Homeless Hotspots: Controversy At 4G Speeds

Homeless people wearing T shirts reading "I am a 4G hotspot" are offering SXSW attendees network access in exchange for a donation. Is this awful or innovative?

Among the creative displays from brands, startups and other entities during SXSW in Austin, one street-level project has stood out, though maybe not in the way its creators intended.

BBH Labs, an arm of ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, rolled out something called "Homeless Hotspots," during SXSW, whereby homeless people in Austin are offering conference-goers and other passersby access to a 4G network, in exchange for a donation. BBH Labs describes the project as "a charitable innovation" and a modern take on the street newspaper model, where homeless people produce and sell newspapers as a fundraising tool. As part of the "Homeless Hotspots" program, homeless participants equipped with 4G MiFi devices wear T-shirts that read "I’m (name here), a 4G Hotspot." SXSW types can give the T-shirt wearer a donation and, presumably, sit in proximity to the homeless person while using the advertised service, thus putting a human face to an issue.

"Homeless Hotspots" was designed as an Austin-based project to address homelessness there, says Saneel Radia, head of BBH Labs and director of innovation at BBH. "When we were researching the issue there, what was most striking was the continued use of street newspapers. We assumed that model would be outdated. When we looked into it and spoke with our shelter partner here, we realized that street papers give people more than money, they give social interaction. So this project is about giving homeless people an opportunity to interact with a society that usually walks right by them." Of course, Hotspots helps homeless people make money, but it also gives them an outlet to express themselves, Radia says.

Critics have complained that this effort feels exploitative and effectively turns people into gear. ReadWriteWeb’s Jon Mitchell opined that the "digital divide has never hit us over the head with a more blunt display of unselfconscious gall," adding that the project cast the homeless as "helpless pieces of privilege-extending human infrastructure." With street papers, at least, the participants are involved in creating content and telling their stories.

Radia says the whole point of the SXSW project is that the hotspots are tied directly to the homeless "vendor"; customers have to speak to and interact with them to use the service and customers are also given a link to a bio for the hotspot seller. "You have to engage with them on a human level; it’s not intended to be dehumanizing at all," Radia says.

Radia says that some of the initial criticism and reporting have been misleading (and Mitchell states in his RRW piece that he hadn’t seen or interacted with the Hotpots participants in Austin). Because there’s an ad agency behind the project, rather than a nonprofit, people have also assumed the Hotspots project was in service of a brand, which isn’t the case, says Radia. The agency worked on the initiative with Austin’s Front Steps Homeless Shelter and all proceeds go directly to program participants.

And this isn’t new territory for BBH Labs. The shop earned positive buzz for a project last year called Underheard in New York, whereby four homeless men in New York were tapped to chronicle their experiences via Twitter. The initiative, driven through BBH Labs’ internship program, was designed to make homeless people more visible in the day-to-day lives of more fortunate New Yorkers. The Hotspots project shares that goal.

Radia says the anecdotal response to Hotspots from SXSW attendees has been positive and he says BBH Labs will be releasing more information about how the project works after it concludes (Hotspots runs through Tuesday).

What do you think? Is "Homeless Hotspots" an edgy but interesting way to generate awareness of homelessness and put a face on homeless individuals, or is it an ill-conceived attention-getter that objectifies the homeless and throws into sharp relief the gap between the poorest in our society and the circus of privileged self-absorption that is SXSW?

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  • Howard Greenstein

    I had a very nice chat with one of the homeless gentlemen who is trying to work his way from a shelter back to a normal life. He liked being out, being able to talk to people about what he was doing, and he was proud to work instead of taking a handout. 
    Whether this project was ideal or exploitive - it gave me a chance to talk to a homeless person and learn his story. He felt this was a viable way to earn money for a day. 
    I would have paid for his hotspot but I was running to another location. 

