This year, the biggest news to come out of the SXSW festival had nothing to do with music or film. Even the technology angle was not the focus. No, it was the wording on the T-shirts of the 15 homeless people hired by BBH Labs to sell Internet access to visitors. (Some of their bios are available at the advertising company’s website.)
The problem is, each shirt proclaimed, for instance, “I’m Mark, a 4G Hotspot,” implying that Mark is a thing rather than a person. So the big complaint came from grammar wonks like TV personality Jon Stewart. Not from the people experiencing homelessness, who were delighted with the opportunity to be ambulatory “wifi hotspot managers,” even if it was only for a couple of days. They liked both the income and the chance to interact with the public in an unaccustomed way.
The “homeless hotspot” phenomenon was called shocking, disgraceful, shameful, dehumanizing, outrageous, undignified, demeaning, problematic, gimmicky, dystopian, and awful. BBH was accused of perpetrating a publicity stunt that used the homeless as a commodity or as vending machines.
Homeless advocate Mark Horvath came out in favor. Homeless advocate Maria Foscarini came out against. Newspapers as far away as Australia and Turkey picked up the story. The amount of media coverage is beyond belief. If Americans had paid a fraction of this attention to the multi-trillion-dollar bank bailouts, the entire political landscape might have been different.
First, reports from knowledgeable people on the ground, so to speak, in Austin itself. Mitchell Gibbs is on staff at Front Steps, the organization through which the participants were recruited. According to the Associated Press:
He was initially skeptical after being approached by BBH, but was won over by previous work they’ve done with the homeless. He put the offer to participants in the shelter’s Case Management Program, a step-by-step program to move people out of shelters and off the streets.
Melissa Gaskill, who writes about the city’s unique culture, points out that no one was forced to take these jobs, and no one appeared to be hurt by the experience. Her editor classified it as a “creative labor idea.”
Gaskill interviewed Alan Graham of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, who has worked with the homeless for years, and who characterized the whole thing as “brilliant.” He dismissed the charge of exploitation, because the workers were paid a fair wage, and besides, every commercial interaction in the world can be interpreted as exploitative.
The journalist recorded some very quotable words from Graham:
I thought it was a great way to call attention to the company and to people who really want to work. Every one of those guys doing it were having a great time, and none of them felt exploited… What people are really complaining about is that they don’t want to be faced with the homeless issue: not here, at an event that’s cool, hip, and fun and maybe a little elitist and materialistic.
Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless saw mostly positive reactions, and noted that there was also an inadvertent side benefit for other people experiencing homelessness in Austin, who might have gotten a little WiFi for their own electronic devices. This was a small-scale, short-term experiment, whose effectiveness may have been impossibly skewed by the firestorm of publicity.
Richard reminds us that for him and the people he represents, any plan to employ the homeless should first be about dignity and fairness. Hiring the homeless is a good deal if the employer pays a living wage — sufficient to afford basic food, clothing, and shelter (including utilities). Using their homeless status to promote the product or issue, not so good.
For Technorati writer Lorraine Esposito, the old saying was applicable — “No good deed goes unpunished.” Here is her summation:
The Good Deeds:
— Provide the needed Internet access to thousands of SXSW convention goers. Responding to the calls for service, BBH New York found a solution with a heart.
— Offer homeless people the prospect of earning money, connecting with people, and feeling self-respect and hope again. BHH invested equipment, mentorship, training, and created the infrastructure of support and publicity to enable homeless people to profit in this opportunity.
— Criticism levied upon BBH for duping the homeless with a “demoralizing” exploitation of their need to earn money.
— Deny the privilege of employment. Media pressure forced BBH to cancel the project three days early.
— Humiliation and victimization of the homeless at the hands of the media, not BBH.
Besides, she asked one of the participants, Hurricane Katrina victim Clarence Jones, who said:
Everyone 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.
BBH denies that the experiment was terminated early. If it was, it’s a pity for the people who were hired. Plus, the public reaction might have spoiled things for the homeless of New York, too, because the ad agency had planned to put the program into effect there, and now that plan is on hold.
In The Daily Beast, Lee Stringer, who has personally been homeless, offered a spirited rebuttal to critics:
This was an initiative of a for-profit corporate entity. No-one’s jaw need drop open when they do this, even if non-domiciled persons are involved… I took in an average of $40 a day digging refundable cans and bottles out of the trash. There were others on the street who panhandled for cash. Given a choice, I’d take toting a WiFi modem around over both, as far as dignity is concerned. Plus, five minutes at it, me being me, and my customers would know who I am and what I am about.
The Huffington Post writer Tanene Allison — who has also experienced homelessness — made some acerbic remarks:
I’ve never heard so many thought leaders talk about homelessness before! Definitely not as many people expressed such outrage over the newly proposed policy in NYC, which would make it incredibly hard for homeless individuals to have access to even basic shelter… If all the thought and technology leaders gathered in Austin want to pause to talk about homelessness — imagine the great potential of good if they put their smarts, their abilities and their passions into creating new solutions.
Perhaps the most cogent suggestion of all was made by Austin’s Craig Blaha, who totally nailed it when he wrote for Technorati:
If Homeless Hotspots really pisses you off, protest by donating directly to Front Steps Shelter, the National Coalition for the Homeless, or your local homeless organization. Put your money where your mouth is and leave a note in the comments section telling us just how much you donated, and to which organization.
Source: “’Homeless Hotspot’ stunt stirs debate at SXSW,” KHOU.com, 03/13/12
Source: “Homeless hotspots at SXSW: Opportunity or just exploitation?,” CultureMap Austin, 03/15/12
Source: “Punishing the Homeless,” Technorati, 03/15/12
Source: “Don’t Be So Quick to Condemn the Homeless Hot Spots Idea, Writes Lee Stringer,” The Daily Beast, 03/14/12
Source: “What Happens When SXSW Meets Austin’s Homeless,” The Huffington Post, 03/14/12
Source: “Austin Homeless Hotspots,” Technorati, 03/15/12
Image by Jorge Rivas of Colorlines, used under Fair Use: Reporting.