Helping the Homeless by Hiring them as Wifi Hotspots
BBH Labs in coordination with Front Steps Shelter devised the idea of "Homeless Hotspots"
Have you heard of one of the latest gimmicks in Wifi technology? It involves human hotspots—specifically homeless human hotspots. An advertising company in Austin, Texas came up with the clever idea of equipping homeless people with 4G mifi devices to wear around their necks so they can provide a service to people who need it and put money in their empty pockets at the same time. The project was brought about by a partnership with the ad company which is a division of Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) and the Front Steps Shelter in Austin.
The participants, who are being case managed by Front Steps Shelter, were also provided with a tee shirt that identifies them as an available hot spot and includes an access code for people needing to get on the internet. A total of 13 volunteers from the Shelter were chosen to participate including 12 men and one woman.
The users can pay what they choose but the company recommends the public pay $2 for 15 minutes of online access. The users were required to pay online instead of giving the “hotspot managers” cash most likely to avoid the possibility of their being robbed.
Homeless hotspots provided internet access to SXSW Convention attendees
The idea was an experiment undertaken mainly to provide internet access for the thousands of attendees of the South by South West (SXSW) March 2012 convention who otherwise were having difficulty locating sufficient internet access to satisfy their demands. The hotspot designees were expected to walk around the nearby vicinity of the convention area to solicit customers for their services.
Critics, as usual, immediately came out of the woodwork to denounce the idea as an exploitation of the poor. Others hailed it as an inspirational idea that could help the homeless rise above a difficult and demoralizing situation and would have the potential for creating positive interactions with homeless people and the public. This could potentially stir up some empathy for the plight of homeless people and other opportunities such as job offers might result from these interactions.
Just the chatter it created in blogs and social networks for several days caused an increased awareness of the homeless and their predicaments. This would certainly seem to the casual observer as a good thing.
Since no pictures of the homeless "hotspots" were available I included random photos of the homeless that display their humanity: they have a sense of humor!
BBH defends their idea
BBH Labs responded quickly in a blog of their own assuring the concerned public that they are not selling anything and there is no commercial benefit from it. They also maintained that the Hotspot Managers (i.e. the homeless individuals providing the service) get to keep all the money they earn. The participants were guaranteed at least $50 day for six hours of work. This works out to slightly more than the Texas state minimum way which is $7.25 an hour. Many of the human hotspots actually made more.
BBH dispelled rumors that a reality show was in the works, though a documentary is a possibility. Whatever the result, they intended to be faithful to the idea of giving the homeless a voice and a presence so people will understand them better.
They also added that they have simply modernized the “newspaper” model whereby homeless individuals are given the opportunity to sell newspapers for a living since newspaper sales are suffering due to the availability of news on the internet.
Is there a downside to homeless hotspots? One customer commented that his homeless hotspot kept wandering out of range and added that labeling a human as a hotspot would condition the public to view them as a commodity instead of a service provider. Another commenter said the few dollars they earn does not alleviate their situation long term and they lose a measure of their human dignity in the process. Another observer said the tee shirts should say “I have a 4G hotspot,” instead of “I am a 4G hotspot.” Still others suggested the poor were being bombarded with electronic emissions.
How do the homeless themselves feel about it? Some said they would not do it because they can make more money panhandling. Others welcomed the opportunity to make money and connect with the public.
One of the participants named Clarence made it clear to anyone who asked that he did not feel exploited and loved the opportunity to talk to people and experience an honest day of work and pay. He refers to himself as “houseless” instead of “homeless” since he lost his house during the Katrina hurricane and hasn’t been able to pull himself back up financially ever since.
Another participant named Mark West said the idea was awesome and it provided them with an opportunity to work and provide a service for the public. West is trained as an electrician but has been unable to find regular employment since moving to the area. In addition to the money, he appreciated the opportunity to connect with the public and change the stereotype about the homeless.
A 59-year-old participant named Hughes, who is unable to do most physical work due to disabling back problems, was glad to volunteer.
Gibbons, another homeless person who took part, said that as a result of the program, people who normally ignored him were now interested in knowing him personally.
Mitchell Gibbs, a director at the Front Steps Shelter was surprised by all the criticism of the experiment and noted that it had sparked an enterprising enthusiasm among the volunteers. He also remarked that the idea fit the goals the shelter has for their clients: empowerment, education and encouragement of and for the recipients toward the goal of self-support.
The Austin project was BBH lab’s beta test of the idea and might eventually be implemented on a larger scale. Apparently, due to the criticism, though, the experiment was shut down a few days early.
Previously, BBH did an experiment in New York in which homeless residents were given prepaid cell phones and twitter accounts so they could be part of the global community and provide them with an avenue to call attention to their predicament.
Personally, I think the idea is ingenious for the reasons stated by commenters and participants above: it gave those involved an opportunity to feel useful and it provided some funds, though limited, to take care of their own needs. This undoubtedly restored some of their dignity to realize that people were engaging with them like normal human beings instead of avoiding them. By all appearances, it seemed to have made them feel valuable, not like objects as some have suggested. That’s a lot more than what panhandling does for them. As one blogger put it “… in the absence of sufficient housing resources, it’s a humane interim step.”
The research alone that I did to compile this article has stirred within me an interest in finding a way to help the homeless whereas previously I had never given them much thought. That proves to me that it was a fruitful undertaking.
Here is a great interview with one of the hotspot providers named Jonathan:
Links for more information
The website for more information or sign up: www.homelesshotspots.org. The brief biographies of each participant on the website reveal their positive responses to the opportunity to make some cash and to be noticed by the public.
The Front Steps Shelter website is: http://www.frontsteps.org/
The BBH blog that explains their rationale for the experiment is: http://bbh-labs.com/homeless-hotspots-a-charitable-experiment-at-sxswi. If you want to encourage them in this enterprise, you can leave comments here. You can also directly contact Saneel Radia the Director of Innovation of BBH New York at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @saneel