Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Even Panhandlers Need To Know Business Basics

Panhandler sign funny
Source: Broke-Ass Stuart
April 8, 2014 - You don't need a degree from a fancy business school to understand the basics of sales and marketing. In fact, a lot of panhandlers understand them better than a lot of CEOs understand them. Most of us know those biz basics, either by instinct or from years of being exposed to them. Think of any company, whether a local mom-and-pop diner or McDonalds, and they all want to (1) satishy customer needs, (2) project the right image, (3) pay as few taxes as possible, (4) be in the best location available, (5) use an easy-to-understand message to tell about their products and services, (6) keep their costs down, and (7) find the perfect method of operation that will stand the test of time.

One successful panhandler, a guy named Eugene, shared his street business wisdom with writer Bill Murphy, Jr. In an article at Huffington Post, Murphy nicely outlined those steps with brief but thorough explanations. As a homeless panhandler myself, I have to say that Eugene - and Murphy - got it right.

Below, I look at some of Murphy's seven strategies with my own comments based on nine months of my own panhandling:

Satisfying "a compelling customer need," writes Murphy, "is most important -- for panhandlers or any business."  I'm not sure this could be called a "strategy" for panhandlers; it's just an unavoidable part of the task. And what is the need that a panhandler fills? "I suspect," writes Murphy, "it's mostly because they want to help others, but maybe for some it satisfies other deep-seated need." I must agree, and add that it can be the only reason people give to a panhandler. Whatever any "other deep-seated needs" might be, they must involve helping others. The only thing they get in return from the panhandler is a "thank you" and maybe a "God bless you," and maybe a grateful smile. Whatever good feeling they get comes from within themselves, but the panhandler gives them the opportunity to connect to that.

For My BMW Fund Panhandler Sign. Photo by Kate Good.
It's a joke, folks. Thank you very much.
Note: I often use humor in my panhandling signs. Currently I am using one that says, "For My BMW Fund." This makes a lot of people smile and laugh, and it's amazing how many give money just to go along with the joke. "Hope you get that Beemer," some say. One woman, in a Mercedes, gave me a $20 bill. "You made me laugh, and that's worth something," she said, "but you should really consider a Mercedes instead." Some people have actually given me $5 to have their photo taken with me.

Another strategy:  "Project the right image." A white panhandler I know often makes over $80 in two hours. He has an unfair "advantage" over me, though: One leg is amputated just below the knee, he has no teeth and, frankly, he looks a bit brain damaged (he's not). The pity factor is hugely in his favor. Another panhandler friend is a black Vietnam veteran who walks with a limp, is missing a few front teeth, and looks every bit of his 64 years of age with a white beard and ripped jacket or shirt. He also pulls in around $80 within a couple of hours.

I've found the hard way how important image is for panhandling. I am 59 years old but stand 6'1" with good posture. I'm white, have good teeth and have no visible handicaps. I have noticed, however, that my own beard has helped me. When I began panhandling in July, 2013 I was clean shaven. I look 10 years younger without a beard. I have not shaved since last November 27, and the donations I get seem to have improved to the point where I now get between $20 and $30 within three hours on some days. Not great, but enough to keep me alive.

"Communicate a simple message" is another strategy listed by Murphy. I've noticed that a lot of panhandlers put way too much information on their signs (which are often illegible). Don't write your life story on a sign that most people have only seconds to view. One of my best signs says, "Please.... Thank You.... God Bless." People get it. They don't need to see a resume. Drivers know why you're standing there, and many give without even reading the sign. For those who do read it, keep it sharp and not boring.

A strategy of my own, that Murphy did not touch on, is respect. Don't act like an ass while you're asking people dig into their pockets to help you. One of my pet peeves is panhandlers who walk through lanes of cars waiting for the light to turn green. They walk right up to drivers' windows or stand in front of cars, not understanding that this is intimidating to many people. I stand at the curb and never go into traffic unless someone in the next lane over signals to me -- and even then I have waved them off with a smile if I thought it was too dangerous. It seems that a number of people size me up, see that I'm not a threat, and then roll down their window to give.

For more, read all of the "7 Effective Business Strategies From A Successful Panhandler."

Also See:
Panhandlers have many strategies....to make money Tampa Bay Times
Broke-Ass Career: Panhandling Broke-Ass Stuart

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Homeless Vet 'Baked To Death' In NY Jail Cell

Jerome Murdough (AP/Jason DeCrow)
March 20, 2014 - On a chilly night last month, a homeless former U.S. Marine was arrested in New York City for trespassing. Jerome Murdough, 56 years old and struggling with mental illness, was asleep in the warmth of an enclosed stairwell on the roof of public housing project in Harlem. The ultimate irony: His arrest would cause him to die the following week in an overheated Rikers Island jail cell.

Four city officials, reports AP, say that Murdough's jail cell reached at least 100 degrees, likely due to malfunctioning equipment. "The officials told The Associated Press that the 56-year-old former Marine was on anti-psychotic and anti-seizure medication, which may have made him more vulnerable to heat. He also apparently did not open a small vent in his cell, as other inmates did, to let in cool air." AP quotes one anonymous official as saying, "He basically baked to death."

