John Hargrave: Homeless Marketing Consultant

There's nothing funny about the homeless. Theirs are tragic stories, lives shattered by alcohol, crack, and Listerine. I recently read the startling fact that 100% of the homeless do not have homes. This kind of appalling statistic is what drove me to become a homeless marketing consultant.

The average beggar makes only 58 cents per hour.1 But let's be honest: the average beggar isn't usually selling himself. I once watched a crippled man sit on the street for an hour, on a wheeled board, in arctic January winds. Over the course of an hour, he made zero money, but he had zero hustle. As I sipped espresso from the five-star Italian-fusion restaurant where I watched him, I wanted desperately to help. Work the crowd! I coached him in my mind. Tap dance! Do a little softshoe! True, he had no shoes, but still.

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That was my turning point. I decided to work with the homeless, identifying their unique skills and gifts. I improve their game, and occasionally their gamey odor. As a homeless marketing consultant, I am a trainer, a mentor, a coach. My fee is 20% of their take, just like an agent. Possibly 40%, if their English is shaky.

Curious about a typical day at my elite hobo consultancy? Read on.

Fortunately, in this economy, I never have problems finding new clients. Wandering into the streets of Boston, I immediately ran into Billy, a homeless 46-year old man who was bright, articulate, and alcoholic. I took him to a nearby Starbucks for strong black coffee and a strong recommendation to do business together.

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I pulled out my 19-inch Powerbook G4, touching open its titanium case. "Billy, I am going to help you unlockyour homeless earning potential,"I told him, firing up Powerpoint 2007. "Now, how much would you say you currently make each day by stemming?" 2

"I don't stem," he said. "I'm not that desperate yet."

"Then how do you get by?"

"I sell my food stamps," he said. "I know a guy who pays cash for them, 50 cents on the dollar. I have another friend who will sometimes buy them off me, dollar for dollar, when he has the money. He lets me crash at his place sometimes."

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"Good friend," I said. "Don't urinate on his carpet."

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Billy laughed and took a sip of Frappucino.

"No, I mean it. Don't piss on his carpet. You need the money."


"Now Billy: you can drastically boost your earning potential by learning how to stem. Do you want to give it a try?"

"I don't know." Billy was skeptical. "My wife divorced me, and I have two sons who are pretty successful. They work around here, and I don't want them to see me." The shame in his eyes ran deep.

"Come on," I said gently. "Don't be afraid. I'll show you how to do it."

"You're going to stem wearing that?" he said, pointing to my custom-tailored pinstripe suit and Giorgio Armani necktie.

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"Watch me."

I spent the next half hour panhandling in my suit. Make no mistake: it is not easy money. The constant rejection of hundreds of passing faces was disheartening, but I pushed on. After fifteen minutes, I was approached by a Malaysian tourist who asked me for directions to the subway station.

"For that information, I will need twenty dollars," I told him.

"Certainly!" he said, smiling and placing a 20-dollar bill into my cup.

"Right you are. Just down the block on the left. You were already going in the right direction, and would have run into it anyway."

"Thank you!" he said, slightly confused.

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Having successfully extorted twenty dollars out of an unsuspecting tourist, I asked Billy if he had change. I took out my 20% fee, then handed Billy the cup, which was filled with his $16 cut of the take. "We always use fresh Starbucks cups for stemming," I instructed. "Never crumpled or dirty. Starbucks conveys success, and Americans love successful people. Like you, Billy." I patted him on the back. "Now go get 'em, homeless guy."

I was either coaching him, or talking on the phone. I can't remember.

It's hard f*****g work, panhandling. Hundreds of successful Americans, some with their pocketbooks out, walking right by. Next time you see a hobo, try to throw him some spare change. Billy was invisible to these people.

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I considered fitting Billy with a hemmed jacket, but he was already clean and presentable: no rank, no stank, and only a cowboy's whiskey-breath. In his casual jeans and sweatshirt, Billy was Everyhomeless. I thought his best strategy was to stay his own bad self.

So I changed up Billy's signage instead, trying to draw a little more attention from the cruel, uncharitable residents of Boston.

Playing the sympathy card.

Billy received no donations with this sign, even though he really did need a hernia operation.

I thought this would get some sympathy votes, but forgot about the large recovering Jewish population.

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No donations.

Irony always sells.

