until fall. A city social worker drives to busy intersections and offers panhandlers a chance to earn $10.68 an hour cleaning up parks and other light labor jobs. Workers register with a temp agency called People Ready. They are provided breakfast and lunch by the city and travel to work sites in a city-owned van. At the end of the day, they are paid and offered other city services.

“We’re excited to be out there helping individuals get off the medians and get on a pathway to self-sufficiency,” said Aaron Geyer, the city’s General Assistance program director.

During the pilot phase, city officials said they reached out to 65 panhandlers. Seventeen agreed to try the program. Five participants found continuing employment as a result, and five others were connected with housing support. From May to November, crews picked up 310 bags of trash and collected 214 hypodermic needles at 114 sites throughout the city, including parks and trails.

The city did not say how many people have participated in the program since it restarted this spring. But officials reported that Portland Opportunity Crew workers have collected 171 bags of trash and 60 needles at 57 sites to date. Municipalities from Virginia to New York have asked about the program.

Geyer said the program has been a success in other ways, too. One day, he recalled standing by the Verizon Wireless store with the day’s crew when a man came out to say he recognized many of the workers from panhandling and wanted to buy them all coffee or soda on their next break. On another occasion, Geyer witnessed a woman approach a Portland Opportunity Crew worker on the Eastern Promenade Trail to thank him for his work.

“After, he was telling me how good it made him feel,” Geyer said. “That’s not a metric that’s easy to measure, but it is a metric that has to be considered. This is a case when it’s more than raw numbers. It’s about helping people. It’s about getting folks back to work.”

The cost to sponsor the Portland Opportunity Crew for one week is $1,300. Tuesday’s donation came from a range of local businesses: Allspeed Cyclery & Snow, Bayside Bowl, David Wood Clothiers, Gritty McDuff’s, InterMed, Old Port Wine Merchants, Press Hotel, Renys, Union Bagel, Verizon Wireless, Verrill Dana, Vitalius Real Estate Group and Portland Downtown. Representatives from some of those companies joined city and chamber officials Tuesday at Portland City Hall to announce the donation.

“It’s truly a hand up and not a handout,” said Thomas Wilson, marketing director at Gritty McDuff’s.

Tommy Johnson, the chamber’s director of membership and events, said some businesses told the chamber they weren’t ready to make a donation right now, but would like to contribute later this year or next year.

“Many said they want to continue this next year if there is an opportunity to,” Johnson said. “I don’t think the interest is going to wane.”

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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