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Senior Correspondent

Homeless, Not Helpless: Entrepreneurship in Unlikely Places

I’ve never thought of the homeless as innovative or entrepreneurial. I suspect few do. Some might say these lost souls don’t have an enterprising bone in their bodies; if they did, they wouldn’t be homeless. I understand why people come to this conclusion; when they see the homeless, they see them sedentary — lingering in the streets, slouched on park benches, lying under blankets in alleys or crouched against buildings with cups in outstretched hands. My visit to Santa Barbara last week changed my mind about homeless ingenuity.

On the sand below the Santa Barbara Pier is the domain of a homeless entrepreneur. Beneath the pier and within reach of your coins from above are 5 picnic blankets spread six-feet apart, each with novel merchandising themes to entice charitable currency. On the first blanket is a large empty beer mug accompanied by the sign, “Why Lie, Need Beer Money.” Our homeless merchant’s theme is targeted at the male audience. This audience concludes that he is an honest humorist. They probably haven’t figured him for a good marketer. Yet.

The next exhibition is a checkered tablecloth, a candle, a vase of flowers and a beautiful place setting for one. Of course the plate is empty, (except for a couple of quarters and dimes). The cardboard call to action reads, “Help Me Make Dinner.” Women threw a lot more cash into this net than did men.

“Try your Luck” appealed to the gamblers. Our homeless entrepreneur offers an entertaining game of chance. He has made a circular target with numbered rings and a cut-out bulls-eye. It lays flat on the blanket with an assortment of coinage in the rings. Next to that is “Bet You Can’t” – three glasses suspended on a wire. People are tossing coins for two-pointers, challenging each other and keeping score; all the while, the loot adding up.

The last and final display offers the brand pay-off. He moves from entertainment to his target’s head and heart. He provides the rational and emotional payoff. He’s written, “Homeless, Not Helpless.” Now you feel good about lending a hand. You walk away with a smile. Worth 50 cents? Sure it is.

This entrepreneur must be the wealthiest panhandler in Santa Barbara. He’s making a living by following the 4 P’s of Marketing. His Product is entertainment. His Price is whatever the customer chooses to pay. As for his Place of business? Location, location, location — walk the Santa Barbara Pier and you can’t miss him. The last “P” is Promotion. Herein is the power of the mind to create the persuasive call to action.

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