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‘Homeless Hotspots’ at SXSW Trigger Backlash

Diana Rosen

Thirteen “homeless hotspots” were sent out onto the streets of Austin, Texas during a technology conference last week. Marketing agency BBH Labs calls the program, in which homeless men and women were recruited to walk around carrying Wi-Fi devices, “a charitable innovation initiative,” but it is triggering backlash across the country. The Homeless Hotspots program debuted this week at the South by Southwest technology conference. Thirteen homeless men and women from the Austin Front Steps shelter wearing T-shirts saying, “I’m [insert name], a 4G Hotspot,” were paid to walk through densely populated areas of the conference and encourage people to text a phone number in order to gain access to 4G service.  Users of the service were encouraged to donate $2 per 15 minutes of internet use to a PayPal account, the proceeds of which BBH has said will go directly to the participants.
Although most agree that the project was well-intentioned, the name of the project and the T-shirts accompanying it have created a large amount of backlash for BBH.  The company claims that Homeless Hotspots is simply an updated version of the street newspaper model where homeless salespeople accept donations in exchange for newspapers.  But critics say that while Street Sense is written by homeless people and covers stories which affect them, the 4G hotspots in no way benefit the homeless population.  Wired has described the program as “something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia.” By labeling the men and women involved in the program as hotspots,” critics say that it treats them as commodities. Jon Mitchell of RedWriteWeb complained, “The shirt doesn’t say, ‘I have a 4G hotspot.’ It says, ‘I am a 4G hotspot.’”  Another criticism of the program is that participants, who were given a $50 a day salary on top of whatever donations they received, weren’t making very much money.  BBH has neglected to release data regarding how many dollars have been collected in donations. Several of the participants in the program have spoken out in its defense saying that BBH is “trying to help the homeless and increase awareness” and that they enjoy getting to meet new people and speak with them.   Participant Mark West claimed that interacting with members of the SXSW conference was more rewarding than the pay.   “I’ve met people from Australia, Russia, different places,” he told CNN Money. It’s a great thing. They can see it from a different side, my side, instead of just stereotyping the homeless.” The Front Steps shelter director of development Mitchell Gibbs defended the program as “an employment opportunity, regardless of who is offering it.”  Gibbs was surprised by the backlash the program received.  BBH has said that the SXSW Homeless Hotspot project was simply an experiment.  The program ended on Monday and as of right now BBH has no plans of continuing it elsewhere. 
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Diana Rosen is a winter/​spring 2012 In These Times editorial intern.
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