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From Suitcases to Briefcases

Sandy Hausman / WVTF

On any given night, more than 7,000 people in Virginia are homeless. It’s not easy to find work when you have no permanent address, but a new program in Charlottesville aims to help people who are homeless start a business. 

Becky Blanton knows what it is to be homeless.  She lived in Denver, where rents were high, and her pay as a journalist didn’t keep up with the cost of living.

“I had a full-time job working for Camping World of all places, and I couldn’t afford housing, which is how many people end up homeless, so I lived in my van for 18 months.”

One day she met a man who was also homeless, doing business in the parking lot of a grocery store.

“He had panhandled five dollars and bought some red ribbon and a Sharpie marker.  He went out into the woods behind the store, and he collected wood.  The store already sold logs, but you need kindling to get a fire going. He used the Sharpie, got some cardboard, and he created a sign that said: Looking for a hand up, not a hand out, so he sold these little bundles for ten dollars each.” 

That inspired her to write The Homeless Entrepreneur, a book that advises people on how to start a business with little or no money.  The key, she says, is to figure out what you’re passionate about and to find ways to turn that passion into cash.  Take P.J. Dickerson for example.  He loves animals and would like to train service dogs.

“I’ve got really interested in having a doggy daycare, and to rescue dogs that are in kill shelters and rehabilitating them and giving them a second chance, and for those dogs to go help other people.”

Or maybe, he thinks, there’s money to be made in pet photography.

“Pictures with Santa Claus – your pet with Santa.”

Dickerson’s living at the Salvation Army, working a low-wage restaurant job, but he’s in luck.  Becky Blanton has partnered with businessman David Durovy to offer a course at Charlottesville’s day center for people who are homeless.  It’s goal – to help them trade their suitcase for a briefcase by starting a small business.

“We’re going to be providing makeover haircuts for some of the people.  We’re going to have professional coaches come in and spend some time with the homeless people.  This is something that they just normally wouldn’t get.”

And they may provide seed money to help each business get off the ground.  The first group of 11 is underway, and the second class – set to begin in January – is filling up fast.  Student Mark Briggs is leading the pack with extensive experience in retail.

Credit Sandy Hausman / WVTF
Mark Briggs is homeless but hoping for a hand up.

“I’m a local street vendor. I sell handmade sterling silver from around the world.  The people who have bought from me come back 5, 6, 7 years later, and they still have it, so that’s quality.”

But he needs help to take his business to the next level – selling online.  He had developed a website but was forced to leave his apartment in August when doctors linked a range of medical problems to black mold.

“It can actually shut your lungs down.”

Since then, he’s been living in his car or with relatives, but like classmate Octavius Boykin, he hopes his new, business-minded friends will help boost his self-confidence and income, making it possible to find a new home.

“Not that I can’t sell the product or run the business.  I’ve done that on my own.  I’m just not a marketing kind of guy.”

“I just hope I’m successful!”

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
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