Homeless people carry Wi-Fi signals at SXSW: Exploitive or Entrepreneurial?

Posted: March 14, 2012 in homelessness
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A charitable marketing program that paid homeless people to carry Wi-Fi signals at South By Southwest has drawn widespread debate at the annual Austin conference and around the country. 

BBH Labs, a unit of the global marketing agency BBH, gave 13 people from Austin’s Front Steps Shelter mobile Wi-Fi devices and T-shirts that announced “I am a 4G Hotspot.” The company paid them $20 up front and a minimum of $50 a day for about six hours work, said Emma Cookson, chairwoman of BBH New York.

She called the experiment a modernized version of homeless selling street newspapers. All of the money paid for Wi-Fi — an often difficult thing to find at SXSW — went to the participants, who were selected in partnership with Front Steps. ($2 was the recommended donation for 15 minutes of use.)

But many have called the program exploitative.

Wired.com wrote that it “sounds like something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia.”

Technology blog ReadWriteWeb called it a “blunt display of unselfconscious gall.” The topic became one of the most popular in the country on Twitter by Tuesday.

I’ve been homeless before and believe me, it’s no walk in the park. I donated plasma, found odd jobs and did whatever I could legally just to sustain myself from day to day. If something like this came around when I was homeless I’d be one of the first ones in line. They are working and getting paid from the private sector, not from some government program.

Do these critics think it would be better to keep them in abandoned warehouses where they would be kept safely out of sight? I don’t understand the controversy. BBH Labs managed to find some temporary employment for homeless people and folks are complaining about this? Would they be less critical of a restaurant owner who pays minimum wage to a homeless person to wear a chicken suit in front of their fast food restaurant?

Especially when some of the homeless who volunteered to carry Wi-Fi at SXSW made more money in a day than some of the members of some bands playing there. If fact, many of the bands that play SXSW end up paying to play there. http://www2.metrotimes.com/news/story.asp?id=4737

According to Community Action Network, poverty and lack of affordable housing are the two primary reasons that people become and remain homeless. For housing to be considered “affordable” a person/family should spend no more than 30% of his or her gross household income on housing. (U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development– HUD) Stable and affordable housing is the critical first step for individuals and families to gain employment and become self-sufficient.

Here are some interesting facts about Austin’s homeless community:

• On any given day, there are approximately 4,000 homeless individuals of which 1,900 are downtown. (Homeless Count 2004)

• Over 1,500 children are affected by homelessness in the Austin Independent School District.

• High Cost of Living Contributes to Homelessness. Austin has the highest housing costs for an urban area in Texas (Texas A&M Real Estate Center Report 2005)

• Low wages Contribute to Homelessness. Of the top ten occupational categories in the Austin area, nearly 30% of those jobs have a median wage of less than $10/hour. (WorkSource)

• The Homeless Stay in the Community. 41.2% of the homeless have lived in the Austin area more than 5 years. (Homeless Task Force, 2004 Survey)

Homelessness often precludes good nutrition and homeless children often experience physical and mental development delays:

• Homeless children suffer more health problems than housed children: 38% of children in homeless shelters have asthma, middle ear infection prevalence is 50% higher than national average, and over 60% of homeless children are under-vaccinated (Redlener & Johnson, 1999)

• Nearly one-fifth of homeless children repeat a grade in school and 16% are enrolled in special education classes –33% higher than housed children; much of this is due to their high mobility rate (Institute for Children & Poverty, 2001)

• At least 20% of homeless children do not attend school. Within a year, 41% of homeless children will attend at least two different schools; 28% of homeless children will attend three or more different schools.

ECHO is Austin’s HUD designated Continuum of Care (CoC) for Austin & Travis County. ECHO is charged with providing dynamic proactive leadership that engages policy makers and the community in ending homelessness. In order to accomplish this, ECHO engages in a variety of activities including serving as the homeless planning entity for the community; and advocating for homeless issues and solutions. 

Interestingly, Austin’s COC has been silent on this issue. I would think that since part of its mission is to advocate for homeless issues and solutions that they would not only support such a venture, but also implement a similar program in its homeless community.

I hope in the future more communities and organizations can implement these types of programs that allow low income people the ability to earn some extra money while retaining some of their dignity.

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Comments
  1. Sounds like a good way to help the homeless to me!

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