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Controversy grows over use of “Homeless Hotspots”

An ad agencies campaign to employ homeless as wireless "hotspots" at the SXSW festival is sparking massive debate about its ethics. (AP image)

Controversy is brewing at the SXSW festival in Austin
after an ad agency enlisted some homeless people as wireless hotspots.

New York based BBH says it started as a charitable
initiative to help homeless newspaper salespeople move
into the digital age.

According to “Homeless Hotspots”, a website created by
BBH New York, the hope is to “offer homeless individuals
an opportunity to sell a digital service instead of a
material commodity.”

The homeless wear T-shirts identifying themselves and
carry a cellular modem (or MiFi) so the techies
attending the conference can get online anywhere.

Attendees make a cash or Pay Pal donation to connect, and
all the proceeds go to the homeless.

But the effort is drawing sharp criticism from many
corners. Jon Mitchell at ReadWriteWeb was among the critics
blasting the campaign as dehumanizing and exploiting the

“The shirt doesn’t say, “I have a 4G hotspot.” It says, “I
am a 4G hotspot,” writes Mitchell.

“You can guess what happens next. You pay these homeless,
human hotspots whatever you like, and then I guess you sit
next to them and check your email and whatnot. The digital
divide has never hit us over the head with a more blunt
display of unselfconscious gall,” Mitchell writes.

But for all the criticism, the program is getting plenty
of praise from several 97.3 KIRO FM hosts.

“What is wrong with this,” asks Ron and Don Show
contributor Rachel Belle.

“They are treating homeless people like people because
they’re giving them a job. They’re working because the
homeless get all the money that is collected.”

Seattle’s Morning News co-host Bill Radke couldn’t agree

“You’re meeting a need and you’re helping the people that
are homeless. What’s the problem,” Radke asks.

The participants themselves are the heartiest endorsers of
the idea.

“Everybody thinks I’m getting the rough end of the stick,
but I don’t feel that. I love talking to people and it’s
a job, an honest day of work and pay,” said 54-year-old
Clarence Jones, a New Orleans native who’s been homeless
since Hurricane Katrina.

Participants get $20 per day plus whatever donations
people make (suggested $2 for 15 minutes of access.)

“The fact is we don’t treat homeless people as
individuals. That’s human. And if you feel guilty about
that, then when somebody makes a gimmick out of homeless
people and gives them a T-shirt, then you feel really
uncomfortable,” says Radke.

He argues if the idea makes people uncomfortable then it’s
a good thing because it might get them thinking about the
homeless in a different light.

“It’s a good days work for a good day’s pay,” Radke says.

And the project creators insist their intentions are pure
and merely an effort to create a future for the homeless
to make a living based on the street newspaper model.

“The model isn’t inherently broken. It’s simply the output
that’s archaic in the smartphone age. So we decided to
modernize it,” the agency writes on the project blog.


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