A Network of Support

Rachael Levy writes in Slate:

“If you’re looking for WiFi at the South by Southwest tech conference this week, instead of heading to a cafe or bumming off of a neighbor, you might just ask a homeless person.

That’s right. New York-based advertising agency BBH Labs introduced a trial run of its new project, called “Homeless Hotspots,” at the tech startup conference in Austin, which started Friday. While potentially practical, the pilot program isn’t exactly getting rave reviews from everyone.

Wired magazine reports that the homeless individuals hawking the service were recruited from a local shelter and are walking around carrying MiFi devices (techspeak for mobile WiFi hotpots) and wearing t-shirts with this:

I’M [FIRST NAME],
A 4G HOTSPOT
SMS HH [FIRST NAME]
TO 25827 FOR ACCESS
www.homelesshotspots.org

Those who wish to connect to the 4G network offer a donation that goes directly to the homeless person. BBH Labs recommends a $2 donation per 15 minutes of use—which can be paid through PayPal—but leaves the ultimate payment up to each Internet user.

BBH Labs has described the program as a possible auto-entrepreneurship project akin to programs in which homeless persons sell locally produced street papers, only better. “We’re believers that providing a digital service will earn these individuals more money than a print commodity,” the company wrote on its blog.

But the program, which BBH reiterated on Monday was meant only as an experiment during the tech show, has faced plenty of scrutiny in the blogosphere. BuzzFeed writes that the controversy, which largely centered around the ethics of using humans as walking commodities, even earned its own Twitter hashtag on Sunday night, with one angry Twitter user asking whether anyone else thought using homeless people as wireless hotspots was “disturbing, dehumanizing, offensive?

One homeless vendor at the conference spoke of the mixed reactions to CNN: “Some people want nothing to do with it, for whatever reason.” But the man also added: “I think it’s a great thing. It’s an opportunity.”

I don’t find the “Homeless Hotspot” program “disturbing, dehumanizing, and offensive”: the people participating in the program are doing so voluntarily, providing a service in exchange for pay, and presumably they are participating because participating makes them better off than not participating.

What is dehumanizing, however, is the idea that homeless people are too stupid, or too poor, or too homeless to decide for themselves whether a temporary existence as a paid source of public Internet access is worthwhile.

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46 thoughts on “A Network of Support

  1. Yeah, this seems weird to me, too.  Aren’t we *all* walking commodities in one way or another, if you look at it from a slanted enough perspective?

    Shoot, this seems like a great way to crowdsource hot spots when needed.  I might have a problem with it if the startup cost, mostly hidden, was hung on the guy/gal’s head, but I haven’t heard anything of that sort.

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  2. Having worked with lots of homeless people i don’t have a problem with this so far. That said this seems sort of weird, which doesn’t mean its a bad idea, just a bit of a huh idea. I would hope the shelter and the company are screening the candidates well so there aren’t any embarrassing incidents which would lead to smears about the homeless.

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  3. Is it quibbling to take issue with the semantics of the shirt? I would have less of a problem with this if it said ‘I operate a 4g hotspot.’ ‘I AM a 4g hotspot’ seems a little too dehumanizing for a group of people whose main struggle consists in rehumanizing themselves in the eyes of others.

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    • I don’t think it’s entirely outside the realm of possibility, watching average folks pass by the “Homeless Need Help” signs, that they would find a 4G hotspot to be more valuable than the person wearing the shirt.

      Basically, I see what you’re saying, but I think the “dehumanizing” bit reflects more on the audience than the homeless people in this story.

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    • I think that the first thing on the shirt is the person’s name is humanizing for sure. I would prefer to see “I operate” rather than “I am”. I feel like operator gives the sense of more control and respect.

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      • Respectfully, I disagree.  A shirt saying “I operate a hotspot” doesn’t define where that person operates a hotspot–it doesn’t say “right here right now” the same way “I am a hotspot” does.

        If I was wearing one, I’d take it as a bit tongue-in-cheek, too, not really dehumanizing.

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        • “A shirt saying ‘I operate a hotspot’ doesn’t define where that person operates a hotspot–it doesn’t say ‘right here right now’ the same way ‘I am a hotspot’ does.”

          This sounds like an added benefit to me. People may actually be compelled to speak to the person. Who knows, they might make a human connection.

          Yeah, I’m not sure dehumanizing is the right word. This feels like a slightly more mild word would be appropriate. Disrespectful?

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          • People may actually be compelled to speak to the person.

            Somehow I doubt it.  And while homeless folks definitely need human connections as much as anyone else, their first priority tends to be a sandwich and a pop.  Sitting around worrying over whether the shirt does enough for them is a luxury we have because we’re not them.

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    • I think if we are deconstructing the shirt (a nice, new clean shirt, don’t discount the power of that on a homeless person’s psyche) you have descended/ascended to rearranging the chairs on the Titanic/Space Shuttle. (Your choice depending on whether you like or dislike this program) When you’re day consists of shitting in the street with newspapers to clean yourself, rummaging for food, begging for change from people who avert their eyes, and sleeping in a cardboard box a service like this will stand or fall on it’s own merits and your decision to move forward will depend on how much it improves your life either economically or psychologically. The wording on the shirt is a problem for rich, first world people who have the time to parse such abstractions. I can’t think of anything less relevant to this situation than the wording on the shirt. Maybe the color of the shirt which should have been darker since a year from now when they are still being worn and haven’t been cleaned they wouldn’t show the filth so much.

