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Homeless In San Francisco Get Marketing Makeover, Clever Signs Increase Panhandling Donations, Amuse Drivers

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- Giving money to every panhandling homeless person you see in San Francisco would quickly bankrupt you, but social entrepreneur Anthony Bustos has a solution -- he doesn't give them money, he gives them a better marketing plan in the form of a clearer, more clever, and larger sign to hold.

"Someone Thinks You're Sexy," "Law School Isn't Cheap," "Keanu Reeves Is My Homeboy," and "Everyone Has A Dream -- Mine Includes You Sparing Some Change" are among his favorites, but this sign, held by an older homeless man and posted to Instagram may have caught the most attention: "Hogwarts or Bust."

"At the core of this idea is a simple way to help a human being be more efficient at what they're doing," Bustos tells CBS SF. "My hope every time I pass out a sign is that it actually increases the person's income."


The idea came while driving down Van Ness Avenue and seeing a typically small, shabby and poorly written sign saying, "Poor, hungry." Bustos said, "I had no inclination to give alms to this man and wondered if I would feel differently were something different written on the sign."

Homeless  Hold Clever Donation Signs Made For  Them
Homeless man in San Francisco holds sign designed by social entrepreneur Anthony Bustos (Credit: Anthony Bustos)

As his Twitter profile says, "This man didn't need money, he needed a better sign." Still, he figures even if the signs don't increase donations, at least a driver might smile a bit as they saw the transient.

"The idea is just as much about sending positive vibes to the city's commuters as it is helping the homeless," Bustos said.

Approaching a homeless person and offering an innovative marketing strategy is a delicate process.

"The reactions have been mixed and have taught me a lot about homeless culture, and the individuals that are behind the signs," Bustos said.

Typically, Bustos will roll up to a panhandler, and say, "Hey man, I don't have any money for you today, but I do have a bad-ass sign, would you like to take a look?"

He always lets the person choose their own sign, and then he asks if he can take their picture holding it. "This is their favorite part, they always say 'yes,'" he said.

Some people get the humor in Bustos signs, and are thankful. Others may be intoxicated or mentally ill, but take the sign and hold it nonetheless. Bustos admits there are plenty who wanted money, not marketing, and they're belligerent. Others have a sense of pride for the signs they already have.

"They put the time and effort into making their own signs, and feel like it's a way they can express themselves. They don't want a sign that I made, because it doesn't represent them as individuals," Bustos said.

(Credit Anthony Bustos)

Bustos, known on Twitter as @dailysmirks, is a bit of a wanderer himself. The one-time University of Utah student has been a caterer, bartender, oil field worker, street evangelist, dog trainer, and door-to-door salesmen. He dabbles in poetry and hip-hop, and loves golf.

This eclectic background and mix of urban street smarts with higher pursuits puts him in a unique position to do some good.

"I want to leave a positive footprint on our world during my short time here. If possible, I'd like to leave it in better shape than I found it. I love making people smile and laugh."

With the 15 signs he's distributed in his first round, he's already succeeded, and he has many more in the works.


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