Portland launched a new, 36-week initiative Thursday aimed at putting panhandlers to work.

The Portland Opportunity Crew is a program overseen by the city’s social services division. On its first day in action, four panhandlers – three men and a woman – enrolled in the program, according to Aaron Geyer, the city’s social services program manager.

“Folks were very open to us,” Geyer said. “Some had done (panhandling) for a while. One gentleman told me they were looking to offset his disability income. Another gentleman said he was doing it to get extra money for their rent.”

For two days a week through November, staff will take a city-owned van around to intersections that are popular with panhandlers and ask if they would like to make the city’s minimum wage. Up to five people a day could make $10.68 an hour picking up trash and improving parks and trails on the peninsula.

Geyer said he considers the first day a success, even though the crew never made it out to a job site because participants had to fill out paperwork at People Ready, a temporary work service contracted by the city to pay the workers. That process takes an hour or so, Geyer said.

The advantage of that arrangement, Geyer said, is that participants who successfully complete the city program will then become eligible for temporary work at other businesses and can eventually find steady employment.

“I think there may be some barriers,” he said. “But I also think this gives us a great opportunity to break those barriers down.”

Once the program gets established, participants will first have to check into People Ready before heading to a job site. The city will provide them breakfast and lunch and they will be paid with a prepaid debit card at the end of each six-hour workday.

Work days are expected to be Wednesdays and Thursdays, Geyer said.

The city’s goal is to connect panhandlers with support services that would allow them to enter the workforce permanently, because most people asking for money on the streets are not seeking city services.

Panhandling has been a longtime concern in Portland and throughout the country. The City Council tried to ban people from loitering and panhandling in street medians in 2013, but the ordinance was deemed an unconstitutional infringement of free speech by the courts.

Meanwhile, a group of downtown business owners and property owners, called Portland Downtown, is looking into further ways to reduce the number of people asking for money on downtown streets and sidewalks.

Portland’s program is modeled after similar initiatives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and San Jose, California. Albuquerque’s “There’s a Better Way” program was launched in 2015 and over the last year has received national attention.

Portland officials have estimated the pilot program will cost about $42,000 this year, primarily for wages, food, fuel for the van and city staffing.

Nearly $19,000 in initial funding was provided through federal Community Development Block Grants. On Monday, the council allocated an additional $25,000 received from the sale of city-owned land to the initiative.

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

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Twitter: @randybillings