At SXSW, homeless people become WiFi hotspots

[Video Link]

Over the weekend, I noticed that David Gallagher of The New York Times observed in Austin, "Homeless people have been enlisted to roam the streets wearing T-shirts that say 'I am a 4G hotspot.”

A number of other folks I follow on Twitter who are attending the annual SXSW event there mentioned it, too, with concern. Here's the project's website, detailing their system to PayPal each "homeless hotspot" person directly. "We suggest $2 per 15 minutes."

The project was created by a team at global ad agency BBH.

Jon Mitchell at RWW has more. The problem, as he sees it:

The Homeless Hotspots website frames this as an attempt "to modernize the Street Newspaper model employed to support homeless populations." There's a wee little difference, though. Those newspapers are written by homeless people, and they cover issues that affect the homeless population. By contrast, Homeless Hotspots are helpless pieces of privilege-extending human infrastructure. It's like it never occurred to the people behind this campaign that people might read street newspapers. They probably just buy them to be nice and throw them in the garbage.

Tim Carmody at Wired News has more about the project's roots, and why he and others find it troubling:

This is my worry: 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.


  1. I suppose on some level the people behind this might have thought they were creating some kind of microfinance program, but it fails on that level for not being sustainable and not empowering the community being served. So instead it’s basically a very crass business/advertising scheme that was very poorly thought out. 

    1. Isn’t that awfully paternalistic though?  Shouldn’t the homeless be free to engage in any kind of employment they see fit?

      It’s not like this is a charity organization, its simply employment.  I don’t think its necessary (or reasonable) to think that all businesses be sustainable and empower communities.  

      1. It’s not simple employment, there is no such thing. 

        If it isn’t being sold to the participants as charitable and is being sold to the participants as employment then it is ignoring employer responsibilities or abusing IC status, dependent on the model they claim.

      2. I think the fact that this is touted as a program to “bring the street newspapers in to the digital age” that is intended to “support homeless populations” makes it more than just simple employment – there is a clear attempt to associate it with an empowerment program, not temporary employment. 

        Nobody is saying that the homeless shouldn’t be allowed to engage in whatever employment they want. But we should not take this exploitation of a person’s disadvantage as being a noble endeavor any more than a person might be considered noble for asking a homeless person to drop his drawers in exchange for a ham sandwich. It’s just capitalism. It’s not necessary that every business be sustainable and empower communities, but the only ones that deserve our attention and praise are the ones that are.

        1. …asking a homeless person to drop his drawers in exchange for a ham sandwich.

          I do not appreciate being spied on.

  2. Sounds like a good idea to me.  However noble or sketchy the business folks and their motivations behind it are, the human hotspots are earning money off the deal and the job’s not too hard.  No one is forcing them to serve as hotspots.  They’re just being offered an easy way to make a little cash.   It’s not intended to be a real fix for homelessness or a real ongoing charity program.  It’s intended to help some folks that could use the money make some off the influx of extra people in town in a dignified way. 

  3. It is not true that street newspapers are “written by homeless people.”  Many have only minimal content provided by their vendors (not all of whom are homeless), and they are almost all under the editorial control of a professional staff.  There are some (like Oakland’s Street Sheet and Berlin, Germany’s Querkopf) which have a more organic connection between vendors and the production of the newspaper, but these are the exception.  In general, I would argue, if you are concerned about the paternalism of homeless hotspots then you should be concerned about the paternalism of street newspapers.

  4. So the problem is that the homeless’ employer doesn’t really care about them as people and the job isn’t self-actualizing enough?

    Welcome to the working world, my friends…

    1. Fuck your working world. A world that demands people scrape and lick the boot of power in order to be given the right to live is not one I am really proud to be a part of, and I’d like to replace it with something better. We have the capability of living in a world of plenty; all we have to do is stop screwing each other over for every nickel. Apparently this is a lot to ask.

      There are two competing notions of virtue at work in our political world: one is republican virtue, the willingness to subordinate selfish interests to the public good; over the years this has gradually been eclipsed by Ayn Rand’s notion of virtue as pure self-interest. Which one shall we favor?

      I, for one, would rather not pretend that our existence is determined as individuals; I grew up in a world where C was invented, where the structure of the genetic material was already known, where philosophical notions of justice and equality had been developed, where an understanding of our place in the universe had been opened up, as well as an understanding of the fragility of the planet. These priceless gifts, and many others, were the water I bathed in as a child. They are what makes me up. I would do much better to feel myself part of that sea, than a lonely sailor struggling to keep from drowning in it.

