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On any given day, panhandlers fan out on the curbs and corners of Portland, Maine, cardboard signs broadcasting their need for a little help. The city tried to crack down on this a few years ago, but it didn't work. So Portland is joining a handful of other cities around the country to try a more benevolent approach. Maine Public Radio's Fred Bever explains.
FRED BEVER, BYLINE: Four years ago, Portland's panhandlers were under siege with business owners and residents in this booming mini-metropolis complaining about aggressive begging. City officials banned panhandling from the medians, calling it a public safety issue. But a federal court called it a free speech issue and threw the ordinance out. Now the city is going in a different direction and paying panhandlers, like Peter LaRoche, to go to work.
Today, LaRoche wields a trash grabber and a big yellow rubberized bag, cleaning up some cardboard and empty liquor bottles from the edge of a sparkling tidal cove.
PETER LAROCHE: Here's a homeless person's makeshift campsite, cardboard beds.
BEVER: Just a few weeks ago the 28-year-old's chief income came from panhandling, one legacy of his struggles with homelessness and addiction. Now, as part of the city's new Opportunity Crew project, the city is paying him its minimum wage of 10.68 an hour. That's more, LaRoche says, than he can make on the medians.
LAROCHE: Extra money in my pocket to help me out and to help the environment as well. And we get fed breakfast and lunch, so that's definitely a bonus. I'm actually a bigger part of the community than I was back when I was in a hard spot, you know?
BEVER: LaRoche and a friend are the pilot programs first sign-ups. On-site manager Matt Pryor says he hopes to staff up to five or six people two or three days a week, giving a boost to the city's usual spruce-up work.
MATT PRYOR: I think we got 30 bags of trash so far just removed from I think four sites. Obviously the end goal is to help people get maybe more long-term employment and not be counting on the two or three days a week that they can work with me.
BEVER: Pryor says more recruits should be on board soon once they secure birth certificates and state IDs they need to get paid, a barrier many of the city's panhandlers face. He's also a connection to shelter, addiction and other services.
The effort goes against the national trend. According to a recent report, the number of cities that bar panhandling is on the rise. But a few, including Denver, Chicago, San Jose and now Portland, Maine, are taking their cue from Albuquerque, N.M., and its mayor, John Berry.
JOHN BERRY: Sometimes the easiest way is just to prohibit things. But the punitive approach isn't working, and we're certainly not getting to the root of the problem.
BEVER: Two years ago, the Republican mayor pioneered Albuquerque's There's a Better Way program to hire panhandlers. Since then, he says recruits have put in 2,000 work days, removed 65 tons of trash and tumbleweeds and connected more than 250 people to permanent work. Perhaps just as importantly, Berry says, the program has solicited community donations and won nearly $60,000 in response.
BERRY: So not only are we giving people the dignity of work, helping connect them to services at the end of the day, paying them cash, building them up as human beings. But we're also telling our community, we can do better if we work together.
BEVER: Portland officials are also hoping for donations to add to the program's $42,000 budget, and they say they don't expect to end panhandling in the city. But they do hope to create a new tool to improve the quality of life of all who walk and drive its streets. For NPR News, I'm Fred Bever in Portland, Maine.
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