Jerome Murdough (AP/Family Photo)
According to the city officials, reports Think Progress, Murdough was alone into a 6-by-10 cinderblock cell at about 10.30pm on February 14, a week after his arrest. "Because he was in the mental-observation unit, he was supposed to be checked every 15 minutes as part of suicide watch, they said. But Murdough was not discovered until four hours later, at about 2.30am on February 15. He was slumped over in his bed and already dead."

Murdough was "on several medications for his mental illness and seizures," says Think Progress. His death was caused "apparently from heat stroke and dehydration after hours of overheating in a six-by-ten cell."

"Advocates for mentally ill inmates in New York," AP reports, "say the death represents the failure of the city’s justice system on almost every level: by arresting Murdough instead of finding him help, by setting bail at a prohibitive $2,500 and by not supervising him closely in what is supposed to be a special observation unit for inmates with mental illnesses."

Also See:
Rikers Island Struggles With a Surge in Violence and Mental Illness NY Times
Homeless Vet ‘Bakes to Death’ in Jail: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know Heavy
Rikers prison guards cleared of inmate beating charges New York Post
Rikers Island inmates use toilet to break cinderblock cell walls in escape attempt NY Daily News

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Houston Billboard and Art Exhibit Remind Us That Homeless Are Human Too

Voice of the Homeless billboard in Houston
Photo at Glasstire.com
Sept. 15, 2013 - There is a somber billboard in downtown Houston that says, “EVEN THE PIGEONS DON’T SEE ME ~ voice of the homeless.”

The purpose of the billboard, which debuted on September 5 along Interstate 45 near Velasco Street, is to raise awareness about the homeless, who are badly discriminated against by Houston's city government. The billboard, reports Paula Newton at Glasstire.com, "is a project by artist Jessica Crute in conjunction with a group show at Deborah Colton Gallery called Collective Identity."

The Deborah Colton Gallery's website notes that the Collective Identity exhibit "aims to emphasize the notion that we are all fragile human beings; whether it be through the loss of a job or the stress of transitional social and education activities, we may all be one step removed from being in a situation where we lose our sense of self and subsequently our sense of place."

"This minimalist public art installation will be juxtaposed against Houston’s urban landscape and will be seen by thousands of commuters everyday, imparting it’s message of awareness," says the Voice of the Homeless website. "Lining the Houston skyline with the words of those who are without a home, the public space billboard seeks to humanize the issue of homelessness and to create a platform through which the voice of the homeless may be heard."

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Why She Gave Me Money - And Took My Photo

Panhandler with sign for BMW fund
Homeless Patriot (Tom Mannis), with a
panhandling sign in Houston.
Photo credit: Kate Good
August 22, 2013 - Many thanks to the magnificent Kate Good for her heart-warming blog post about me two days ago. I encountered Kate while panhandling in Houston, Texas on a sunny Tuesday morning. The brief time we had to chat, a few seconds really as she waited for the traffic signal to change, was uplifting. Kate is a nationally recognized speaker.

Titled "The Unexpected Email I Received From A Panhanlder Today," Kate wrote this:

"Today, my view of a panhandler changed when one of them emailed me. For the first time in many years I have a morning routine that includes driving the same route each morning.  At one high profile corner there have been two panhandlers who are friendly and creative with their signs. One morning I whipped through the light and saw the sign out of the corner of my eye. The gentleman was asking for money for his BMW fund.  I found this to be an example of the strength of the Houston economy and if I were not late for a meeting I would have made a u-turn and snapped a picture for my Facebook status update."

Keep Me Alive and Fighting!

Kate Good's post about me has lifted my spirits and encouraged me to continue my strategy of out-of-the-box "marketing" of myself. Panhandling for money, yes, out of a need to eat. Creating unusual signs, you bet, out of a need to market myself to potential employers. A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Gimme Shelter, But Not At "Star of Hope" Houston (Updated)

July 21, 2013 - Today is my second full day in Houston, Texas. I landed at George Bush Airport (IAH) late Friday night, on a flight from Chicago's O'Hare Airport. In Chicago, I was homeless but not shelterless. In Houston, I am both homeless and without shelter.
Star of Hope, 1811 Ruiz Street, Houston TX
I phoned a nearby shelter yesterday, the Star of Hope Mission (see map). They said they had no more room last night and suggested that I stop in before 11:00 this morning, which I did. My hope was to get off the streets of downtown Houston and into their homeless shelter. That left me on the street last night.

I woke up this morning at 7:30 under some trees alongside a highway. Last night I met another homeless guy, named Jason, who was watching the bar crowds on Main Street last night. Jason worked for years as a waiter at one of Houston's best steakhouses. We conversed for hours. Jason asked if I had a place to stay. When I said no he invited me to crash at his "camp" at a secret location just outside of the downtown area. I watched him interact with other people, other homeless guys as well as bar regulars who know him, and grew to trust him.

