After trying to ban panhandlers from city streets, which a court ruled was unconstitutional, Portland may put them to work. It would follow a successful model developed by the Republican mayor of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which other cities have since adopted.
In Albuquerque, a driver goes around the city looking for and picking up panhandlers. He offers them $9 per hour — above the state’s $7.50 minimum wage and the city’s $8.80 per hour for jobs without health insurance — to pull weeds, pick up trash and perform other beautification work for the city. After 5½ hours of work, they are dropped off at St. Martin’s Hospitality Center, a nonprofit that connects the homeless and near-homeless with mental health and employment services. With a $50,000 payment from the city, the center provides and pays the van driver.
The work effort is part of a campaign, called There’s a Better Way, to encourage residents to donate to nonprofit shelters and food banks rather than give money to panhandlers. It also connects the city’s homeless with needed services.
Since its 2015 start, the program has provided 1,759 day jobs and connected 226 people with employment services. The newly employed have removed more than 121,000 pounds of litter from the 418 city blocks.
In addition, the program has connected 156 clients with mental health and substance abuse services. Twenty people in the program have received housing. Forty-seven signs encouraging the homeless to call for assistance have been posted around the city. The signs also encourage people to donate money online. There have been nearly 16,000 calls for assistance, and 96 percent of those who have requested help have received it, according to the program’s website. The program also has received nearly $60,000 in private donations.
“The better way is to give people the dignity of work, let them beautify their city and get the connected to services so they can get back on their feet,” Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry, who is credited with creating There’s a Better Way, says in a video on the project’s website. “It’s just simple enough, it’s working.”
Several cities, including Chicago, Honolulu and Dallas, have adopted the Albuquerque model.
In Portland, city councilors will vote later this month on a 36-week pilot program to offer panhandlers $10.68 per hour — the city’s minimum wage — to clean parks and do other jobs. To start, the program would run two days per week from April to November. A city crew would drive around the city to pick offer work to those panhandling at intersections. Those who agree to work would become part of the Portland Opportunity Crew. They would get breakfast and lunch and end their day at the city’s Social Services Division, where they would be paid and connected with services. The city is still looking for partners for the project.
“We want to make sure people have opportunities in the city and they aren’t relegated to panhandling as their only way to make ends meet,” City Councilor Belinda Ray, who leads the council’s Health and Human Services Committee, told the Portland Press Herald.
Panhandlers interviewed by the newspaper were supportive of the proposal. “I would definitely hop in the van,” said Dana Burnell, who was panhandling in downtown Portland last month. “I would much rather be working than be out here getting hollered at.”
This program’s many benefits — replacing panhandling with paid work, cleaning a city, connecting the homeless with needed services — make it a far superior alternative to prohibitions and admonishments.