Fall 2009

Homeless Bazaar

B.L. Gifford

My given name is Magnus. Around Homeless Bazaar, however, I am known by other, less regal names. My employees--the residents of Homeless Bazaar--sometimes call me Dollar-Bill Daddy, a reference to my practice when training for triathlons of attaching dollar bills to my back and running from anyone who gives chase. Don’t be so shocked. And spare me your archaic paternalism. As with everything here at Homeless Bazaar, the dollar-bill run is a mutually-beneficial arrangement. The employees earn extra spending money and, when the time comes, I take a month-long vacation and finish the Ironman course in record time.
My employees also call me Double HR, for High Risk, High Reward, a term I taught them. I have an MBA from an elite East Coast school and once worked for a private equity fund owned by a reclusive billionaire. But no longer. Here is how I broke free:
One day, while conducting an insolvency analysis that would earn my boss his next billion, I decided that I needed my own business plan. Later that day, my coworkers were standing around the office recounting stories about the homeless. One said she had seen an old man chased from a restaurant by the owner, who said the begging was bad for business. Another said she had heard that some homeless people lived in camps down by the river. I returned to my office and from my window saw the clear blue sky and the muddy river and green space with flower beds and manicured shrubs and evenly-spaced trees planted like soldiers marching to battle. And over the river I saw a rail bridge and beyond the river the museum of natural history and beyond the museum the glass-encased luxury condos (your dream house in the sky) where I lived. And somewhere in-between the office building and the luxury condos were the homeless.
As I discovered for the first time that afternoon, on the way to the river there is a small park and in the park stands a stone wall lined with historical markers. One of the markers tells the story of a prison that once stood on the grounds where our office building now rises. The marker states that in the late 1800s tourists would visit by the busloads to observe the inmates working outside. The wheels in my head were really turning now. I continued down the path then walked up an embankment. On my right was the highway and to my left thick woods standing near the river. I had to take a leak, so I followed a trail into the woods as far as I could, hoping I had traveled far enough that anyone driving by on the highway would be unable to spot me. I opened my fly and let loose. After finishing, I looked down and realized that I was staring right into the eyes of a startled old guy who I would later learn was named Jim.
"What the hell?" Jim said. And then, "would you like it if took a piss on your front porch?"
And then it came to me. What these homeless people need is a fence. I mumbled the words "gated homeless community" and ran.
Back at the office, I did research and developed a business plan. I discovered that business owners around downtown were pressuring the city to move the homeless out. But the city council was worried about liability because when another city in the state tore down a homeless camp without warning, homeless advocates sued the city in federal court and won. So the city gave notice to the homeless and helped them find other places to live before reclaiming the land. The process, however, was going too slowly, some thought.  My plan was to buy the land from the city and build a fence around the homeless camp. The deal closed quickly and the fence was built. I installed a gate too, so the homeless couldn't accuse me of holding them against their will. Then I put up a sign advertising my new business venture, Homeless Bazaar. Early on, we lost a couple dozen residents. Turns out some homeless people actually want to be left the hell alone, or so they told me. But the population has stabilized.
And I thought, this is how a civilization starts. Someone decides to stay put. People clump. Someone takes charge and builds a fence. I have a few non-homeless employees – an accountant, an attorney and an advertising guru. We have an advertising brochure with photographs of Homeless Bazaar and this text:
Homeless Bazaar is dedicated to the protection of the homeless and the education of the public. Situated on two acres of former City land, Homeless Bazaar is home to over 100 homeless people. The camp is open to the public year round and offers a unique opportunity to learn about homeless life. Visitors can watch the homeless as they go about their routine in their natural environment. Senior citizen homes and schools alike benefit from field trips to Homeless Bazaar. The old folk leave appreciating what they have in their nursing homes, and school children leave us inspired to get an education and avoid the traps that brought the residents of Homeless Bazaar to the street. During the day you will see women and children; the men are working at day labor or panhandling or holding signs at street corners.  For an extra fee, you can live among them, for an hour or even overnight, the whole week if you want. You can wear their dirty, ragged clothes and cook in their fires and eat fish out of the river.
The homeless advocates, the well-meaning do-gooders, are complaining, of course. Tourists, though, are paying $10 a person and it has been a boon for the residents of Homeless Bazaar. I am making more money than ever, 1% of which I give back to the residents of Homeless Bazaar.
Eventually I quit my job working for the private equity fund. However, I still own my luxury condo and spend most nights there. It would, I believe, send the wrong message if I were to live at Homeless Bazaar--that you could work hard, go to college and business school, and still end up on the river in the shadow of a railway bridge. It would be like the head of a Fortune 500 company turning down his bonus.
It gives me great pride knowing that I am doing good. Homeless Jim says the fence is the best thing to happen around the camp in a long time. We made Jim the sheriff and he organized the residents into patrols. Litter patrol. Theft patrol. Even a building standards patrol. As the housing crisis deepens, Homeless Bazaar is growing. I am even exploring adding another camp further down the river and possibly franchising locations and selling public shares in my corporation, Homeless Solutions, Inc. I’ve trademarked the concept. Anyone who wants to make a buck in the homeless-camp business is going to have to go through me.
But now some of the residents are threatening to unionize. And Jim says he wants a bigger stake in Homeless Bazaar or else he walks. The capitalist bastard.