PORTLAND, Maine — A recent City Council discussion of whether to allow pedestrians to stand in median strips attracted heavy public input. The following item on the agenda was largely drowned out by the din of meeting attendees filing out of the council chambers and murmuring the merits of the median strip restriction, which was widely seen as a way to remove panhandlers from the high-traffic locations.

“A large percentage of the people who testified [on the median strip ordinance] said people were in those median strips because of the economic conditions and [lack of] jobs,” Mayor Michael Brennan told the Bangor Daily News on Tuesday. “They criticized the city for not doing more to help solve the root problem of why they were turning to panhandling. Then the very next item, we voted to approve the recommendations of this working group.”

The Community Development Block Grant working group, led by Portland Regional Chamber CEO Chris Hall, issued a report to the city urging what Brennan called a “transformative” new financial commitment to finding stable and permanent employment for Portlanders new to the country, battling homelessness or living as single parents.

Under the new priorities adopted by the councilors at the same July 15 meeting at which they banned pedestrians from standing in the medians, $400,000 will be set aside by the city each year for initiatives focused squarely on removing employment barriers for what Portland housing and community development program manager Amy Grommes Pulaski called “people who may be hard to employ.”

Those barrier breakers could come in the form of transportation to work, affordable child care, computer training and English language classes, among other things.

The yearly allocation of $400,000 will come from the city’s annual federal block grant allotment of approximately $2 million. The priorities adopted by the council will be realized in the 2014-2015 round of block grant funding, with applications likely available this fall or winter.

Portland has historically divvied up its pot of block grant money among dozens of applicants representing a range of projects, from renovations of historic structures to health care clinics for low-income residents.

Now, at least for $400,000 of that annual grant amount, applicants will need to show that their projects will put homeless, recent immigrant or single-parent Portlanders to work and keep them there.

Brennan described an ideal applicant under the new strategy for grants as being a partnership between a private company and local nonprofit organization with a specialty in removing one or more barriers to employment experienced by the aforementioned target groups.

“If somebody applies and says they’re going to set up an affordable day care that will benefit working families, [that won’t be adequate],” he said. “The applications are really going to have to be connected to specific jobs and identifiable employers who will be providing those jobs.”

The mayor said the private firms would benefit because the grant money and nonprofit expertise could be used to reduce or eliminate the cost of training new employees with the skills they need — or with affordable child care or transportation available, the new employees could hold the jobs longer and the businesses could see a reduction in costly turnover.

Brennan said that with at least three new hotels slated to open in Portland in the coming year and two lobster companies receiving new leases to operate at the Maine State Pier, among other developments, city officials are optimistic employers will emerge to at least consider partnering up for an application.

He also noted that through an “intensive case management” program launched in January by the city’s Department of Health and Human Resources and homeless service provider Preble Street, Portland service providers have been gathering detailed information on the educational backgrounds, life experiences and work histories of many of the city’s homeless.

That means city and nonprofit officials have a better understanding now of what kinds of training or other programs would be of most use to many of the city’s targeted individuals in order to close the gap between being unemployed and employed, Brennan said.

“It’s a net plus for us to take every person who comes to Portland, regardless of why they’ve come here, and find a way to place them in a job,” the mayor said.

Grommes Pulaski said once an individual is placed in a job through a grant-funded program, that person would be expected to work his or her way toward financial self dependency.

Brennan said other city policies had been aligned previously to reflect the goal of job creation. Portland’s tax increment financing — more widely recognized by the acronym TIF — program began to require job creation plans of applicants last fall, while Portland Development Corp. business startup or expansion loans are also geared to maximize the number of jobs per dollar of investment.

“If somebody puts together a really good application, there will be multiple places where an applicant will be able to draw on significant resources,” the mayor said.

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.