  • Cmb205

    Wow... example of how people will intellectualize reasons for not helping people.  It doesn't matter what it looks like to a few elitist aholes.  Why can't it be about HELPING or GIVING to someone.  If you have to find reasons to see if you agree with the cause or not then the HELPING or GIVING is about YOU and not the person who needs to be HELPED.    

  • Anamari Dorgan

    Then why not simply donate to the cause? Objectifying human life is sickening.

  • carter

    this debate is a media fabrication. this sounds like a job to me. Is the media against employing the homeless? I've been homeless, not cuz I'm poor, but because I wanted to spend a year skiing in college and my parents didn't approve. I wouldn't have minded a little extra cash to help people get online at the ski resort

  • Dykstram

    I find the whole argument funny. You would never give them the time of day if they were begging but since they chose to carry a hotspot of their own free will to make some money. Your still mad. My question is would you still be mad if it was students instead of homeless people. The funny part is, if it was students they would prob be doing it free as an "internship" and maybe get a free T-shirt out of the deal.

  • Steve

    I don't know..I think it is noble but, what does internet access have to do with homelessness ? The proceeds are not going to make a huge dent in the community because not being homeless is hard to overcome. When SXSW is over then what ? I guess if the main point is to draw attention then it should be a success I'm reading this because of a link in my email..

  • dtails

    This is a tough one. At first glance, I thought "exploitative", but am coming down on the side of "hmm, might actually be a good way for these individuals of making some cash".
    It seems that the idea has been to get people who would otherwise walk by to stop and talk, and that in and of itself is a good idea.
    A tough call, and a tough situation to be in for the unfortunate people, but as I see it, it could actually work. A fine way to think outside of the box.

  • Raja Vikraman

    I think it's a brilliant idea. Forget about the grand scheme of whether or not it's exploiting the homeless, focus on the fact that it gives them a job. We're so up in the clouds of being moral guardians, that we forget the homeless have no avenues to make ends meet. Here, they are given a real job and are being trust into the limelight.

    You think the guy who uses the 4G service isn't going to ask the "Homeless Hotspot" about his life a little while he uses his iPad? It's about creating conversations. This ideation creates conversations with people who need to be heard.

  • Anton_Ego

    " it an ill-conceived attention-getter that objectifies the homeless and throws into sharp relief the gap between the poorest in our society and the circus of privileged self-absorption that is SXSW?"


  • Txscorpio79

    As a person who has been homeless, I think this is a wonderful idea! You see the issue is not whether or not this is dehumanizing. The issue is that this puts the issue in people's faces. Once upon you could simply ignore that there are homeless people/families. This might not be an anecdotal response to homeless, however, it does make people more aware and it raises money to help solve the situation. 

  • Leahlori

    I agree that it's innovative. I'm also assuming that 1) the homeless have the right to refusal if they so wish & 2) the homeless both want & need some cash!!

  • Marty Butler

    The majority of people offended by this never lift a finger to engage the house-less. Most people pity them so much, they give them spare change - which isn't a solution.

    This venture brings attention to the invisible and gives the forgotten a chance to participate. It isn't perfect. But it's real.

    If you oppose it - create an ethically superior program that brings commerce for those suffering life on the streets. I'm sure you'll get right on that. After the Fader Fort shuts down.

  • Marty Butler

    Anton_Ego So, so what's your take? What advice do you have for the mortals about how to deal with this issue more effectively? Come on out from behind your cloaked username and do a little sharing. We're at your feet ready to listen.

  • Anton_Ego

    As someone who has lifted several fingers to help the "house-less," including getting on planes to help the "house-less" in third world countries, I think you might want to think twice about pontificating from a commbox.

  • Marty Butler

    TinaSmith38 -  I've never been homeless. I don't know what it's like. But I would rather this issue be talked about than not. I'm glad people are offended enough to share and think.

  • TinaSmith38

    I was homeless myself. I managed to put myself back together fairly unscathed by my unfortunate circumstances. I find this whole thing to be pretty disgusting. Most people who are defending this have never been homeless either.