Hello, I’m homeless #SXSW

I’m tracking the response to a campaign called Homeless Hotspots. Have you heard of it?

Taking place during SXSW Interactive, homeless men are employed to be 4G hotspots as a service to attendees of SXSWi. Attendees can pay what they like to plug into the 4G device, with a suggested donation of $2 for 15 minutes. The money goes directly to the homeless person selling you access.

This is real. Needless to say, some people are outraged.

An ad agency called BBH New York came up with the idea and contacted the Austin nonprofit Front Steps. I talked to Mitchell Gibbs of Front Steps about it today.

“I got a call from BBH and they said, ‘We have this idea,'” remembers Gibbs. “They wanted to pilot this idea at SXSW. But being a little jaded after all these years at a nonprofit, I did a little homework on them.”

Gibbs saw that BBH had executed a couple other projects where they interacted with homeless people, and he was impressed. “They built this awareness into their culture,” he says. “It was pretty genuine.”

In the end, Gibbs says, Front Steps told them that it couldn’t really commit to the idea, but if its clients wanted to participate, that was their prerogative. Front Steps listed it as an income opportunity like other jobs, and 18 of its clients raised their hands to fill 10 spots.

Each homeless person who participates is armed with a 4G device (purchased at retail price by BBH New York), given a $20 a day stipend and whatever they can collect from users. There are no sponsors and no one is profiting from this except the homeless participants. On Friday morning, they were ready to go. And then it rained.

Still, they went out there. But interactions were few and far between, with attendees ducking from awning to awning to stay dry. Despite that, people questioned what was going on. Were these homeless people being used for a stunt at SXSW? Were they being taken advantage of? When Gibbs noted the negative media coming in around the Homeless Hotspots project, he offered his clients an out.

“We talked about the questions they might anticipate going out there again,” he says. Their response was heartbreaking.

“They said this was their choice to participate. They think of it like any other job. These are the same people who sign up to build the stages for music festivals. To them, this is a day labor job.

“But they were really energetic around the interaction piece,” says Gibbs. “They loved being able to interact with people and having the opportunity to tell their story. They said, ‘These are the same guys who would walk past me without a second look, and now I get a chance to tell them what its like being homeless and what it would take to get me out of this.'”

This isn’t the only homeless-awareness scheme on the scene at SXSW. Mobile Loaves & Fishes with ReWork launched “Street Treats,” employing homeless people to sell ice cream on the streets.

MLF is the same organization that brought us the “I Am Here” campaign with Austin ad agency T3, which put a homeless man on a billboard that urged drivers to text a donation, and kept him up there until he raised enough to buy a converted RV home.

And if you’re looking for more outlets for your misplaced outrage, there’s also the iHobo app, which makes a pet out of a virtual homeless person.

Are homeless people being taken advantage of? They’re making money, meeting people, staying busy. Homeless people suffer not only because they’re broke, but also because they are ignored and invisible. Work reminds them of the inherent dignity we all possess.

That’s not so say you should plug in, pay and move on. The idea with this pilot, I think, is to make us talk about what these homeless participants are really suffering through. And I don’t think being a human hotspot is the worst of it.



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