“Homeless Hotspots” Stir Controversy
A program that was intended to generate income and good will for homeless people at South by Southwest sparked a huge backlash.
“Wireless connection! 4G! You need to get online? I’m your guy! Hotspot! Hotspot!” Mark West shouted as he stood outside the Austin Convention Center, wearing a shirt that said, “I’m Mark. A 4G Hotspot.” West is one of about a dozen homeless people who took part in Homeless Hotspots – a pilot program conceived by New York-based advertising company BBH Labs.
“This company BBH gave me an opportunity to own my own little company for a few days in order to bring in some income and help me out financially,” West said. “It’s a great opportunity.”
West is paid $20 a day and receives a donation from people who use the Wi-Fi hot spot. The suggested donation is $2 per 15 minutes. People can pay with their smartphones and he gets the money later in a lump sum.
When signing up to use one of the hot spots, you can read a biography of that homeless person. That’s an important feature for Clarence Earl Jones, who’s also in the program. He was standing on the other side of the convention center.
“We hear a lot of things on the news. We see a lot of things,” Jones said. “They paint a certain picture about [the] homeless and that’s wrong.”
But almost as soon as the homeless hot spots launched on Sunday, there was a fierce backlash – much of it fueled by social media. The program offended many bloggers and people on Twitter, who called it “horrifying,” “dystopian” and “dehumanizing.”
Saneel Radia is BBH’s head of innovation. He has been in damage-control mode since the program began.
“I know that currently our group has been villainized in some ways. That’s unfortunate,” Radia said. “I wish I could tell you that I’m a robot and that it didn’t bother me but it does.”
He said it was supposed to be a modern twist on street newspapers – print publications written and sold by homeless people.
“The goal’s pretty straightforward: to get people to engage with them in conversation and hear their story. And then obviously, the financial motivation,” Radia said. “They keep all the money of the access they sell. They keep those donations themselves.”
“Those who want to participate of their own free will are welcome to do so,” he said. “They have engaged. And they continue to engage, and we’re very pleased with that.”
The program ended yesterday afternoon at 4 p.m. Gibbs and Radia said it was only intended to last for the duration of South by Southwest Interactive. But judging by the visceral reaction of the past 48 hours, BBH Labs has a lot of convincing to do if it wants people to see the Homeless Hotspot program as a charitable experiment worth repeating.