September 23, 2008 in Business

Home buyer turns to homeless

Business pays $25 to wear T-shirt, hand out fliers
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Weigh in

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The owner of a business that acquires homes in danger of foreclosure thinks he has found a novel way to help the homeless: using them as walking billboards.

Steve McMullen paid panhandlers on busy downtown Spokane street corners to wear bright yellow T-shirts and hand out fliers on Friday promoting his Post Falls company, Highland Financial LLC. He hired six people for $25 each.

It seemed like a “good way to utilize both advertising and help them out; you know, make some money and hopefully increase their tips,” McMullen said.

“We didn’t have to do much recruiting,” he said. “People were approaching me.”

Using the homeless for advertising isn’t a new concept. A Seattle man claims to have trademarked the term “Bumvertising” to describe the practice of attaching placards to panhandlers’ signs, a business he started in 2005. Although critics there called the practice exploitative, homeless advocates have mixed views on McMullen’s scheme.

“I don’t see a problem with it,” said Bob Peeler, of Spokane Neighborhood Action Programs. “Most times folks would be willing to earn a dollar if they have an opportunity.”

To Marty McKinney, who runs the Truth Ministries homeless shelter, the plan’s legitimacy hinges on “if they are actually helping somebody out or they’re just using somebody because they can get them pretty cheap.”

“I would just have to see who they’re employing,” he said. “I don’t want to enable somebody.”

McMullen said he tried to screen his would-be homeless employees.

“My biggest concern was what were they going to do with the money,” he said. “Was it going to go to a cause, or was it going to go to alcohol?”

Yet McMullen was unable to pay at least one man after finding him passed out, he said. McMullen said he plans to “go back down when he’s sober, get him paid and offer him a meal.”

For 32-year-old April, who declined to give her last name, wearing the shirt and holding signs along Maple Street was worth the money. She and her husband, Fred, spent some of it on a motel room Saturday night, she said.

“I’d do it every day if that guy brought me enough fliers,” she said. “We’re just trying to survive, you know?”

While police may cite panhandlers for soliciting without a license, using people for advertising shouldn’t be a problem unless they block traffic, said Spokane police Officer Devin Presta.

The shirts say “We buy houses” and “Stop foreclosure,” references to Highland Financial. The company made headlines last year when a Post Falls woman accused Highland of taking the equity in her home and evicting her.

The Idaho attorney general’s office settled with Highland Financial in December after alleging the company “failed to make certain disclosures and may have misrepresented to homeowners that they could help homeowners retain ownership of their homes and improve their credit when that was not the case,” according to a statement. The attorney general’s office fined the company $1,000 and demanded $2,000 in attorney fees and costs.

“We’re providing a service. Whether you like us or not, that’s fine,” McMullen said. Homeless advocates maintain it is better to provide panhandlers with services, such as food and shelter, than cash.

But in Seattle, Bumvertising just won a new contract to advertise a computer game Web site, said Benjamin Rogovy, president and founder. Because he only asks panhandlers to attach signs to their signs, he offers less money than Highland Financial, he said.

“The bums are presented with this mutually beneficial scenario, and they have the option to accept or deny,” he said. “It seems strange to a lot of people, and that’s why I think it’s controversial. The concept of a beggar being involved in normal corporate interactions, there’s something that feels different about that.”

For his advertising stunt, McMullen said, he had workers fill out tax paperwork and “independent contractor agreements.” He did not require they work for a specific length of time, he said.

“I wanted to make sure they were getting better than minimum wage,” he said, adding he offered them food and nonalcoholic beverages.

McMullen said he conceived of the idea three years ago, but did not carry it out until spurred by current national economic woes. He is interested in trying it again.

“They need the funds. But I’d kind of like to see where those funds went and if the funds were effective for advertising,” he said.

Reach Parker Howell at (509) 459-5491 or parkerh@spokesman.com.

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