Homeless Hotspots @ SXSW
The SXSW festival has a history of weakening WiFi and cellphone connections in Austin, Texas. This year, the ad agency BBH has been attempting to remedy that while also doing some community service, with its "Homeless Hotspots" initiative.
"Homeless Hotspots", which is not affiliated with the official SXSW organization and ends today, has employed 13 homeless people from Austin’s Front Steps Shelter by equipping each with a wireless router. According to BBH, the “Hotspot Managers” have been “strategically positioned” throughout the city, offering festival-goers the opportunity to buy access to the participant’s 4G network from a phone, laptop, or tablet. Each manager keeps his or her earnings in full.
BBH says the program was adapted from the model of street newspapers, which are produced and sold by homeless populations to “stabilize urban street corners through building self-confidence and self-worth,” according to the North American Street Newspaper Association. But, as Wired notes, the “Homeless Hotspots” project requires workers to wear t-shirts that read “I’m a 4G hotspot,” which confuses the goals of the original model.
From what I’ve gathered about these so-called Homeless Hotspots, I’m a supporter - a cautious, conflicted supporter. Many large events (e.g., World Cup, Olympics) attempt to sweep away the homeless and present a polished version of their city when foreigners come to town, but I like that this program not only incorporates, but highlights the position of homeless people in Austin.
There are some who would think this program takes advantage of homeless people by having them engage in demeaning work, but I take issue with this point. These homeless people weren’t forced into this work and who’s to say that they’ve lost their dignity? Perhaps some of the employed homeless individuals, if asked, would speak positively about their experience. I think it reflects a perhaps unintentionally classist attitude on behalf of those who would “defend” the homeless on the grounds that they were subjected to “degrading” work. Instead of branding this as demeaning, I think we can see it as potentially empowering because these homeless people are earning a temporary income (at least partly) on their own terms.
Dubbing them “Homeless Hotspots” maybe commodifies these workers in a questionable way, but I’d guess they probably refer to themselves as homeless. It’d be a different issue if they were called “Vagrant,” “Bum” or “Transient” Hotspots.