With this sign, it was only minutes before someone dropped a dollar into Billy's cup.

Yes, my friends, in less than half an hour, Billy had seen his fortunes reversed from $0.00 per hour to $2.00 per hour,3 which is an increase of two hundred percent! When extrapolated to a full work year4, this would total a net income of one million dollars.5

1. "Homelessness" (1997). Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics. London: Academic Press.
2. "Stemming" is street slang for "begging."
3. $2.00/hour rate assumes a $1.00 donation every half hour.
4. Homeless Marketing Consultants defines a "full work year" as constant stemming 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, at $2.00/hour rate.
5. Also, it would require a rich uncle that would provide you $982,480 of the $1,000,000.

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"I have a slogan." I was on my knees in the grass, pitching Dave, who was still inside his sleeping bag at 4:00 pm. "Do you want to hear the secret to real homeless success, Dave? This is completely free advice, no obligation."

"Okay," said Dave.

"ABB. Do you know what that stands for?"

Dave stared at me.

"ABB. A: Always. B: Be. B: Begging. Always Be Begging. ALWAYS BE BEGGING."

My Treo 650 chirped, interrupting me. "Hang on," I said, touching on my Bluetooth headset. "Hello? Yes. Right. And have the Mercedes waxed, please. Okay. Yes. Thanks, super-hot wife." I touched off the magnificently expensive Treo LCD display and shook it for emphasis. "This is what Homeless Marketing Consultants can do for you, Dave. We can unlock your homeless potential. All you have to do is follow the simple ABB philosophy."

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Dave stretched and yawned.

"f**k, I'll do it," said a filthy man seated beside him in the grass.

"No, this offer is exclusively for Dave," I said. I like to be choosy with my clients, and the other guy looked like he had been sleeping in gravel every night for the last six years. Which, it turns out, he had.

"f**k you then," suggested the other homeless guy.

"What do you think?" I extended my hand toward Dave, nodding enthusiastically. "Would you like to work together?"

"Okay," Dave said, rubbing sleep funk out of his eyes with a grimy forefinger.

After an hour of wearing him down, Dave finally agreed to this:

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Dave didn't quite have the level of energy I thought we needed for breakthrough homeless earning success. On the other hand, he was just coming off a five-day bout of pneumonia. And it had rained freezing sleet last night.

"I was totally soaked, head to toe, no blanket," complained Dave, who's been homeless off and on for several years. "Standing in doorways, trying to keep dry." He rattled out a phlegm-filled cough. "You find ways to get by," he said, with the most despondent and lifeless voice that you've ever heard. I suspected Dave was clinically depressed, but wouldn't you be?

Still, beggars can't be choosers. Dave was my client now, and we had a job to do. "What are the most important three factors in stemming?" I asked him as we strolled along the Boston Common.

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"Ah "¦ ABB?"

"No, that's a different slogan. The three most important factors are LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION. So let's try three different locations."



"Churches are good," I said as we approached historic Park Street Church, an evangelical church with a largely white congregation. The church holds great historic significance, as it was used to store gunpowder during the War of 1812. Located on the famous "Brimstone Corner," where passionate white preachers gave fiery Christian speeches, Park Street Church would be our first test of charity.

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FIRST DONATION GIVEN: 3 minutes, 6 seconds

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Next we went to the Tremont Temple Baptist Church, which also holds historical significance as being the first integrated church in America, and the first church in New England to proclaim the Emancipation Proclamation. Many beggars believe African-Americans and other minority groups are the most generous givers, but apparently not in front of the Tremont Temple Baptist Church:

FIRST DONATION GIVEN: 10 minutes, 22 seconds


Finally, we set up Dave in front of the Church of Scientology, the institution that believes Dave is just a "thetan" requiring highly expensive "auditing" to free himself of "engrams" and "implants" that came from an alien named "Xenu" 75 million years ago. I just liked the irony of putting a sane homeless guy outside a building full of crazies.

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FIRST DONATION GIVEN: 6 minutes, 40 seconds

"So there you have it," I told Dave as I rooted around in his cup for my 20% commission of the $2.33 he collected. "Next time you need some money, stick with the white churches. That's where all the money is."

"Are we done yet?" asked Dave, coughing up sputum.

"We are done, but never finished. Remember, Dave: ABB."

As I added 47 cents to my gold-embossed deerskin coin purse, I decided it was turning out to be a very profitable day. Oh yes. There was money in these hobos.

