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Website is a window into homelessness

UNTIL a few weeks ago, Tim Edwards was just another one of the men begging for change at a busy underpass in Houston, Texas, in the United States, ignored by most drivers who sped on past without a glance.

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

During regular Webcasts, dozens of visitors to ask questions about Edwards' life and his slow fall from office manager with a home, a car, and a future to an outcast short of hope.

The Website is also a place where visitors can donate money, services and goods to help Edwards yank himself out of homelessness.

Some homeless advocates say it makes Edwards a victim of exploitation, but the organizers say its 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," said Kevin Dolan, 55, a marketing specialist from the Houston suburb of Katy who started the Website with his 24-year-old son, Sean. "He's funny and doesn't blame the world for his situation."

If the site had been called "Help the Homeless," many Web surfers might just have clicked on past, said Sean.

The Dolans had 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 suggested using the Website to do some good.

"I'm the world's first online bum," joked 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."

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

The Website has stirred up debate over the merits of the Dolans' approach. But Edwards says he roared with laughter when Sean Dolan nervously approached him with the idea of the Website and proposed the name.

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


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