An “experiment” which involved using homeless people as mobile wi-fi hotspots at an over-crowded convention center has attracted criticism, forcing the advertising agency behind it to defend itself. But the critics may be missing the point. The idea may be a catalyst for some fresh thinking about opportunities to connect with and support homeless people.
The Homeless Hotspot webpage that BBH Agency (Austin, TX) created at their own expense helps tell the each homeless vendors story and provides a way for people to donate directly to the homeless vendor! That’s right. 100% of the money goes directly to the vendor. Like that’s not enough, BBH also made a sizable donation to Front Steps.
Watch a video about concept of the Homeless Hotspot and judge for yourself. Clearly the project has flaws but it certainly is an attempt to think outside the box.
From the notes on YouTube…
“We’ve all been panhandled by a homeless person on street begging for money. I bet every one of you reading this has even been aggressively panhandled. It’s awkward to be walking with your friends on a nice summer night just to have a homeless person rush you for money. Or maybe the light just turned red and you didn’t make it through the intersection. Right in front of your car is a homeless person “flying a sign”. You try not to make eye contact but the homeless man walks up to your window so you start praying the light turns green. Unfortunately, that how the general public interacts with homelessness. The experience is always uncomfortable and often nasty, and it reinforces wrong stereotypes about our homeless neighbors.
“That’s why I like the street paper model and believe every community should have a street paper. I didn’t at first. Street papers can sometimes be billed as a way for a homeless person to get off the streets. I always thought that was farfetched I mean, street paper vendor’s, after paying for the papers to sell, cannot make a living wage. But then it hit me. I saw the true benefit. Street papers provide a positive interaction between a homeless vendor and the general public.
“The creative team at BBH Labs wanted to do something a little different at this year’s SXSW. Something that would not only help the city of Austin, but give back to a mostly forgotten group of people. They partnered with the local homeless shelter, built a neat little webpage, bought a few Mifis with service, and then empowered a few homeless folks to sell “pay as you go” WiFi service around downtown Austin. The Homeless Hotspot webpage that BBH created at their own expense helps tell the each homeless vendors story and provides a way for people to donate directly to the homeless vendor! That’s right. 100% of the money goes directly to the vendor. Like that’s not enough, BBH also made a sizable donation to Front Steps.
“When I first heard about the “Homeless Hotspots” I freaked out in the good way. I think the idea is brilliant, and it’s a new idea in a nonprofit sector that is void of any new ideas, especially in tech. I am a realist so I immediately thought of a few flaws like how could this be scaled, and that people won’t stand around on a sidewalk to get WiFi. But what really got me excited is WHAT ELSE COULD WE DO? Seriously, I don’t see homeless hotspots as any kind of solution, but it may be the catalyst to an idea that will. What I mean by that is for a very long time all we have had is street papers. I know some places like Dignity Village in Portland (a city sanctioned tent community) has hotdog and espresso carts, and my friend Alan Graham just launched Street Treats in Austin, but what could we do with technology to create a positive interaction with homeless friends and the general public.
“In today’s world we have refrigerators that can check our twitter and Facebook status. Tech is changing everything we do and tech is changing faster and faster. But not in homeless services! Think about it, you can book a vacant hotel room from any computer with online access in the world, yet a homeless mom cannot find a shelter that does not have a waiting list. Homeless families and homeless people get turned away from shelter after shelter until they finally give up. The homeless services system is like out of the dark ages so no wonder people cannot find the help they need. Technology can change that. It has for you and me, but not homeless people. Although I don’t see Homeless Hotspots being adopted by homeless services I sure hope it kicks a few people in the ass so they start thinking about how technology can help us save money and lives.
Homeless advocate Mark Hovath continues… “What happened with online media the last 12 hours is disgusting. New York Times, Read Write Web, Wired, and others grabbed on to some negative spin without doing any real research. I believe it was conscious since everyone knows SXSW is the biggest dog and pony show of the year and controversy drives traffic. I won’t link to the posts because they already have more than enough traffic by being irresponsible. They’re not getting any from me. I mean it was just stupid drama. People were even complaining about choice of verbs written on the shorts. I will give some props to Jon Mitchell who wrote the Read Write Web post. After a healthy conversation on twitter he updated the post with the “other” side of the story, and today I see he kept his word and went and interviewed a “hotspot vendor”! I know blogging isn’t journalism but come on people.