What the hell, I thought, the guy is well known and liked on the street, not just some dude flying through town, and I sure as hell liked the idea of sleeping in a quiet, secluded place better than curling up in vestibule or behind shrubbery somewhere downtown. I won't say the exact location for fear of the local authorities sweeping it out, forcing my friend and me to find shelter elsewhere.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

My First Day in Houston, TX (Is This Heaven Or Hell?)

DAY ONE, HOUSTON: 20 JULY 2013 - I did not sleep Thursday night, so by the time I arrived at Houston's George Bush Airport (IAH) at 10 p.m. Friday night I was painfully exhausted. While texting with a friend in Illinois I was (a) trying to figure out where to catch a bus, then (b) waiting for the bus, and then (c) riding the bus (full fare is $1.25).

I loathe texting conversations to begin with, and my friend was attempting an in-depth one. Despite my texting him that I was exhausted and hate texting, he kept going. I finally had to turn off my phone. Literally: I was required to by law. There is a strict rule down here against using cell phones on buses because it's feared that the sounds they make will distract the driver. The bus dropped me at the Greyhound Bus station downtown just past midnight.

Very rough neighborhoods, worse than anything in downtown Chicago as far as I can tell. It's reminiscent of the old Greyhound station in Chicago's Loop, which was closed many years ago and was a hot spot for criminal activity. In fact, the Greyhound station is just blocks from Sauer Street/McGowen Street, one of America's highest-crime neighborhoods. "The violent crime rate is 75.89 per 1,000 residents — far greater than the city average of 9.78," says CultureMap Houston. "Residents have a one in 13 annual chance of becoming a victim (compare that to a chance of one in 102 in Houston overall)." The Sauer/McGowen neighborhood is tucked in right next to Houston's central business district. Moving away from downtown, I must watch my step to avoid other danger zones.

I took advantage of the fact that my baggage made me look like a customer and napped in their waiting area. I was awakened twice by arrests being made within 10 feet of me. I felt like I was in an episode of "Cops: Houston." Even so, it was still far safer than being outside, where psychotic weirdoes were milling about with a desire to harm or kill in their eyes. I have street smarts, and I know what I saw. In all my years in Chicago I have seen that look only a handful of times, but saw it multiple times last night.

I left the Greyhound station at sunrise, around 6:30 a.m. (it's an hour later in Houston because the city is so much farther west than Chicago).  I was groggy and blurry-eyed as I walked away from the station.

Houston is a weird city. I'm used to seeing a 7-Eleven or something equivalent every couple of blocks in Chicago. Not here. Downtown Houston is ugly, boring, with many homeless people begging or sleeping on the sidewalks. People here seem afraid of strangers.

As I walked along Main Street's tram tracks this morning, I chatted with a guy who was begging for quarters so he could buy a bus ticket back to Long Beach, CA. He came to Houston only three days ago, he said, because he'd heard and read that it was booming and full of opportunity. Same reason I came here, I told him.  We were standing in front of a little independent food mart on Main Street.  An elderly white bum sat on the sidewalk a few yard from us, pigeons milling about him.

"I don't like it here," he said, "I got beat up last night." He showed me the blue, dissolvable stitches in his right hand and wrist. He was attacked right outside of the same Greyhound Bus station in which I napped, probably while I was there. He got the stitches at a hospital somewhere nearby. "I'm three dollars short of a bus ticket back to Long Beach," he said. Moments after he said that, someone came out of the food mart and handed him three dollars.

"There's your miracle," I said. He smiled and said, "I'm outa here. Good luck, man."

Less than nine hours in Houston and I'm wondering if I didn't make a mistake in coming here. Too early to know, I suppose. It is Saturday, after all, so it shouldn't be surprising that the business district is not bustling.

It took me another hour of walking around to find a coffee shop with wifi and an outlet for my laptop. I'm at Minuti Coffee as I write this, located at 909 Texas Street.  Outside of the entrance is a placard that tells anyone who's interested that this was once the site of the capitol of the Republic of Texas, when it was an independent nation.  The Texas Congress met here from April 1837 until September 1839.

Time has passed since I began writing this entry; now 10:55 a.m., the city is coming alive with traffic and pedestrians. I don't want to pass judgment on Houston - and my decision to come here - too quickly. I'll trying contacting businesses during the coming weekdays to get a better feel for things.

I want sleep. And food. Since Friday noon, I've eaten four small bags of honey roasted peanuts. I don't know which I want more, though, food or sleep. Both are delicious, essential and hard to come by when you're homeless and broke.  Perhaps I'll find a shady tree in a park and nap for an hour or two. I think I'll do better with that. It's easier to function with a grumbling stomach while full awake than it is to stumble around so tired that you feel - and appear - to be drunk or stoned.  It's easier to find food when you're rested well enough to think clearly, and already my eyes feel heavy from writing this entry. With luck and God's mercy, I will write more tomorrow.