"You're not homeless, you're HOME FREE!" I began my pitch to Jimmy and Karen, a homeless couple who were also lovers. "You represent society without obligations, schedules, or hygiene. Look at them, caught up on their hamster wheels!" I pointed to the passing crowd. " They aspire to be like you!"

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"Hold on," interrupted Jimmy. "This is for CRACK? Boy, have you come to the right place! We love crack! "

"No, CRACKED," I corrected him. "The humor magazine."

"I'm just kidding you, boss. We don't do crack no more."

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Jimmy was funny, and one of the most accomplished stemmers I've seen. He was a real diamond in the rough neighborhood. I knew that we could go a long way together. Maybe I could even learn a thing or two, such as how to score a homeless hottie like Karen, who was easily an 8 on the Homeless Hot-Meter:

Karen had been married, two kids. Her husband used drugs, she was alcoholic. They moved to Vermont, and her husband decided to clean up. She didn't. He kicked her out of the house, and she's been on the street for the last three years.

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Jimmy has spent most of his life living wherever he can find it: subsidized housing, friends' couches, and usually on the street, where I found him. "How low can I go?" he said, his face instantly flashing from comically zany to bitterly depressed.

"How much do you make in an average day?" I asked them.

"Fifteen dollars," said Karen.

"Fifteen, twenty," said Jimmy, completely normal again. Then he started to weep. "But you know what I do with that money? I spend it on booze."

"Demonstrate some of your best homeless hustle," I told them.

"Well, sometimes we put some poop on the ground," said Jimmy.

"Yeah, plastic poop," laughed Karen.

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"People stop, they notice, sometimes they throw us a little change."

"Prop comics!" I exclaimed. "You guys are like the unemployed version of Carrot Top. Which is redundant, of course. All you need to unlock your mad homeless power is some madhomeless props."

"We had a little Shrek doll that we used to use," said Jimmy.

"Until he got eaten by a dog," said Karen, smiling.

"Yeah, we'd clap Shrek's little hands when someone threw us some change."

"And how did it work?" I asked, eager to prove my hunch. "Was Shrek an earner?"

"Yeah, Shrek was a big hit."

"Sometimes I get crapped on by pigeons," Katie grinned.

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I went out and bought them not just a Shrek chewtoy, my friends, but an electronic, battery-operated monkey. This was far more hilarious than a pitiful green ogre. Ripping it from the package, I delivered it to Jimmy, who fell onto the sidewalk laughing at the sight.

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He pushed the button. As the monkey began to scream like a piercing Valkyrie while waggling its legs, Jimmy's eyes welled up with sadness. Poor guy was on the emotional Tilt-O-Whirl, the mental Matterhorn.

"But that's not all!" I exclaimed. "For you, Jimmy, we're classing up your act with this stylish 'Beatnik Cigarette Holder'!"

"And the final touch: Wacky Comedy Glasses!" I pulled out a pair of funny glasses with the nose and mustache, which you're not allowed to call "Groucho Glasses" anymore, not after the Great Groucho Crackdown of 1984, which is considered by some to be the defining event in comedy licensing.

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The glasses didn't even have a proper Groucho mustache. Most of it was stripped out by the violent Groucho licensing henchmen, leaving just a wisp of hair that made Jimmy look a little bit like Homeless Hitler. "Oh man," he said, staring at the glasses and wiping a tear from his eye, "this is f*****g degrading."

"Jimmy," I whispered, "you are a highly gifted prop comic. Put on those wacky Nazi glasses, for it is the one true path to unleashing your ultimate homeless power!"I raised a fist in the air, like Jerry Maguire.

"Also," I reminded him as I pulled out a wad of bills pinned together with a 24-karat gold Rolex clip, "we're giving you $20 for this article."

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Jimmy's mania suddenly kicked in. He began laughing hilariously, seeing the comedy of it all. For the next twelve seconds.

With their new props, this homeless "power couple" earned a whopping $3.38 over the next hour, mostly from fellow homeless people, who turn out to be (not a joke) the most generous givers of all.

I was wrong, I said to myself as I watched them. I guess sometimes the homeless are funny, after all.

Sir John Hargrave is the author of PRANK THE MONKEY: THE ZUG BOOK OF PRANKS, now available at retailers everywhere, and on the Web at

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