Homeless Hotspots Is Not Exploitative, The People Writing About It Are

Attendees of South By Southwest Interactive have plenty to buzz about from new apps to engaging panels, and are also used to being subjected to all kinds of marketing tactics from large and small companies alike during the five day festival. Thus, when bloggers and journalists spotted people wearing I Am A 4G Hotspot t-shirts and started digging into what was behind it all, it’s no surprise that the story spun a bit out of control (and far from the truth) quickly.

The idea behind Homeless Hotspot is simple and pretty smart, depending on your view. Advertising company BBH Labs, which is based out of New York, worked with a local homeless shelter in Austin, TX to provide some residents with a 4G mobile hotspot. The individuals then stand in strategic locations where SXSWi attendees might need some quick wireless access.

Payment isn’t set at a particular rate. People can decide what the access is worth to them and give that amount via cash or PayPal. The suggested donation is $2 for 15 minutes of access, though. All of the money goes directly to the homeless person with the hotspot.

Homeless Hotspots

I read some posts that said the 4G hotspot holding person would also follow the person in need of access around if they couldn’t stand in one place. However, I haven’t seen this claim on the official website or the BBH Labs post about the initiative, thus I’m dubious of that claim.

Though an advertising company is behind Homeless Hotspots, this initiative is not a marketing stunt or an ad for a company or service, including the networks the hotspots use. BBH Labs sponsors several initiatives around charitable causes and issues surrounding homelessness. Given the general atmosphere around SXSW, which is all about marketing that often takes the form of being useful — such as car companies offering people free rides in their newest models — it’s easy to see why some assumed that the hotspots were in service of something other than helping homeless people earn money.

I could have predicted that this would spark a controversy, too. And that said controversy would be fueled by a lot of shallow thinking and unexamined privilege. I’m not shocked to see the tenor of the outrage, which is at its most cartoonish peak in this post on Discovery News by Nic Halverson:

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While at least it’s not on the level of Bum Fights, this campaign leaves an exploitative after-taste in my mouth. Turning the homeless into sandwich boards for a week-long festival only exacerbates the problem and epitomizes what’s wrong with SXSW. Quick-fix stopgaps are no solution for such long-term problems as homelessness. And privileged, laptop-toting scenesters leeching Wi-Fi from the homeless who have been stripped of their humanity? Shudder. I’m sorry, but Clarence is NOT a 4G Hotspot; he is a man.

Still though, work is work; a dollar is a dollar, so who am I to cast stones? But no way am pretending this is some do-gooding cure-all.

There’s so much wrong with this screed that it’s hard to figure out where to start picking it apart.

The easiest to get out of the way is: why does an initiative like this have to be the solution to all homelessness in order to have value? I don’t see anyone making the claim that it will, to start. Plus, why is it bad to create benefit for a small number of people? Don’t individuals matter? Homeless Hotspots directly benefits the people (not the shelter) and allows them to earn money for a service they provide.

Hyper local and personalized are big themes at SXSWi this year. Just take a look at the apps getting the most attention. It’s actually a very Southby idea.

Melvin - Homeless Hotspots

From the Homeless Hotspots Website: Melvin is from Dayton, OH. He has a passion for music and remains very upbeat about his situation. He’s actively looking for housing and is trying to help people understand that homelessness is not a choice.

Small scale entrepreneurship and service is also big in Austin around festival time. The downtown area is full of pedicabs and many of the drivers accept credit card and digital payments on their phones. That’s just one example, but there are many others. Those who want attention at Southby (for apps, films, music) often come up with ideas that both serve a need and fit in with their own theme.

BBH Labs may not be selling anything with this initiative, but they are calling attention to something: homelessness. If those same men and women had stood in those same high-traffic areas and politely asked for spare change, how many of the “privileged, laptop-toting scenesters” would have stopped to give them any? Or thought about them for more than two seconds? Would Halverson be writing about them at all? Would he know their names?

The cries of EXPLOITATION are ringing out from all over, yet many of the people writing about Homeless Hotspots are engaging in some exploitation of their own. They’re claiming outrage on behalf of the men and women involved instead of actually talking to them. Or they’re just outraged in general without any real thought given to the individuals involved and affected. They’re shaming anyone who would dare “leech” the Wi-Fi from their very blood! even though, by taking advantage of the service, the users are giving HH participants a chance to earn money.

(Read: Laptop Magazine’s Interview With HH participant Clarence)

Stacia - Homeless Hotspots

From the Homeless Hotspots Website: Stacia is a local from Austin. She’s been homeless for almost a decade, dating back to an abusive marriage. She’s trying to get her life in order and just wants people to know that her homelessness doesn’t make her a bad person.

It’s true that the average SXSW-goer is privileged in some way. Attending that show is not cheap, even if you’re a member of the press. And everyone has at least one piece of expensive tech, if not two or four or more. But I bet anyone who bought Wi-Fi from one of the Homeless Hotspots spent at least a few minutes over the course of the festival thinking about that person as a person and about the issue of homelessness in American society. Something they might not have done, otherwise.

Would these people be angry if college students were the ones wearing “I’m a hotspot” t-shirts and standing around the convention center? Would it be exploitative and dehumanizing if someone who has a home, isn’t worried about their next meal, and hasn’t suffered a huge personal or financial loss chose to wear something that says “I am” instead of “I have a“? If this was the situation, instead, I’m pretty sure any articles written would have praised the entrepreneurial spirit of the endeavor.

I may get to see this prediction realized, because I fully expect someone to copy this idea at other events.

Clarence - Homeless Hotspots

From the Homeless Hotspots Website: Clarence is from New Orleans, LA. He prefers the term “houseless” to “homeless.” He originally lost his house in Katrina and has had financial trouble since. He considers himself a good guy and tries to be a good friend to people.

The Homeless Hotspot program ended yesterday (the last day of SXSWi) but BBH Labs says that it was just a beta test.

Hopefully you can help us optimize and validate this platform, which we hope to see adopted on a broader scale.

I hope that happens as well. I can think of several events or situations in which a roaming hotspot would prove useful. And I’d much prefer to give money to an actual person knowing they get to keep said money than a corporate entity who probably doesn’t need it. Even better if it helps that person escape an unfortunate economic circumstance.

Giving a homeless person a way to earn money is one step toward them getting back on their feet and where they want to be in life. Tweeting your ill-informed outrage about such things from your expensive computer or smartphone does not.

Jeffrey - Homeless Hotspots

From the Homeless Hotspots Website: Jeff is from Pittsburgh, PA. He’s passionate about snow skiing and swimming. He’s been homeless since his treatment for Traumatic Brain Injury ceased. He wants people to understand that homelessness is sometimes out of a person’s control and that he just needs a chance.

Thomas - Homeless Hotspots

From the Homeless Hotspots Website: Tom is a local from Austin. He has been homeless about three years and finds employment opportunities difficult to come by due to a previous (non-violent) conviction. Tom is passionate about art.

All images credit: Homeless Hotspots/BBH Labs

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