If you live in Portland, Oregon, you've probably seen them: homeless people with signs that read, "Pizza Schmizza paid me to hold this sign instead of asking for money." Entrepreneur Andre Jehan, 41, pays those homeless people in slices and soda and sometimes a couple of bucks. Homeless advocates are aghast. Donald Whitehead, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, says Jehan is "exploiting" the homeless, and "any person who works a job in America should get at least minimum wage . . . or better, a living wage. The signs are degrading." Not surprisingly, Jehan sees it differently.
How did this start?
Andre Jehan: I was sitting on the freeway, watching some homeless people, and I thought, there must be something they could do to earn money- the first thing that jumped out was they could hold a sign. The arrangement is good for me and for them. Everybody wins. And I make sure they don't feel embarrassed and exploited. They look forward to it and say it's been a positive experience.
But some people think you're taking advantage of the homeless and doing this for the publicity.
Jehan: This is what I'm doing to fix a problem on my block. When people criticize, I ask them, "What are you doing to fix the problem?" I'm not saying this is the answer to our homeless problem. This is a creative Band-Aid. They're just holding the sign for 10 minutes to an hour. This isn't a job, the way it's portrayed in the media. As for the publicity, it is improving my brand. I love the exposure, and I'd like to be doing more of this, using marketing to help the community with the drug problem and to help schools. We have advertisements on public buses; I'd like to be the first person to advertise on a school bus. I get confused when I talk to the city about that. They don't want the [students] exposed to advertisements, yet there are Coke machines in the hallways.
Why not hire a few homeless people to work in your restaurants?
Jehan: I've tried that, and I have yet to have a great experience hiring a homeless person. With one recent employee, everything started off great, and then he came in with a black eye and a bloody lip. The next day, he was high. Then he stopped showing up. That's typical. There [are reasons why] a lot of people are homeless, and of course, I get in trouble every time I say that.
Geoff Williams is a writer in Loveland, Ohio. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.