[Hpn] Some beggars choose hard-core marketing strategies

coh coh@sfo.com
Tue, 03 Jul 2001 18:57:48 -0700

Street persuasion 

Some beggars choose hard-core marketing strategies
Vicki Haddock, Insight Senior Writer

Sunday, July 1, 2001
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle


With the winds of an economic downturn swirling around him, J.T. Parker is
just one more entrepreneur struggling to raise venture capital. The
31-year-old set up shop in San Francisco's dot-com mecca, South of Market.

"To make it, you need a profitable piece of real estate -- location,
location, location," he explained.

"And you've got to be adaptable. Tailor your pitch to each person. I found
some information on the Internet that helped me size up the clientele,
although a lot of it is trial and error right on the street."

Although he sounds like it, Parker is not an enterprising dot-commer. He's a
panhandler. The mouse most familiar to him is the one that gnawed holes in
his sleeping bag. 

The Web site he checked out on a computer at the public library, www.pbs.
org/weblab/needcom, furnished "market research" on effective strategies for
begging. And, like any CEO concerned about the bottom line, Parker knows
good marketing techniques pay off.

A junior college dropout from Stockton, he's new to panhandling. He said his
dyslexia and drinking make it hard to get and keep a regular job.

Holding out a Starbucks cup to passersby, he asked, with a smile and a wink,

"Spare a few bucks to fund my startup?"

The trick to successful panhandling these days is to make the passing
citizenry pay attention to the spiel. This is especially so in a mendicants'
market as overflowing as it is in San Francisco, where the high-tech boom
didn't make a dent in the begging ranks. The more recent dot-com bust hasn't
helped either. 

Curiously, though some have come to see panhandling as an indictment of
capitalism, it is a reflection of it as well.

"Successful panhandling is a lot like successful advertising," said Cathy
Davies, 26, who developed the Needcom Web site while living in Berkeley.
"It's reaching a jaded audience in a saturated market by finding a message
that jumps out and grabs you."

The Needcom site -- percolating on irony with its assumption that
panhandling is an avant-garde business -- was funded by the Web Lab
Development Fund and maintained by PBS Online as part of its effort to
invigorate the debate about public policy.

"What Needcom seeks to uncover," said Davies, is "what happens to
expressions of need in a culture which is increasingly mediated by

In less than two years, she says, the site has registered about a quarter of
a million hits. A small number of people posting to the site identify
themselves as homeless or formerly homeless, but most are middle class.
Potential donors. 

Some 43,000 of them have watched and listened to real panhandlers' pitches,
then clicked on how much cyberchange they would give.

There are links to testimonials, focus groups and customer feedback, plus
surveys that pose questions such as: "Is panhandling like your job?"

A survey query asks, "Which statement do you agree with more? Panhandling is
like being on welfare, or panhandlers are like entrepreneurs."

With more than 2,750 people responding, welfare was edging out
entrepreneurship by 57 to 42 percent.

That probably comes as little surprise to local beggars. Their own "market
research" tells them they confront stiff rivalry and an increasingly weary

Just displaying need is often insufficient. The Needcom site found 58
percent of respondents were more likely to give to a panhandler who
entertains than one who simply asks for help.

"Like any entrepreneur, a panhandler is out to make money in the most
efficient way possible. They're rather like salespeople everywhere -- many
even conclude their transaction with a cheery 'Have a nice day!' " said
cultural anthropologist Louisa Stark, whose research on the marketing of
mendicants has been published in the New England Journal of Public Policy.

Anecdotal evidence suggests San Franciscans in particular crave comedy,
which explains why panhandling here increasingly has evolved into street
theater. Hence the success of the woman who panhandles outside BART
stations, soliciting donations by saying, "Help me hire a hit man to kill my

Although, as every comedian knows, audience appreciation is never

"It is a lot like cold-calling," said Ron Rucker. "You put yourself out
there every day and you get rejected to your face time after time."

He used to live in a large house in Concord with its own pool. Then
curiosity got the better of him, he said. He tried crack cocaine, plunging
into a vortex that landed him on the street. As a panhandler, he was
surprised by how much he used his old job skills -- selling high-end
telecommunications systems for a major corporation.

Rucker's take, typically $20 a night, would pay for lunch, a trip to the
coin laundry and once-in-awhile, a movie or drugs, he said. He added that he
is clean now and panhandles only occasionally. He is in a program to prepare
him to re-enter the job market.

