By Jesse Major / Peninsula Daily News
PORT ANGELES — Panhandlers are being put to work as part of a grant-funded program that aims to get them off the street.
Serenity House Operations Manager Kevin Harkins has put three panhandlers to work through the nonprofit’s “Reaching Out” program, paying them $12 an hour to do lawn and janitorial work at the Port Angeles agency on a weekly basis.
The work is in four-hour blocks about once a week, but he said it’s been enough to get some panhandlers off the street.
“To be eligible for the program you need to be homeless, which not all of our panhandling community is homeless,” he said.
“There’s an assumption made that because you are holding a sign that you don’t have a roof over your head — and that’s not true.”
They also have to be willing to work. Harkins has interviewed 10 to 15 people so far and has put three to work, though he is expecting others to contact him soon, he said.
He predicted by the end of summer he’ll have found 10 people who were eligible for the program, meaning they are homeless and either currently panhandle or have a history of panhandling.
The program, which saw its first worker in May, has been made possible by a $4,000 grant from the Walkling Memorial Trust and a Sound Community Bank Foundation award for $2,500.
The program’s end goal isn’t to provide $48 a week; is to get homeless panhandlers to Serenity House and start the process of getting them housing, Harkins said.
“Along with the work comes a case manager and basic hygiene services,” he said. “The shelter becomes a less scary place.”
Harkins said when he offered one person the job the offer was enough to get him off the street corner.
“His sign went down and he had a job,” Harkins said. “He stopped panhandling and went on his way.”
Among those in the program is David, who asked not to include his last name out of fear it could affect future work opportunities.
David, who lives in his truck, was in his third week of the program this week and calls it a blessing.
“I don’t think panhandling is something you can count your future on,” he said while taking a break from mowing the lawn outside Serenity House’s overnight shelter.
“I want to go to work somewhere every day and get a paycheck.”
He said he believes there is enough work for everyone who is willing to work.
David said Serenity House is in the process of finding him housing. Because he has his truck he isn’t the highest priority for housing, he said.
“There are levels of need that are more important than mine,” he said. “I’m able to fend for myself . but there are some people who are homeless that can’t fend for themselves.”
David said there are actually many people at Serenity House willing to work, but they need the opportunity.
When Serenity House did a survey of its clients, it found that the majority of its clients want a job above anything else.
Executive Director Doc Robinson said he was surprised when 77 percent said they needed a job more than a bed, a roof over their head or a shower.
“That came as the number one issue. They want a job,” he said. “They want to produce and they want to feel back part of (society).”
He said Serenity House will continue to seek funding for the program.
Robinson said those who donate to Serenity House can earmark their donation to be used only for this program if they wish.