Homeless and Saving Money

Image by cogdogblog

This week isn’t about my family.  Instead, it’s about Mark, who is an informal shoe shiner here in Washington, DC.   By informal, I mean illegal.

I met Mark as I was walking out of the office recently.  Mark, walking in the same direction, asked me for a moment.  He handed me a card – his DC government benefits card.   He said he was homeless, but didn’t want to beg. So, he was working – shining shoes. His 40th birthday was coming up, and he said frankly “I’m trying to save up a bit of money to go celebrate at this club with cheap drinks.”

Already, Mark’s life-in-miniature has probably raised the hackles of a lot of readers.  A homeless man looking for a drink.  Raised mine too. But that’s not what I’m getting at.

My wife and I are on a really tight budget before our big vacation, but I saw 10 bucks in my wallet, and told Mark “sure”.

We sat along the side of some office building, and he brought out his kit.  Mark didn’t have a vendor’s license, because it’d cost $1,000 to get a license, pay the setup costs, and go legal.  So, he looked for clients wherever he could, and kept moving to avoid the cops. 

What does it take to get $1,000 together?  Some recent research shows that almost none of us have any real money saved up for emergencies.  We’re one missed paycheck away from serious financial pain, or even being unable to pay the rent or mortgage.

I’m sure we all have quick thoughts on how Mark could get $1,000 bucks to get his license and go legal.    “Get a job”, “don’t drink”, “use welfare”.   I don’t like preaching to people about what they should do – not Mark or anyone else.    So, I started thinking about my everyday work at HelloWallet:  looking for tools that can help people change their own behavior.  I know of two main ways to do it (I’ll talk more about each of these in a future post):

  • change your environment, through Choice Architecture, by setting up reminders, changing the incentives to act, etc.
  • change yourself, by educating your rational mind, forming habits, changing how you interpret and use your past behavior, etc. 

But, I’m honestly not sure what it would take for Mark to get $1,000 together.   At HelloWallet, we develop applications to help a broad spectrum of people save money and pay off debts.  The apps are awesome.  But, they’re not geared for someone, like Mark, who doesn’t have Internet or mobile phone access.   Instead, we partner with community organizations like BankOnDC and Emerging Markets who serve low-income folks directly.  We donate free subscriptions to our service and work with them to develop features better suited to their needs.   It’s constantly a learning process, though, and we don’t have all of the answers. 

So, I’d like to ask you all.  What options are available and realistic for Mark to save money?

Here’s the situation (from my brief talk with him):  Mark is almost 40, homeless, has a criminal record, and no family in the area.   There’s probably a good reason he doesn’t have a professional job, and so saying “get a job” isn’t very interesting.  Also, assuming that someone else (or the government) doesn’t simply give it to him isn’t very useful. 

How could Mark change his own situation (himself or his environment) to get $1,000 together?



Oh and by the way, Mark did a damn good job.