GDC 09: New Business Opportunities for Homeless People
If there’s one thing that always strikes me about visiting San Francisco, it’s the homeless and professional panhandler population. It may have just been my imagination, but it seemed as though the downtown core was packed with these folks – more than usual. Cities in California naturally attract the homeless, i suppose, because the climate is warmer. i’ve never understood why Toronto has homeless between October and June … i know if i were down and out (and of sound mind, which is assuming a lot) i’d head to Vancouver at the very least.
As i mentioned in my GDC prep post, the homeless and professional panhandling community in San Francisco is vibrant, prolific, and creative. While most Toronto panhandlers will sit all day with a Tim Horton’s coffee cup in front of them, the San Fran people (mostly men, interestingly) really work for every penny they get. Here are a few of the gimmicks i noticed walking around downtown. Toronto folks, take note!
The funny sign is nothing new, and it’s been in Toronto for a while. i notice it started with younger panhandlers using messages like “need money for weed” and “let’s face it: i just want a beer”. Slowly but surely, the more senior guys started using humour in their signs. But as Chris Rock says, “if a homeless guy has a funny sign, he hasn’t been homeless very long.”
Walking the fine line between humour and pathos
Any city with a strong tourist industry can benefit from panhandlers pointing people to where they need to go. i actually think this is a great relationship: the panhandler provides the customer with a needed service, and earns money for that service. Kinda the way a real business works. (Imagine!) It didn’t work out so well for one guy i saw in San Francisco who, after many attempts so sell himself as a tour guide with a free hotel map in his hand, eventually charged off yelling “eff this city! EFF this place! Nobody wants directions! i can’t BELIEVE this place!” i think his heart was in the right place, but he could have worked harder on his image to appear more approachable.
Dog, Cat, Rat
This one is my new favourite. i saw a man with three animals: a dog, a cat, and a rat. The dog was curled up on the sidewalk. The cat was curled up on top of the dog. And the rat was draped over the cat, like the cherry on a domestic animal sundae. The guy drew quite a crowd of people taking pictures, pointing and giggling, as tourists do. i thought it was a BRILLIANT schtick, and one i think some enterprising Torontonian can co-opt to make a decent wad.
Trunk, Pillow, Sickly Plant
i told a colleague of mine about the dog cat rat gimmick, and he countered with the act he saw that involved a ratty steamer trunk, an inflatable pillow, and a diseased-looking plant. i asked him what the practitioner did with each ingredient, and he said he didn’t know – either he missed the show, or the guy was just hanging out with those three objects in front of him. Apparently, the pillow was inside the trunk, while the plant was placed on the sidewalk next to it. If anyone’s seen this guy, or cares to posit a theory about what might have been going on, please let me know by leaving a comment.
This is one that actually has made it to Toronto, but i’m sure it got its start with the brighter minds on the West coast. The panhandler collects a bunch of rocks – usually rather large and heavy ones – and spends the day stacking and balancing them. i saw one such act down on Queen street a few weekends ago. i overheard two girls marvelling over the act. One asked “how do you discover you have that talent?” i thought that was interesting – “talent”. The act does give the impression that there’s some knack to it, but i maintain that any amazing thing can be achieved with ambition + time. And if there’s one thing a pro panhandler has on his side, it’s time. It’s a good schtick, and it makes believers of people, but i really wonder how many rock-stackers a single city can bear?
My Personal Panhandling Plan
So with the economy in the dumper, i like to sketch out my contingency plan to extreme degrees. i’d like to think that if i ever took up panhandling, i could blow the dog cat rat guy out of the water. i do realize there’s a natural disposition towards mental illness when you’re on the streets (likely a chicken/egg issue to boot), so the creativity and ingenuity of the panhandler’s schtick is likely to be stifled. But i’ll be interested to watch whether the bleeding edge panhandling techniques that i see pioneered in San Francisco every year make their way across the continent to our little burg.
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