HOUSTON, Texas (CNN) -- When Sean Dolan saw signs being carried by homeless people, he saw an opportunity.
Timothy Edwards was homeless for years in Houston, Texas, until he started carrying "Pimp This Bum" signs.
He and his father wanted to drive people to a Web site, so they created PimpThisBum.com as a marketing tool and gave a homeless man a sign with the Web site's address to hold while panhandling in Houston.
Their idea worked.
Visitors seeing the sign flocked to the site and in less than two months Dolan received $50,000 in donations and pledges through the site for the man, including a five-week alcohol treatment program donated by Sunray Treatment and Recovery based near Seattle, Washington. Watch how 'Pimp this bum' saved man »
"We knew that the same campaign with a sincere appeal and a Web site like helpthehomeless.com would be ignored," he said. "We knew that if we insulted people's sensitivity or appealed to their humor on a subject as sensitive as this we would get their attention."
Kevin Dolan, with more than two decades of marketing and sales experience and his son, Sean, a Web-savvy college student with a small video camera and a passion for volunteer work, got the site off the ground with the help of Timothy Dale Edwards. He has been homeless and living under a busy Houston overpass for more than four years.
The Dolans' offer to Timothy Edwards would be a hard one for any homeless person to refuse: $100 cash per day guaranteed, perhaps even more if the campaign was successful. All Edwards had to do was carry a homemade sign advertising "www.PimpThisBum.com" while he panhandled each day.
For Edwards and his friends it was effortless -- they already carried signs reading, "Homeless, Please help" or "Hungry, Need a days work." Watch Edwards describe "I went through detox" »
And the Dolans promised monetary donations that came into the Web site would go straight to Edwards.
Those who visit can help Edwards directly by donating specific items to him: a cup of coffee, a ham sandwich, a razor, a newspaper subscription or even laser hair removal, karate lessons or a college education.
Edwards welcomes the task and insists he is not being exploited. For him, the donations are a welcome change in his life.
For years drugs and alcohol were his coping mechanisms, he says. He was told his father left the family when he was only 2 years old, and he says he's always felt no one ever cared about him.
But all that changed with the Dolans' offer.
"This is just crazy enough to work," Edwards said. "I'm drinking myself to death under a bridge. I'm watching my friends die left and right, so what have I got to lose?"
Edwards said he has spent years learning whom to trust and how to survive on the street. He's learned where it's safe to sleep and how to panhandle when intersections "are hittin'." Edwards sometimes rides the city bus just to stay warm and gathers a group of homeless friends together to rent a motel room just to be able to take a shower. He says homeless life is "boring, and ... mentally unstimulating," and he looks for ways to keep his brain "active."
"I try to read the paper. One lady came by and asked me if we needed something, so I said, 'Well, do you have a puzzle book?' Because we do crossword puzzles and Sudoku." Edwards said.
Looking back on how he got to this point is difficult.
"It's a pretty drawn-out story. I'd have to say it's probably mostly my fault. ... I made a lot of poor choices," Edwards said, his voice trailing. "I was filthy. I just didn't feel human anymore."
With this new project, Edwards' said, his life has new meaning. The name of the Web site means little to him.
The Dolans have received national attention for their first collaboration, but they also know the site's name is controversial. Edwards said he "cracked up" when Sean Dolan proposed the name for the Web site.
Not everyone thinks it's funny. Homeless advocates and other critics argue the Dolans' project serves little more purpose than exploitation.
Advocate Michael Faenva, who runs a shelter in Dallas, said, "In the end, this isn't a good strategy to address the problem of homelessness. ... It's not a strategy that's likely to bring help to very many."
Life has changed for Edwards since he began holding that sign.
His first step was to shave his beard, mustache and head. The act "was a symbolic act of change, and embracing the change and moving on to a new stage in my life," Edwards said.
His last drink was on March 10, before flying to Seattle accompanied by Sean Dolan to begin the comprehensive alcohol treatment program. He has completed the one-week "detox" program, and is now participating in five additional weeks of individual and group therapy classes.
"To everybody that thinks I am being exploited, I ask you to think again," Edwards said.
Sean Dolan is adamant: "Tim is now a friend." He describes the relationship as "one of the most meaningful friendships I've ever had."
Asked what does he say to the critics? "I tell them to donate ... and get on the Web ... just watch the outflow of support for Tim."
Edwards spends his rehab "free time" each night participating in the Web site's chat room, which is full of supportive messages like, "We love u Tim!," "Hang in there," and "Stay strong, people really do care."
Edwards has started a live nightly Webcast where he answers questions and thanks viewers for their interest and support.
"Rehab is a wonderful thing when you want it," Edwards told CNN during a Webcast. But it's also a lot of work. "The hard part is the mental and psychological stuff, rediscovering myself, so to speak, getting in touch with my heart and my head, and trying to figure out how to deal with life."
Edwards also is getting a crash course on the Internet and hopes it will help him in applying for jobs.
Edwards' newfound Internet outlet also gave him another surprise twist. One of the site's viewers happened to be a family member Edwards never knew. After being put in touch through the Web site's creators, Edwards learned that his father had not left the family as he thought, but instead had been searching for him for almost 35 years.
Edwards said he is learning more about that side of the family, and family members near Kansas City, Missouri, have become involved in looking for new opportunities and living assistance for him when he leaves Seattle.
Kevin Dolan said the project has not only opened new doors for Edwards but also for others like him. The Dolans recently started financial paperwork to create a nonprofit organization, and they hope to duplicate the "PimpThisBum.com" model in other cities. Two future "participants" have already been identified in Houston; one of them is a good friend of Edwards' named John.
On March 28, Edwards will spend his 38th birthday in rehab. He calls the Dolans' project "a blessing." He hopes to complete his treatment successfully, secure a job and find a home.
"I'm tired of laying down," he said. "I'm tired of giving up. ... This life is worth fighting for."
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