I'm not in Austin for the SXSW extravaganza, but from here, I don't see what the problem is with the Homeless Hotspots project from ad agency BBH (Bartle Bogle & Hegarty). Maybe there's more to it that the folks who are in Austin are seeing, but from my perspective, it seems like some are making a mountain out of a mole hill.
Here's the story, as explained by Jenna Wortham in today's New York Times and, increasingly, on blogs and online sites. The crowds who flock to SXSW include tons of techies. What began as a pure music festival has blossomed into an event that is more about marketing to young people and trendsetters than it's about the music. And with everyone constantly on the cellphones tweeting the latest happenings and texting photos and videos, the cellphone towers tend to get overwhelmed and internet service slows the a crawl.
So BBH decided to hire people hooked up with WiFi transmitters to walk through the crowds, making them portable WiFi hotspots. Pretty clever, I'd say.
But here's the rub that has sparked controversy and an online storm of criticism... instead of hiring pretty young women and men from college, BBH hired homeless men to be the hotspots. They paid each person $20 per day and let them keep donations from the public who logged on using their WiFi hotspots. The ad agency worked with a local homeless shelter to design the program, with the intent of helping a few needy individuals and calling attention to the plight of homeless in general.
From what I'm reading -- and admitedly, I'm not on site so I may be missing something -- it seems like the project has been done in a dignified manner. It doesn't look like the men are being used in a demeaning way.
The Homeless Hotspots site, in fact, has brief blurb about each of the volunteers, and gives a brief backstory on how or why the men are in their present bad situation. Clarence Jones, for instance, became homeless (or "houseless" as he prefers to say) after Hurricae Katrina destroyed his New Orleans home, and he's had trouble recovering financially. Jason has been homeless since he was released from prison (for a non-violent crime) four months ago. Jeffrey suffered traumatic brain injury and has been unable to find work, even as payments for his rehabilitation treatments ran out. The project seems like it's trying to show that many homeless people are victims of bad situations and bad luck that they just couldn't climb out of.
It would have been nice if BBH could have paid these guys a little more for their time. Depending how many hours they worked, I wonder if they were making minimum wage.
But I don't see this effort as exploitive. True, as some have pointed out, there's an odd juxtaposition between homeless people and some very wealthy folks who attend or exhibit tech products at SXSW. But isn't there a similar disparity when you have super-rich people at a fundraising event, being served their food by minimum wage hotel workers or being handed towels by mimimum wage bathroom attendants? Lowly as the job might seem to many of us, the workers have the dignity of performing a job and earning for it.
We can't all be internet multimillionaires, after all.
So I think all the criticism is misplaced and unfair. I don't see what BBH did as PR stunt. And perhaps some of the publicity will help bring to light the serious problem of homelessness in this, the richest of all nations.