With high-tech boom turning into a looming recession, Rucker, even with his
skills, faces a much tougher job market. For less-skilled colleagues on the
street, the competition for spare change could become equally fierce. That
means their pitch had better be persuasive or entertaining. Preferably both.

Rucker, who is black, sometimes solicits white passersby with, "Can you
spare a little change for the KKK?" It usually gets him laughs and some

although one Jewish pedestrian shot back, "Hey, man, that isn't funny."

One downtown San Francisco panhandler appeals for spare change to pay for
penis enlargement surgery. Another offers to guess your career for $1 and
yet another holds a sign saying, "Tell me off for $5." One man totes a
skillet to identify himself as a "real" panhandler, while there are plenty
who are wise to the payoffs of truth-in-advertising: "Help, I need a beer!"
reads a sign. 

The Needcom survey asked, "Who's the best panhandler you ever met?" Top of
the charts (with five votes out of 260 respondents) was the "Bush Man" at
Fisherman's Wharf. Covered in brush, he bursts out of the hedges and scares
tourists. Then he solicits a payoff for giving them a walk-on role in his
faux horror movie. 

Other nominations: 

The Texas panhandler who crafted his sign to look like a credit card,
reading "American Distress Card" on one side and, on the other, "Don't be
homeless without it."

The Los Angeles beggar who appeared to be a laid-off aerospace worker,
carrying the sign, "Will build space shuttles/moon rockets for food."

The guy who stood at the side of the road in Orange County's Santa Ana
Canyon with a sign that read "Please Give to Homeless." On the sign's flip
side, for those who failed to give: "Die Yuppie Scum."

Every survey respondent who praised these pitches reported giving them
money, typically as a reward for the panhandler's creativity or as a
gratuity for the amusement.

But others were aghast.

"They are people, not animals to entertain you!" wrote one person. "To give
to someone who you find entertaining is cruel," admonished another.

Of course the most persuasive pitch is wasted unless it finds a broad
audience of potential contributors.

In San Francisco, some panhandlers swear by tourist spots like Union Square.

Others say they have a better chance of evading the cops if they beg in
residential neighborhoods. Some keep on the move. Others stake a claim to
prime sales territory, particularly the coveted medians of Van Ness Avenue.

Sitting on an upended crate at Van Ness and Geary Street, T.C. explained
that he had abandoned his old sign because it was so, well, passe. It said,
"Homeless, Please Help."

The tattered piece of cardboard he now held valiantly illustrated his
determination to establish "brand ID" in a glutted market. It said, "Yada
yada yada, who reads signs anyway?"

But the freshest frontier is cyberspace. At GiveMeMoney.com, the appeal
reads, "Send checks, cash, money orders and jewelry to: Homeless Person,
3926 Lake Ferry Drive, Raleigh, N.C. 27606." Unfortunately, like getting
users to pay for other kinds of content on the Web, the returns so far have
been disappointing: "Total received to date: $0.00"

One virtual-reality panhandler shut down his Web site, saying he made more
(up to $40 per day) using a crude sign at an intersection outside Disney

Real world or cyberspace, entertaining or not, panhandling remains as tough
an occupation as it has ever been. And it's far less lucrative than cynics
suspect. Assigned to panhandle as a social science experiment, students from
the University of California at Berkeley collected an average of a measly $4
a day. 

The new marketing techniques don't impress everyone in San Francisco.
Critics say it's ludicrous to characterize panhandlers as "entrepreneurs"
because they offer nothing of value in exchange for a handout.

"How dare you attempt to legitimize this scam?" scolded one visitor to the
Needcom site. "Everyone chooses his/her lot in life, why should I fund an
obviously stupid choice?"

But even donors who don't expect entertainment insist they do get something
in return -- be it an assuagement of guilt, a sense of helping someone less
fortunate, or, in the words of one, a reminder "that I still have the
beating heart of a human being."

Although only one-fifth of homeless people panhandle, studies indicate,
about 90 percent of panhandlers are homeless.

One lingering question: Are you really "helping" if a panhandler uses your
donation to underwrite his or her own self-destruction by bottle or
injection? By a 2-to-1 margin, participants in the Needcom survey say they
would be upset if their donations went to buy alcohol or cigarettes.

Ah well, ask any venture capitalist: Every investment carries an element of
risk. Caveat emptor applies in the street as well as on The Street.

E-mail Vicki Haddock at vhaddock@sfchronicle.com.

©2001 San Francisco Chronicle   Page D - 1

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