Infuriating or Innovative? Homeless Hotspots in SXSW

Should the homeless be employed as WiFi hotspots in exchange for charitable donations?

Clarence is one of the "Homeless Hotspots." He is from New Orleans and lost his house when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005.
Jenny Inglee is a Los Angeles-based journalist and the Education Editor at TakePart.

The big news coming out of South by Southwest this week is not about cutting-edge technologies, great movies, new music, or inspiring speakers. Instead, it's about "Homeless Hotspots," an initiative from marketing company BBH New York to employ some of Austin's homeless people to work as WiFi hotspots. In exchange for donations, BBH is providing these hotspots with Internet access.

Some are seeing this as exploitation, while others are seeing it as an opportunity. TakePart spoke with Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Here is what she had to say:

Advertising firms are hired to generate attention, and turning homeless people into wireless hot spots succeeded in that—but not the kind of attention we need. Notwithstanding the right of homeless people to do whatever interests them, they shouldn’t be taken advantage of ($20 per day?), and neither should the issue. We need and deserve a serious national discussion about solutions to homelessness—a discussion that is definitely not going to be stimulated by the message, “I am Melvin; a 4G Hotspot.”

Homeless Hotspot's profile and link to donate for Clarence. (Photo: homelesshotspots.org)

Invisible People filmmaker Mark Horvath, who has spent the last few years interviewing homeless people around the country, is in favor of the initiative. Mark wrote on his Hardly Normal blog, it inspires "positive interaction between the general public and one of our homeless friends."

When people are approached by someone who is homeless and panhandling, he explains, "The experience is always uncomfortable and often nasty, and it reinforces wrong stereotypes about our homeless neighbors."

Here is how he felt when he first learned about Homeless Hotspots:

I freaked out in the good way. I think the idea is brilliant, and it’s a new idea in a nonprofit sector that is void of any new ideas, especially in tech. I am a realist, so I immediately thought of a few flaws, like how could this be scaled, and that people won’t stand around on a sidewalk to get WiFi. But what really got me excited is WHAT ELSE COULD WE DO? Seriously, I don’t see homeless hotspots as any kind of solution, but it may be the catalyst to an idea that will be a solution....What we could do with technology to create a positive interaction with homeless friends and the general public.

Tim Carmody at Wired was not as keen about the marketing tactic. He wrote, "It sounds like something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia." His main worry is:

The homeless turned not just into walking, talking hotspots, but walking, talking billboards for a program that doesn’t care anything at all about them or their future, so long as it can score a point or two about digital disruption of old media paradigms. So long as it can prove that the real problem with homelessness is that it doesn’t provide a service.

Meanwhile, Tim Fernholz of Good spoke with one of the homeless participants:

Jonathan Hill II, one of the participants, said he doesn't find the job demeaning. In fact, he likes it better than his usual SXSW work doing manual labor at music venues, largely because it offered a chance to talk to some of the thousands of the attendees at the program, who normally ignore the roughly 6,000-strong homeless population in Austin—or worse.

What's your take? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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