- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 8, 2009

HOUSTON (AP) | Until a few weeks ago, Tim Edwards was just another one of the men begging for change at a busy Houston underpass, ignored by most drivers who sped on past without a glance.

Now, thanks to an Internet marketing campaign and unlikely allies, Mr. Edwards has become the human face of homelessness to thousands of online viewers drawn to his Web site by its deliberately provocative name - Pimp This Bum.

During regular webcasts, dozens of visitors to https://www.pimpthisbum.com/ ask questions about Mr. Edwards’ life and his slow fall from office manager with a home, a car and a future to an outcast short of hope and with little prospect of help.

The Web site also is a venue where visitors can donate money, services and goods to help Mr. Edwards yank himself out of homelessness. Some homeless advocates say it makes Mr. Edwards a victim of exploitation, but the organizers say that edgy tone is what makes the project succeed.

“We wanted to insult people’s sensitivities so that they would go to the site and see Tim, and people seem to have fallen in love with him. He’s funny and doesn’t blame the world for his situation,” said Kevin Dolan, 55, a marketing specialist from the Houston suburb of Katy, who started the Web site with his 24-year-old son, Sean.

If the site had been called “Help the Homeless,” many Web surfers might just have clicked on past, the younger Mr. Dolan said.

The Dolans initially set out to test an advertising campaign and generate publicity for their new Internet marketing business. They planned to promote a mom-and-pop business, until Sean Dolan suggested using the Web site to do some good.

Now visitors to the Web site are getting to know Mr. Edwards beyond the stereotype of an anonymous group labeled “the Homeless.”

“I’m the world’s first online bum,” jokes Mr. Edwards, a lanky, bearded 37-year-old who talks about life on the streets with a mix of dark humor and unvarnished honesty. “The whole idea of this project is to get people off the street. I’m the pioneer, but I’ve got friends behind me. If I don’t get this right, it ain’t gonna work for them.”

The Web site features videos of Mr. Edwards and a photograph showing him with a hand-drawn, cardboard sign. There’s a “Donate” button where viewers can charge donations to their credit cards. And some people have dropped by Mr. Edwards’ regular panhandling spot to drop off food and fast-food gift cards - or just to shout hello.

This coming week, Mr. Edwards is scheduled to enter an alcohol-detox program at the Seattle-based Sunray Treatment and Recovery, which is providing the $13,800, 35-day program free of charge. There are plans to air Webcasts as Mr. Edwards goes through the program.

Some homeless advocates say the Web site does little to address the issues of homelessness. Even the name makes Anthony Love bristle.

“He is a person. His name is Tim. And to pimp anyone is not something I would endorse,” said Mr. Love, president of the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County.

But Mr. Edwards says he roared with laughter when Sean Dolan nervously approached him with the idea of the Web site and the proposed name. It was a night in early February when he and several other homeless men were gathered beneath an underpass, “getting drunk like we always do.”

At first, he wasn’t sure if the Dolans were a threat or just do-gooders bringing food. Now he considers them an answer to a prayer.

“I asked God to make it rain, and here come these guys. And I thought this is just crazy enough to work,” he said.

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