Panhandling made perfect

Can a Web site teach street people how to improve their money-making skills?

Published December 16, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Still wondering what to get mom for Christmas? How about a Panhandler Gift Certificate -- it may not be as luxurious as a silk bathrobe or trip to the spa, but it might just open her mind.

OK, so perhaps it's not likely that you'll stuff relatives' stockings with "gift certificates" promising prepaid quality time with your local homeless person -- but Cathy Davies, the mind behind NeedCom, hopes to encourage you to at least consider the plight of the panhandler. Five-month-old NeedCom, which offers "market research for panhandlers," uses irony and a splashy design to educate people about stereotypes surrounding poverty -- and impart valuable information to panhandlers. The Panhandler Gift Certificate is merely Davies' most recent innovation.

NeedCom offers a series of surveys, polls and profiles that address various aspects about panhandling. In the panhandler effectiveness survey, for example, you can choose which of six panhandlers has the best solicitation strategy, as each tells a joke or a down-on-their-luck story or what have you. You vote by "giving" them virtual money; the site then compares your charity with the average donation. (I was apparently in a generous mood and gave a total of $2.75 to five panhandlers, while the average visitor gave a total of $1.45.)

NeedCom also offers interviews with the panhandlers themselves -- such as Donald, a New York panhandler who pockets $100 a day -- and both the panhandlers and readers weigh in on topics like the importance of cleanliness and the effectiveness of humor.

NeedCom was conceived by Davies after observing panhandlers on the New York subway, each of whom seemed to have his or her own carefully developed tactics for eliciting spare change. "This principle, which is very similar to marketing research, was something I wanted to expand on," says Davies. Thanks to the site, she hopes, "people are now thinking about panhandling as a realistic economic activity, rather than thinking that panhandlers are lazy or don't work very hard."

NeedCom is hosted by Web Lab, a PBS-funded project that sponsors Web sites that address social issues such as adoption, suicide and media literacy. So far, more than 15,000 people have participated in Davies' site; after her year-long grant ends, she plans to collect the reader statistics and comments and distribute them via street newsletters to those in the panhandling community. With this kind of market research in hand, panhandlers might be able to figure out which techniques are most effective, much like advertisers study just how to push consumer buttons.

"The customer responses have been really revealing about the opinions people have about panhandling," explains Davies. "I just want to get this really valuable information back to them."

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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