      1. You’re floating along in a sea of privilege in writing that.  I for one, would rather not pretend that we are all the same, that everything can be washed off like a bit of dirt from us that keeps us from some utopian purity, or that people who are aware of the pressures of survival are some how morally impure. You say fuck “your” world? I say fuck simplistic thinking and sharp dichotomies.  What if some of these people you feel so bad for are nasty people who fuck people over as well? Could you still have compassion for them? Or would that blow your mind? There’s more to the world than Rand vs. Jesus.

        1. What? The people who are aware of the pressures of survival are not the ones who are continually demanding we need to experience them. There’s nothing fun or nice about starving if you can’t work. But it’s not necessary either, and it doesn’t require utopian purity to remove it. These problems are not abstract; they are tractable. There are ways to live that mitigate their existence a great deal.

          Yeah, some of those people are nasty and fuck people over; but I don’t think it’s our job to judge people. If it is, we’re doing a terrible job of it; there’s no relation between being nasty and vile and your social status. The point is, this is an enormously wealthy society we’ve produced, in aggregate, and the pressure of survival that many people face is entirely unnecessary. If I’ve introduced a dichotomy, it’s merely to state that I’d prefer, at a minimum, that we keep it as a goal to lift that onus from as many shoulders as possible. Our reward will be a massively more productive society. That seems reasonable, doesn’t it?

          1. Perhaps the opposition between Ayn Rand and Jesus envisaged here ultimately does not exist. Your sense of self is knowledge of your true potential on a genetic level. This has become suppressed by a distorted sense of individuality and ideas of wanting to be rich, famous, etc. This is a problem both for societies and individuals. A true sense of individuality is simply how you express your true sense of self. A true sense of self can only be realized if it does nothing to disturb anyone else’s sense of self.

    2. The working world? The only possible world of work is yours? What has happened to imagination or do we no longer need it now perfection has been achieved?

  5. These not for profits are always quick to criticize any newcomer. If the program works for individuals and reduces their dependence on panhandling, its a start or at least a worthwhile experiment. They can always enhance it from there.

  6. For a second, I was worried this was related to that “Installing Linux on a Dead Badger” thing.

  7. I think it’s pretty amazing that people assume an advertising agency can just walk in and turn the homeless into anything they want. They’d be totally remiss if they didn’t have releases and the direct consent of clarence, dusty, jeffrey, et. al. These folks obviously signed on to the project, and the cool thing is that their stories are front and center on the website. Hello! That’s a great way to raise awareness for and debunk myths about their cause as well as the cause of many other homeless folks around the country. I’d rather see the money going to the homeless than temp goons hired to promote the hell out of so-called disruption. If you consider the alternative, it’s a great idea. 

    1. Amen. All this concern for the welfare of the homeless people strikes me as a bit over the top. They’re being offered a job, and some of them apparently decided it was worth their time to do it. Like it or not, something tells me they get offered way more demeaning jobs on a near daily basis.

      And I think the underlying message about the product is pretty clear: “our product is so simple even non techies can run it. ” And their gimmick managed to stand out in a sea of gimmicks, so all the better.  And the service is beneficial to consumers, who get some free wifi. That’s a lot of wins, according to my tally.

  8. How is it that you turn something positive like putting money in homeless people’s pockets into something negative? Did anyone ASK the homeless people if they felt this was a bad thing?

    1.  Talk TO a bum?   Ewww, forget that noise.

      I’d rather just talk ABOUT them, so I can maintain my snugness without getting hobo germs on my vintage Che t-shirt

  9. I don’t quite understand what is bad about this? Maybe I’m being privilege-blind here, but it seems to me that these people are agreeing to do this. It doesn’t seem like a terrible job since it’s a short term thing.  So long as they actually get the money it seems fair to me.  Homeless people aren’t always people who are unwilling to work or something.

     Now I get the argument that this is not specifically empowering for the individuals on one level, but then again in order for this plan to work you kind of have to be around them. I don’t know if visibility gets more visible than actual time in some one’s personal presence. 

  10. I agree, biomega and blueelm. It seems odd to dismiss this as a heartless corporate ploy. If homeless people are being employed to provide a worthwhile service, what’s not to like?  Would you prevent a homeless person from doing this because you think it’s undignified or because you’ve assumed ill intent on the part of the founders? Surely it’s better to let the individuals decide for themselves if they want to take part.

