Panhandling as a Social Experiment

Chris CoonMeghan Keneally Chris Coon.

Chris Coon takes a very methodical and well-accounted approach to panhandling, not because he is particularly fond of organization, but because he thinks of his work on the sociological level.

Mr. Coon, 29, is conducting a “social experiment” by trying to see how long it will take him to ask one million people for a donation to help get him out of homelessness.

In order to preserve the integrity of the project, he has a number of rules that he follows: he doesn’t start making the rounds until about 1 p.m. because he doesn’t like to talk to people while they’re eating (“its not respectful,” he said). He tries to remember the faces of the people he talks to because he doesn’t want to count them twice. He prefers to talk to couples, because it counts as two people. And more than anything, he hates it when people cut him off mid-spiel because then it doesn’t count at all.

To Mr. Coon, it all comes down to the numbers, and since starting in the beginning of May, the big number is the 3,462 people he has asked.

“I think it’s intuitive and creative and I made it into a job instead of just going up and saying ‘Hey, look, can I have a dollar?’” he said. “I probably have to speak to five or six million people to be able to actually ask one million of them.”

When he approaches people in Union Square, which has been his base of operations and his home on and off for the past few years, Mr. Coon explains the concept of his “experiment” and then records their gender and ethnicity, in an attempt to make the project as professional and accurate as possible.

“I want this to feel as much as an experiment as it can because for me it is an experiment to see how quickly I get out of being homeless,” Mr. Coon said.

Like many, Mr. Coon’s path to Union Square has been a circuitous one. His personal story tugs at the emotions, but he leaves that portion out of the data-collection portion of the experiment. Born near Little Rock, Ark., Mr. Coon has moved from state to state and from prison to jail, having served a few stints for arrests varying from aggravated assault to sleeping outside.

Chris CoonMeghan Keneally Mr. Coon in Union Square Park.

While he doesn’t immediately pour out his personal history, Mr. Coon’s life is very much an open book — well, Web page — as he accounts for every dollar he spends on his site, Since a woman gave him a laptop after hearing about his experiment, Mr. Coon updates the site regularly and has set up a PayPal account to try to increase his revenue.

Pictures of his two daughters, Sharmaijah, 7, and Khloe, 14 months, are posted throughout and the cost of bus tickets and groceries for the girls are some of his most frequent purchases.

“It plays on emotions, but any homeless person plays on emotions,” he said.

Even though his family lives in the D.C. metropolitan area, he refuses to move down there permanently because he feels that New York is more conducive to the money-making side of the operation.

“Its easier to make money in New York because even though the percentage of people that give may be down, the number of people around is still up,” he said.

Mr. Coon posts the daily statistics of how many individuals were asked, gave, and the ethnic breakdowns of each. So far 29.5 percent of participants have given and he has collected $1,175.

And collecting that much money has its own costs. Although he is able to access free Wi-Fi in Union Square Park, Mr. Coon’s Web site costs $41 each month to maintain — money that has to come out of whatever donations he collects.

Mr. Coon has ideas to expand his ad sales and potentially diversify his product line to include bracelets — right now, he’s offering t-shirts on his Web site. He hasn’t made a sale yet, but they are being offered for $25. The shirts — which a manufacturer has agreed to produce as needed — bear the address of Mr. Coon’s Web site, and his slogan: “Just a homeless guy conducting a social experiment.”

“It doesn’t matter what I make,” he said, “but what I am trying to figure out is how to tell people that, while this is an experiment, I do need help.”

This post has been changed to correct an error; a previous version misspelled the name of Mr. Coon’s younger daughter.