This is a blog I did several years ago updated for today. Enjoy!
Panhandlers – America’s great entrepreneurs? Alan, you have really gone off the rocker now. I know that is what you are thinking even if the thought is a little fleeting so hear me out. Can you imagine what it is like to get up most days and journey by public transportation to a street corner somewhere to stand out in the elements hot, cold, rain, shine, wind etc? Or to wake up in your urban camp (they are everywhere in Austin) without a shower, sleep deprived only to be faced with hours begging for spare change. Stand there on your feet for hours baking or freezing while marketing yourself to each passerby hoping someone will spare some change. All of this for about $25 to $50 bucks on an average day? Well, I have tried panhandling, sleeping in urban camps, sleeping under and on bridges as well as alleyways, shelters and the like. Very hard work to say the least coming from someone who works very hard and long hours.
Even if you can maintain the $50 average five days a week 52 weeks a year that adds up to a whopping $13,000 per year. That is less than 30% of the median family income required for one adult to live in Austin. Who do you know other than a homeless person or someone on SSI that lives on this amount of money? Crazy, to say the least! Lots of work, lots of energy expenditure, and lots of puritan work ethic going on here but the rewards are very small. Is there a way to refocus that energy to something more rewarding and productive? Stay tuned as we begin to put another tool into the toolbox of solving social issues.
I know what it means to be an entrepreneur. My entire adult life I have been an entrepreneur. In fact when I learned what an entrepreneur truly was it changed my life. In 1978 I dropped out of the University of Texas frustrated with the academic way of life and went into the real estate business in Austin, Texas. This changed my life forever and I learned then that I could be my own man in charge of my life (to the extent one can truly be in charge) and the fruits of my labors would be freedom, flexibility, purpose and perhaps even a little financial reward. I felt truly empowered.
You see I later came to realize that the typical academic structure did not fit my personality too well. Perhaps as a youngster I would have even been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder or something like that. I can tell you that while in high school and college I did not spend a lot of time in the classroom focusing on academics. My mind was always wondering. But somehow I was blessed with enough DNA to get by in this model without a lot of effort. It is precisely this type of behavior that I witness day in and day out with my brothers and sisters who live on the streets; folks that struggled in conventional education and had a hard time focusing on the details. However, I also found that there was a strong puritan work ethic in each of these people. I gotta tell you that it takes a strong, resilient and resourceful individual to survive in a state of homelessness.
In fact people like me and my brothers and sisters on the streets have a model that we can look to to lift us up into this life of freedom, flexibility, purpose and yes financial reward. Walk across any border bridge from the United States into Mexico and you will enter into a gauntlet of entrepreneurs. Whether it is the girl selling chicklets, or the vegetable stand or someone making fresh tortillas or someone selling handmade jewelry or whatever, people are purposefully working under their own power. Somehow here in the good ole USA we have regulated ourselves away from this entrepreneurial spirit; some good reasons and some bad. You have heard the old saying, “you can give a man a fish and he will eat for the day or you can teach the man to fish so he can eat for a lifetime”. I have a new saying, “most people already know how to fish but now it is up to us to help them get the license to fish”.
So back to the statement I made earlier that the homeless are some of the most resilient and resourceful people I have ever met. I have never met so many talented people; mechanics, carpenters, craftsmen, musicians, salesmen, teachers or you name it, they are out on the streets. There are many impediments to conventional employment so we have to get creative; to help them get that license to fish. Check out www.mlf.org/roads to see what we are doing to help these budding entrepreneurs. I say we get creative to convert all that energy that is going into panhandling into something fulfilling and rewarding; something that is a benefit to our communities. Let’s take this entrepreneurial spirit and this puritan work ethic and really make it work. Let’s help turn these brothers and sisters into effective entrepreneurs.
Check out the following video too!