Pete LaRoche works in the heat Thursday picking up trash along Back Cove in Portland. He said it was better than standing on a street median begging for money. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Pete LeRoche worked his way along the shore of Back Cove, picking up small pieces of paper, discarded needles, empty booze bottles and cardboard in a clump of scrubs and placing the litter into a large yellow bag.

The temperature neared 90 degrees and the work was far from glamorous, but the 27-year-old LeRoche said it was better than standing on a street median begging for money. He’s done that for the last 3½ years, enduring taunts and scowls of drivers passing by so he could make $25 to support himself and his cat, Biggums.

“It’s helping me get my work ethic back, it’s helping with my self-esteem, and I get fed,” LeRoche said. “It will be something good to put on my resume.”

LeRoche is one of four people participating in the Portland Opportunity Crew, a city-run program launched two weeks ago and formally unveiled during a media access day on Thursday. The goal of the 36-week pilot program is to offer temporary jobs to people who feel like they have no choice but to ask for money on street corners. The program is modeled after similar ones in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and San Jose, California.

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

Sean O’Brien picks up trash along Back Cove on Thursday, working as part of the Portland Opportunity Crew. The workers are paid minimum wage and get breakfast and lunch. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

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 from the sale of city-owned land to the initiative.

So far, interest in the program has not been very robust. LeRoche and his 28-year-old friend, Sean O’Brien, are the only two people who have actually made it into the field to work, although two more people are waiting to get the necessary documentation, such as state identification cards and birth certificates, so they can start, according to city officials.

Matt Pryor, a human services counselor for the city who oversees the program, said the program has potential to expand and is already successful in that the two-man crew has picked up over 30 bags of trash, plus other odds and ends, such as car parts and furniture. He hopes the program will grow as people learn more about it.

“Most people have been very receptive to talking to me,” said Pryor, who regularly stops at intersections to tell panhandlers about the program.

For some, getting the necessary paperwork is an obstacle, especially if they’re from out of state, he said. Others are concerned about how the additional income might affect their other benefits, including disability.

The city has contracted with the temporary labor company People Ready to pay the employees at the city’s expense. The hope is that after the laborers acquire some work experience with the city, they will be able to get either temporary or permanent employment at a private business. The city provides breakfast and lunch for the workers, who are paid at the end of each day.

Sean O’Brien is one of two people who have made it into the field to work for the Portland Opportunity Crew. For some prospective workers, getting the necessary paperwork is an obstacle. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

The fact that LeRoche and O’Brien continue to participate in the program is a success in and of itself, Pryor said.

“They’re great workers,” Pryor said. “Out here, they’re doing good, people are thanking them and they’re getting paid.”

O’Brien said he has been panhandling for about a year. Over the years, he’s worked at restaurants and fast food joints, but those jobs ended for a variety of reasons, including a lack of transportation and the closure of one restaurant, he said. He turned to panhandling after he was told it was quick money.

Now, he’s happy to leave that life behind for a city job.

“I enjoy it,” O’Brien said. “It’s easy and I get to work with my friend.”

LeRoche, meanwhile, is looking to build his resume so he can eventually transition into a more permanent jobs for the first time in his life.

He said he became addicted to pain pills at age 17 after his foot was crushed by a truck. His addiction made it impossible to work and he eventually became homeless.

Pete LaRoche says he was homeless for 2½
years, was addicted to opioids and had no family to turn to. He panhandled for about 3½ years, he says. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

But LeRoche said he’s been clean and in stable housing for the last two years. The Portland Opportunity Crew is just one more step on the path to a better life, he said.

“At the end of my homelessness, I smartened up and I started to accept help from people who were willing to help me,” he said.

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

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Twitter: @randybillings