Giving Panhandlers a New ‘Plan A’: a Pro Bono Assignment for HR Professionals?
Imagine the public relations coup, the community good will, the personal and professional satisfaction, and the gratitude of those helped, if a recruiting firm (or individual recruiter) were to take to the streets to provide job assistance to able-bodied, drug-free, sane and sober panhandlers.
That description is not an oxymoron; the next panhandler who reaches out to you may be all four of those—and one more: wanting help to get off the street, not to stay there.
The immediate, dismissive response to that idea is likely to be that it will be a waste of everyone’s time and energy. Panhandlers, it is said, want money, not jobs; they lack the skills. health, sanity and/or sobriety client employers are looking for; and recruiters have a better chance of helping everyone else, which spells “unacceptable opportunity cost”.
Alternatives to “Spare Change”
But let me illustrate the possibilities with a very modest example of what can be done, even without the resources and expertise of an HR manager or an established independent recruiter.
Here in Vancouver, I am predictably approached for “spare change?” (which is always pronounced as a question) as soon as I enter or before I exit the downtown core area—a question and concept that is always ambiguous as between
1. “money that can be spared because it is not needed “, (like change in Bill Gates’ pocket most of the time)
2. “money to be recycled” (like a burdensome pile of Bill Gate’s worn-out tires at a dump or junk yard)
3. “surplus money” (like a pile of spare tires in Bill Gates multi-car garage, potentially but not immediately needed)
4. “spare money for emergencies” (like the spare tire in the trunk of Bill Gates’ car while on the road)
5. “money that can be spared, but only altruistically or unwisely” (like the spare tire in the trunk of Bill Gate’s car that has a tire with an evident slow leak).
Given the sense of entitlement and aggressiveness so often displayed by panhandlers, ,many (falsely and wishfully) assume that my change falls into categories #1, #2 and #3, when in fact, it’s almost always #5. Hence, from time to time, I offer my job Plan A as a constructive alternative to their panhandling Plan A.
I have, more than once, suggested that instead of simply panhandling, they should sell on-the-spot services, including telling a joke for fifty cents. No joke. Really. After demonstrating how to pitch that and providing some of my favorite jokes, I usually get a favorable, receptive response (allowing that it’s merely pandering to my ego to soften it up for resumed panhandling). In one instance, the panhandler practiced on me, told a couple of great jokes and got paid for it.
He grasped the obvious benefits of the arrangement. which include the following:
Offering to provide a service neutralizes much of the general discomfort, resentment, ambivalence, suspicion, distressing guilt and hostility passersby often feel when accosted for a handout.
The panhandler can experience something akin to “employee engagement”, professional pride, a sense of productivity, a good skills-challenge match, self-sufficiency (through self-employment) and a rapport with his benefactor-clients.
The sense of accomplishment and the experience of creating value for others can serve as a proactivity “seed” that can serve to overcome feelings of helplessness and uselessness and catalyze other steps toward gainful employment.
In a slightly different scenario—that of the musical busker, I have offered a different plan: Although street musicians, to the extent they are providing a public service, are not panhandlers, the service they are providing can nonetheless be confused with panhandling (especially when those performing outside liquor stores are clearly not musicians at all), because they do not have an explicit employment agreement with their patrons, who may perceive them as merely using music as a panhandling tool, much as a “We’re hungry” sign and pitiful pet pooch hunkered down on cardboard next to his owner are employed for that purpose.
My alternative income-generating plan I suggest to them is that instead of performing on a random-exposure basis, they should teach passersby some musical form or piece. In those cases, of which there are many, in which the musical level of accomplishment was virtually zip, I’ve taught panhandlers how to play a sophisticated-sounding, yet easily learned folk-music, guitar-picking technique (called “Travis picking”). which most novices are dazzled by or a Chicago blues riff—particularly relevant to non-musical “musicians”, who after a 2-to-5-minute lesson with me, can teach passersby the same thing in the same time for, say, $2.
Do the math: If the (panhandler turned) busker can engage 5 people per hour, that will secure a wage of $10 per hour—better than minimum wage. Even if only 10 people per day accept the offer, e.g., 2 per hour over 5 hours, that’s still $600 per month (on top of any other legitimate income sources).
Pro Bono Recruiter Assistance to Panhandlers
Now, extrapolate from that to what a recruiter could do for a panhandler open to making changes and to giving hope a chance:
- Offer a card with key free employment, health and housing and resume services listed.
- Offer a personal business card to down-and-out professionals, who can be vetted to confirm their credentials. For instance, there are those like Maurice Johnson, who although not a panhandler, was in 2011, a homeless, unemployed self-described research engineer-cum-Ivy League graduate with an advanced degree in plasma physics, whose story was widely reported at the time. (His LinkedIn page does not indicate any current employment; so, if his experience and credentials can be confirmed, it may be worthwhile to check him, and others like him, out.)
- Make spontaneous suggestions and recommendations, especially a new “Plan A”, when it is clear that these will be well received and possibly acted upon.
- Carry vouchers that can be used by panhandlers for public services, food, etc., if your municipality, like a number of others, provides them. That could create a good segue to giving advice and suggestions. As the popular motto puts it, these vouchers can help panhandlers “aim for real change, not spare change”
- When the details warrant it with a prospect with strong credentials, a helpful, ideally street-savvy recruiter might be able to go beyond vouchers and vouch for his “discovery” in a presentation to a client employer.
Of course, accomplishing this last-mentioned mission might change one aspect of the assistance rendered the erstwhile panhandler.
It would no longer be pro bono, if there’s an employer-paid commission.