Working downtown, I get approached by people asking me for money. They often call me “Sir,” and will say “Thank you” after I decline to give but instead wish them the best of luck.
I quit giving money after a couple of experiences of trying to help. One time a guy approached me in a parking lot with a story about not being able to get his wife and child back to Marietta on the bus. They were waiting for him at the MARTA station. Could I give him seven bucks? My gut said he was possibly telling the truth. I gave him a ride to MARTA and said if he could produce his wife and child, I would give them the seven bucks. He couldn’t. So I wished him the best of luck and drove on.
One night I was locked out of my car downtown. It was nice out, so I walked home. Along the Freedom Parkway, some guy said he needed money to stay at the shelter. I told him that if he would follow me he could sleep in my extra bedroom. He said he didn’t want to walk that far.
I don’t want to be callous and I know that as a struggling entrepreneur, I’m just a step or two away from joining these comrades on the street. But I don’t think giving them money is the answer.
The other night, I was standing outside our office building on Peachtree Street and saw a guy open up one of our Atlanta Downtown newspaper boxes and pick up about 50 of our papers.
“Hey,” I said. “Why are you taking so many of my papers?”
“They’re free, aren’t they?” he said.
“Well, yes, but each one of those costs me money.”
“Man, I homeless,” he said. “And these are my pillow.”
“But why my papers?” I asked, pointing to the other boxes of free newspapers lined up together.
“Okay,” he said. “This may get me in trouble, but I’m gonna level with you.” He had no smell of alcohol on his breath and he spoke intelligently. “I lost my job, I’m HIV-positive and my disability hasn’t kicked in yet. This is how I support myself. I walk up to cars or pedestrians, tell them that this is a free paper about downtown and hand them one. Now, this is where I become a fraud. I tell them that this paper is published by a nonprofit organization to benefit the homeless and I ask for a donation.”
I laughed out loud. “So far, I think you’re still telling the truth, about the nonprofit part. You’ve probably made more money this year than I have.”
“I distribute 50 or 60 of these a day,” he said.
“That’s great,” I said. “But I’d rather you pass out these other papers. Why do you always clean out my boxes?”
“I’ve tried using those other papers, but they don’t move as well. People pay more for yours.”
I laughed again. Here I’ve been struggling for three years trying to sell enough advertising to pay for nearly 100,000 free papers and I hear from this one-man-research-and-development-department that I could have been charging for them all along.
“Man,” he said. “You should hire me to distribute your papers. Why don’t you give me a job?”
“I think I already have,” I laughed. “You’re working now. I’ve got to go, but why don’t you call me tomorrow.”
We shook hands in the warm Atlanta evening and wished each other luck. I never heard from him again, but I’m glad I met him. Entrepreneurs get ideas from everywhere. You never know when one will make you money.