  11. Seriously, though, I R both TFA and I still don’t get what the outrage is about. In what world is offering employment to homeless people a bad thing? What does “privilege extending” mean? It’s bad because it benefits both parties instead of just one? It “doesn’t care about them?” WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?

    1. It views them as parts of a commodity exchange.

      There are many different ways that people end up in the condition we call “homeless”, and some people move out of it more quickly than others. Some people don’t; but what’s usually the problem is not that they simply don’t have enough money. Money is easy enough to get; what’s harder to get is a life: stability, purpose, love. Not to say that those things can’t be found on the street, but it’s probably not the best place to find it.

      If we’re really interested in getting them out of there, we have to see what really brought them there. Merely saying, “Hey, you guys are standing here anyway, take this money to be our billboards,” is not a great way to do that.

      Again, the problem is not money: the problem is a society that has a margin, and forces people over it. Maybe there is another society that does not tolerate that kind of callousness, that refuses to shrug so blithely when someone else is reduced to a wretched condition in front of you. A society that does not make us all feel alien and alone; hey, that’s a better dream than simply handing people some money.

      But, it says something that you are mystified by the meaning of being asked to care about someone. Don’t you think that’s odd? Do you find that such an offensive demand?

      1. But caring doesn’t always lead to the same things. Leslie, actually, in Austin, was a good example of this. He was very much loved by the people in a way that many people with homes and plenty of money might even not have. Believe me, I have one person in mind as I type that. Honestly, none of us can guarantee that we will have love or purpose in our lives.  Leslie was still homeless though, and faced all the material problems that come with that. And yeah, in our society that means needing money too. Being popular, he got what he did through gifts and little publicity scenes.

        It seems almost disabling to suggest that for homeless people even loving them is a charity that must be taken on by more privileged people.  Reminds me of co-dependency sort of.  Oh, let me love you, because no one else could!

        Different things are required for different people,  and each person probably requires a network of people who bring different things to the table. This is society in general. 

        To be honest though, your words are crueler than I think you mean them to be. Look some one in the face and tell them they’re “reduced to a wretched condition” will you?

      2.  So the problem with offering these people jobs is that it fails to establish a utopian society? So, by implication, not offering them jobs would somehow establish said society?

      3. I’m sorry, George.  Society has failed you, and I’m not about to validate that by giving you a dollar.  Off you go, now.  Solidarity!

      4. What if “getting them out of there” is not the goal? What if you just want to deploy a service at a reasonable price?

        1. If there is no philanthropic/charitable angle, no “leg up” as it were in the promotion of this promotion, then that particular method of deploying a service at a reasonable price runs afoul of labour laws.

          (edit: although labour laws are not enforced in Texas for the most part, except OSHA here and there)

  12. Ugh. The “homeless hotspots” are also being “utilized” for a game. Sorry, a “transmedia experience.”

    BBH Global also makes ads for Axe Body Spray. Ahem.

  13. You know, there are never enough porta-potties at festivals like SXSW. Roaming homeless porta-potties, anyone? Call me. Next year is around the corner.

  14. This reminds me of back in the 80s when a movie production company got a hard time for making the homeless people leave the location so that hired extras playing homeless people could stand around all day looking like homeless people

    I gather that the article writers would rather that the company hired a bunch of college students to stand around wearing t shirts identifying themselves as hotspots.  There is something about not enough verbs on the shirts, I gather something like “I am carrying a wireless device which you can use as a hotspot”

    It’s certainly not as demeaning as waving a sign for selling houses ( THAT creeps me out, but hey it’s a job ), or as demeaning as paying off your student loan writing ad copy for stinky deodorant. 

    1. It reminds me of a college internship program I once heard about which offered undergrads $10k for 10 weeks of work in Africa handing out laptops and teaching people how to use them.  First, $1k a week? Seriously? Second, couldn’t an African do this job?  

      1. Many places in Africa are scary to young western folk, my uncle worked there and said I could join him if I learned Swahili to near-fluent first. I told him that wildcat diamond dredging was doubtless very exciting (it really is) but not my cup of tea. 10 Large for 10 weeks might convince some undergrads to get over their fear is the only explanation I can think of.

