With family at Mackworth Island, part of Portland trails system.
City of Portland, Maine
Panhandlers—sometimes called “sign-flyers” because of their cardboard pleas for money—had become not just a nuisance but a safety issue in Portland as they took up on medians around town and wandered into traffic. A resident asked the Portland city manager if a program could be devised to find them jobs. The city was intrigued, and found that while panhandlers have a variety of motivations, some would indeed prefer jobs and are hindered in getting them only by simple things like lack of ID or the skill to find opportunities or transportation. The City Council opted to pilot a program.
In April of this year, Portland started outreach to panhandlers, inviting them to join the “Portland Opportunity Crew,” where they can be paid two days a week for tasks with the department of parks and recreation (six hours each day at the minimum wage of $10.68). They start at 9 AM, finish at 2:45, and are provided breakfast and lunch (which Aaron picks up for them on his way to work).
So far the city has spoken with 52 individuals, of which 18 (14 men and 4 women, most in their 20’s) have entered the program and already clocked 251 hours at 102 sites. They’ve collected 253 bags of trash and 190 drug needles, and done assorted other activities like plant flowers, weed gardens, and place flags at gravesites of veterans.
In addition, seven participants have moved on (with city help) to private employment: two on waterfront lobster boats and five as restaurant dishwashers and prep cooks. The program’s goals include teaching panhandlers the importance of schedule and routine, and giving them a sense of pride and self-sufficiency.
(Those who have declined to participate in the program have given such reasons as: They don’t like to, or can’t, do that kind of work; choose to panhandle because they make more money in less time than they feel they could make working; or just don’t want to be bothered.)
The city has allocated $46,000 for yearly costs, uses a third party (“People Ready”) to do paperwork and make cash payments, and dedicates 1.25 FTEs (a manager in the social services division, supervised by Aaron). The city plans to sustain funding through community block grants, the sale of a piece of property, and a text-to-donate link. It publicizes the program via signs along trails and parks in the city and on the side of a POC van, and information on the city’s website and its other social media.
Another outcome of the program is better relations among classes of citizens, Aaron says. Panhandlers report that passing motorists yell at them to get jobs and occasionally even throw objects. Now Aaron had observed joggers stopping to thank them for working to beautify the city.
Grew up in Baldwin, Maine, majored in criminology at University of Southern Maine. Married high school sweetheart, both love the outdoors and hiking with their 10 year old son. Big sports fan, esp. of the Patriots, Red Sox, and NASCAR. Started with city of Portland 13 years ago as human services counselor with focus on employment.
Aaron’s wife name is Erin.