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How street signs turn drivers into donors

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David Drew's cardboard sign
David Drew's cardboard sign
Photo courtesy of Michael Allen

David Drew has been panhandling -- or signing -- on and off for the last year.  One of his signs caught the eye of Michael Allen, the photojournalist behind the public art project at the Minneapolis Public Library.  

He describes the sign as a "10-by-10 piece of cardboard. He's outlined it in color and it says 'The IRS took my jet!  Yacht is next.  Please help.' And he's got little waves underneath the word yacht."

"I was tired of the same old homeless whatever, tired of people's reaction to it, so that's when I started a series of comic relief I kind of called them ... with the IRS one and they were wildly successful," says Drew.

Barbara Belknap, the graphic artist who redesigned David's sign, says, "David is using a lot of the tools of marketing and even target marketing."

Barbara says that's partly because David used the IRS sign in April.

"It was timely because it was tax season. That was top of mind to his regular customers, the people who came to his regular corner," sats Belknap.

David's sign also had a flip side, which helped him reach a wider audience.

 "The back side of the sign said, 'Homeless. Please help,'" according to Belknap.  "He had a straight version and a funny version.  So, depending on who drove up, he would use the side of the sign he thought would get more attention."

But Barbara says there's something else about David's sign that really worked.

"I think one thing that David does very effectively is he breaks through the fear.  Often people are afraid; they see a homeless person, and they're not really sure what's going to happen once that person gets close to their car.  By using humor or by breaking down those barriers I think he's effectively getting closer to people."

In her version of David's cardboard sign, the part about the IRS taking his jet is in elegant scripty scrolly font. There's blue sky in the background and it's framed in gold. 

"My sign borrows very much from advertising, from slickness, from the keep up with the Joneses, and so does his," Belknap says.  "He's talking about his yacht and his jet.  I just made it look very slick, I wanted it to look like an American Express or a Lexus ad."

David says he's had a lot of success with his funny signs, and success for him isn't just about how much change he can pocket.

"Even if I get a laugh or a smile out of somebody, it's an acknowledgement that I'm out here, and that to me is as important as getting a dollar or getting 50 cents," he says.  "I started tailoring signs to get that response -- a smile or a wave."

He also made a sign that said, "Alien mothership left me stranded, need money for spaceship."

He has an  idea for a sign that says "Just a simple checklist of things you can do to ignore me: Check your seat belt, check your stereo, wash your windshield, call someone on your cell phone."

But David says his funny signs were so popular, they caught the attention of the cops, who eventually took his signs away. 

"I've kind of gone back to the one-line deals because after losing a series of different signs to the police, I just got to the point where I grab cardboard and a marker and go with that," he says.

Now he's standing on the corner of 46th Street and 35W in Minneapolis, holding a sign with simple block letters.  "Homeless hungry, anything appreciated."

A string of cars wait at the red light.  One woman hands David a couple of dollars and a bag of potato chips.  A guy two lanes over sticks his head out the window and yells "Get a job!"

 "Did you get that? I hope your microphone picked up that 'Get a job' yelled," he says.  "Some days you're out here in the rain and you're miserable and the tenth 'get a job' is just more than you can take.  It gets hard."

But for the most part, David says the people on the road have been good to him.  He says 90 percent of the support he's gotten over the last year has been from signing.  Those donations range from spare dollars to Starbucks gift cards.

"As a matter of fact, last time I came out here, I came home with like three bags of all things I'd eat, too, like peanut butter, jelly, bread. It was, like, 'wow.'  I actually finished off the last of that peanut butter this morning."

David says there's a debate on the street about whether a well-made sign can bring in the bucks.

"I had a guy tell me, 'I made $35 with a blank piece of cardboard' and I thought, 'Wow.  Does it matter what's written on there?'  I think it does.  I think people do actually take the time to read them for the most part."