        What I can’t think of, is how these undergrads were supposed to help the non-english speakers they would certainly encounter? Were they also supplied with fixers and translators, and if so, I echo your question as to why the fixers and translators would not be the better choice for the position.

        1. But they would be Africans though, wouldn’t they? You can’t trust them with electronics.

  15. I’d say the REAL reason you really shouldn’t compare this to selling Street Newspapers is because the Street Newspaper business model is very consciously designed to provide an actual, semi-reliable job, not some sort of hand-wringing charity. 
    A Street Newspaper associate sells you a standardized product up front, with a fixed price and no strings attached. The vendor gets cash and you get something to read. No guilt trips of any kind included. 

    Here on the other hand, you are basically just encouraged  to give the nice man with the device and the tshirt a tip  – the size of wich is left totally at your own discression. That the people arranging these hotspots can’t, or won’t, recognize the fundamental difference in those two business models is borderline obscene.

    1. I’ve never been even remotely inclined to get one of those newspapers.  I’ve been inclined to give the guys money but I just turn down the papers because, well, who the fuck wants another piece of paper to throw away?  I’m trying to get paper out of my life as much as possible.

      But if I was looking for internet I’d actually pay for a wireless hotspot.  Soooo…yeah, the opposite of what you said.

  16. “I don’t like the possibly exploitative method being used to give these poor people money they need to survive, and yet I can offer no viable alternatives or solutions to this method, so…CONCERN TROLLING!”

    1.  Seriously.  Is panhandling without anything on offer somehow more empowering?  I don’t get what the haters want everyone to do, especially since they don’t seem very forthcoming with solutions.

      1. Yep. Having a PR firm “exploit” them by giving them an opportunity to earn money is low on my outrage scale.

        As for solutions, here is what I learned homeless people want/need from doing outreach with them: a hot meal at least once a day, good camping gear, medicine, toothbrushes/toothpaste/floss, toilet paper, clean/dry socks, and for cops and religious nutbags to leave them the fuck alone.

  17. There’s a wee little difference, though. Those newspapers are written by homeless people, and they cover issues that affect the homeless population.

    By contrast, Homeless Hotspots are helpless pieces of privilege-extending human infrastructure.

    This strikes me as ridiculous… assuming a street newspaper written by homeless people about issues that affect the homeless population, who is going to pay to read it? I don’t mean that it wouldn’t be worth reading – it would certainly be interesting, at least – but in reality, a ridiculously small number of people would actually pay money for it. Except perhaps other homeless people?

    Other comments here suggest that this isn’t what these newspapers are like. But whether it’s true or not is irrelevant – it’s strikingly odd that someone would make this argument against the homeless wifi hotspots.

    This seems to me to be a much more effective way of raising awareness – and cash – for the homeless than street papers because it’s something people might actually want, and the homeless person’s story is on the splash page rather than dropped in a dumpster or on the street if it was in paper form.

    Of course:

    It’s like it never occurred to the people behind this campaign that people might read street newspapers. They probably just buy them to be nice and throw them in the garbage.

    Well, do people actually read street newspapers? It seems to me that someone who doesn’t even know what street newspapers are about (if random BB commenters are to be believed…) is unlikely to know. I don’t know either.

    And anyway the type of person who would use this service is the type of person who will tweet about it, or tell their friends in some other way, raising awareness further. Assuming raising awareness of and paying the homeless is a good thing?

    1. They have a version of street newspaper in Toronto, I’ve read it, gave the dude a toonie for it as I was walking into that coffee/coffeemaker/gelato joint at Bloor & Bathurst.

      It wasn’t a toonie’s worth of reading, but it wasn’t bad except for most of the writing. 

      But, sometimes reading badly written newsprint on subjects that are generally unpleasant can give a perspective that would otherwise pass you by. 

      Since I never give money to panhandlers unless they have something for me it was an exceptional experience as well several emonerdfluff girls looked as though they would have liked to say something to me when they saw me reading it, but were too shy. 

      (I’m unassumingly handsome and have a truly beautiful wedding ring that my wife designed and had made for us, and yes, it was she who told me I have good looks, so don’t contradict her or I’ll fuck you up, it is embarrassing to have your ass kicked by a waif like me, so yeah girls look at me wistfully, I don’ mind at all)

      I give give give back btw, I know I’m lucky, I just don’t care for panhandling and having been homeless myself in my youth I know it is not particularly necessary for survival in Toronto if I could manage without it in the deep south of the US many years ago.

