Guest column: SXSW’s ‘Homeless Hotspots’ respectable

Taylor Balkom

Ever consider using homeless people as mobile hotspots?

Rethink possible.

This year’s South by Southwest festival is doing just that. The annual music, film and interactive conference, running through March 18, started off with the long-anticipated premiere of “The Cabin in the Woods,” a film by Joss Whedon set to be released in April 2012, and the release and performance of Andrew Bird’s new album, “Break It Yourself.” But the festival has been overshadowed by controversy surrounding British marketing firm Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s use of the homeless from around the country as mobile 4G hotspots.

Multiple homeless men wander the conference floor wearing T-shirts that say “I’m ___, a 4G hotspot,” followed by a number to text if you want to use PayPal to pay for Internet access. They carry the physical hotspot in their pockets and have a set location to stay around.

The service immediately sparked debates all over the Internet. The New York Times’ David Gallagher called the plan “a little dystopian,” and a quick Twitter search for #homelesshotspots found several people on both sides of the argument.

Until BBH reveals malicious intentions, I’m behind its message.

A knee-jerk reaction would consider how horrifying it is that these poor people are being used as objects, and aren’t they?

Saneel Radia, head of innovation at BBH New York, is aware of these concerns, and spoke to news-aggregate website BuzzFeed about the issues.

“The worry is that these people are suddenly just hardware, but frankly, I wouldn’t have done this if I didn’t believe otherwise,” he said.

That’s a fair point, and I hope no one would treat other humans as hardware. After all, the homeless do get compensated for their work. All proceeds from paying for Internet access go toward that person’s salary.

So it can’t be all bad, right? It’s like an updated version of Street Newspapers, print publications written and sold by the homeless as a form of self-employment.

A job is a job.

Ohio native Melvin, a “Homeless Hotspot,” doesn’t mind the job. He told BuzzFeed that “these people are trying to help the homeless and increase awareness. They’re trying not to put us in a situation where we’re stereotyped.”

Melvin also liked how he gets to talk to people and, perhaps, give them an inside view of homelessness.

It’s a complex issue. On one hand, the homeless are given jobs and income, and this could be the first step toward reintegration in society. On the other hand, BBH could be using this program as an advertisement for its own services and not really care about the well-being of the homeless.

But is it that big of an issue if BBH gets publicity out of this? The Homeless Hotspots website says all donations go directly to whomever sells the access.

Is it unorthodox? Yes. Dystopian? Maybe not. Odd though it may be, these people are given jobs and an income while they work for BBH. That’s money to buy food, clothes and other necessities.

The homeless have long been glossed over on the streets by some.

Maybe now they’ll start paying attention.

The Daily Reveille, Louisiana State U. via UWIRE