    2. I once read a piece in the New Yorker which included an anecdote about a fruitful exchange in the field of linguistics that occurred because a linguist happened to read an interview with Noam Chomsky in “Spare Change News”, the Cambridge version of this kind of thing. So, the answer is: lots of people read it, and sometimes its worth it.

      1. So, the answer is: lots of people read it, and sometimes its worth it.

        You’ve demonstrated that one person reads it.  Not that lots of people do.

    3.  I can’t speak for other users, but if you live in Chicago and don’t know what “Streewise” is, then you’re either a noob, or really, really out of it…

  18. because this is sxsw, we can suspend all anger at taking advantage of homeless folks. it dehumanizes them and turns them into telephone poles.

  19. What an awesome idea – sure as heck beats “GOLF SALE!” signs.

    And props to them for employing people who can’t show a permanent address.

    I hope the concern trolls don’t destroy this idea before it even has a chance to get off the ground.

    I really love living here in Austin. People here think up new technological approaches to old problems all the time: the place feels alive.

  20. Seems patronizing. But I will say the “connect to a WiFi & then pay somebody” model of hotspots does have potential.  But this seems just wrong.

  21. How about homeless human cup holders?  We can have them hold our beers while we watch Sleigh Bells.  What?  It’s a job right?

    1.  Dude, if you paid me five bucks an hour to hold your beer during Sleigh Bells I’d probably do it.  And I’m gainfully employed.

  22. If you haven’t done it lately, watch the opening of Shaft. There are so many sign walkers clogging the streets, there’s hardly room for anyone to walk. Most are advertising “I got my job through the New York Times”. But it’s in the form of a protest, the ads are intermingled with “I lost my job with _____”. And you all thought it started on late night television ads.

    I specifically remember too the CC (Chanel)  half t-shirts selling for $100 dollars, why not give that money to the homeless?

    I might support this if the money was loaded onto a card for food, shelter or public transit passes.

    1.  I don’t see any reason to load it onto a card that can only be used for the things you think they might want/need.  My paycheck doesn’t work that way.  Why should someone else’s?  Just because they are currently without a house doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have the power to spend the money they earn the way they see fit. 

      I see that mentality too often with folks about the homeless.  “Sure, I’d gladly give them food, but not cash.” etc.  It’s silly.  Cash can buy food.  If that’s what they really need to make their life better that day, that’s what they’ll buy.  But maybe I have no idea what would really make their day.  Maybe a mission feeds them, so rather than dinner, they’d like insoles for their shoes, or some soap, or a new shirt, or some minutes for their phone to call their family or call about a job, or maybe they’re saving for rent or for a car or something who knows. 

      And that’s with giving them the money for nothing.  With the hotspot deal, they’re giving you something of value for your money.  I don’t ask my internet provider at home what they’re going to use the money I give them in exchange for access for.  They’re not locked into spending it on only things I consider necessary or noble or fitting to their situation.  I see no reason to feel different about it because the salesman doesn’t have a permanent address. 

  23. I wonder what the radio frequency specific absorption rate is for a human WiFi hotspot, and I wonder if anyone told the homeless folks about it…

  24. Many years ago I volunteered on a listening hotline. It was a great experience because I got to talk to many people with mental illnesses in a way that was safe for both of us. About 50% of the people who called were mentally ill, ranging from a man so paranoid he thought the t.v. was watching him to people with mild depression. What an eye opener to learn how many people there are out there who struggle to get through each day, sometimes living from one pill to the next trying to stay lucid.

    I did have the opportunity to talk to some homeless people. One I remember vividly was a woman who suffered through cycles of depression. She would sometimes become homeless, beg on the street, scrape together enough savings to get an apartment, get back on her medicine, sort of get her life together. Lather, rinse, repeat…maybe every three, four months. For her, getting out of bed each day was tough. She didn’t make long term plans; maybe figuring out a plan for a few weeks or a month was all she could do.

    Many people have this kind of piecemeal life.  There’s a great book by a man who was a manager at Lucky Dog (in New Orleans) and he talks about this whole workforce of people of prefer to float around from one city to the next, taking up a job for a month or two, then getting a bus ticket and going to the next town. 

    Why is the only solution for a homeless person what we would prefer, permanent employment? This, to me, seems like a humane way to provide temporary employment to people who might prefer a job that only requires one day or one week of commitment at a time.

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