      So yeah. I think you are quibbling.

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  4. I think the thing I find odd about this is, if you hired a bunch of middle class teenagers to do this on a summer afternoon, and get paid so that they could get s**t on iTunes when they go back to their house with dinner waiting, it would be totally cool.  But allowing a homeless person to do it is somehow… what?

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    • I agree; however, I don’t like to see anyone make piece rate. And the fact that it is a suggested donation makes it even worse. If it was a real paying gig (walk around for 8 h0urs and make minimum wage) I could get on board a little faster.

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      • If they were serious about the encouraging entrepeneurship then the vendor should be allowed to set a price and only serve those who pay. Of course the market might drive them to lower prices same as for any other business but the voluntary donation bit implies if you take this gig you have to serve customers even if they don’t pay, which is no way to move the homeless towards being financially self supporting.

        If this was business you’d have the added complication of who pays for the equipment but if finding funds can be made to work for other business models it should be adaptable to this one.

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        • I can agree with this, although it’s definitely a secondary question. It could be like a franchise system, where the individuals each pay a rental or use fee, can charge anything they like, and get to keep everything on top.

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    • So I was working at BC/BS Association on Michigan Avenue.   There’s a courtyard where the smokers go.   I’d go out there with my boss, who smoked.   I’ve always liked hanging around outside during work, gives me time to think and talk.

      Cities attract homeless people:  they eat out of dumpsters and find shelter in the myriad spaces out of the wind.   They’d come to that courtyard to cadge cigarettes from the smokers.   One of them was a guy named Crutch.

      Crutch disappeared for a few days, then came back.  He’d been to the hospital, with some fresh casts and ace bandages, sporting two crutches.   It’s a hot summer day, I’m waiting for the cross-town bus to take me from one side of the Loop to the train station.   Crutch is sitting on a bench, trying to re-wrap one of his ace bandages and doing a miserable job of it.

      I put down my bag and help him, it’s not the sort of thing anyone can do for themselves what with a big plaster cast.   Crutch is pretty ripe.

      “Say, Crutch, this looks pretty awful.   How did this happen?”

      “I got really drunk and took a bad fall.   Not the first time, either.”

      “Now Crutch, I’m not gonna preach any sermons at you, but when’s the last time you went to a meeting?”

      “Oh, I’ve tried to quit drinking.   My ex-wife left me over it.”

      “Crutch, I’m wrapping this bandage up nice and tight, and I’m doing it because Jesus Christ cared for people like you and me.   Like I said, no sermons.   But I want you to go to an AA meeting, okay.”

      “Yeah, I’ll do that for you.”

      Never saw Crutch again.   The homeless generally don’t move far from where they’re doing well.   I’d ask after him, when I’d see other homeless people.   One of them said they saw him, cleaned up.

      I do hope you’re sorta joking about this.   Nobody touches the homeless.   They stand right in front of us and most folks just pretend they’re not there.   They’re homeless for many reasons.  Many of them are mentally ill and off their medications.   Some of them are in the grip of addictions.   Maybe if we interacted with them just a little bit more, afforded them some semblance of humanity, they might have some hope.   Stand upwind of the homeless guy if you want to.   Just don’t pretend he enjoys his days and nights in the park.

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        • The military seems to un-train people for the civilian world.   It’s not combat which creates these guys, it’s peacetime.  The military is a lazy man’s paradise and a thinking man’s hell.   All your thinking is done for you:  it’s pointless to question why you’re doing anything.  In some respects, it’s rather like being in jail.   The food comes on schedule, the orders are as rigid as the walls, the routine is usually as predictable as tomorrow’s sunrise.

          The military did give me one invaluable skill which paid off in spades as a consultant:  learning to take an order from a complete fishing idiot, render a nice snappy salute, do an about face and go off to do something as idiotic as the idiot who gave me the order.   Old command sergeant major gave me a hint on how to stay sane in that situation:  just salute the guy’s hat.

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  5. I actually sat around with one of the hotspot guys last night, and talked about it with him (not the guy in the picture, but I did see that guy the other day). The only problem I have with it is that they’re only getting paid $20 per day up front, and they’re out there all day. They do get a cut of the money they bring in, but still. I don’t see the idea of letting homeless people work as sort of mobile hotspots as dehumanizing in any way, though. Given the way SxSW and this city usually hide the homeless people downtown during the festival, I’m actually glad that this makes at least some homeless people in this city visible to the 300,000+ privileged hipsters who descend on this town for 10 days.

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    • When I was in Vancouver, the city had a huge homeless population. I don’t know if this is true or not, but a lot of the locals told me that a lot of Van’s homeless originally came from Toronto: they were given free bus tickets to Vancouver when Toronto hosted the Olympics to avoid embarrassing the city. Since the weather in Vancouver is about a thousand times better than the weather in Toronto, a lot of them stayed. This was all before the Vancouver olympics, so I wonder if they got sent back.

      There are definitely some positive externalities of this program that are not being given due attention because of the whole nontroversy.

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  6. I find it difficult to see why some people here don’t seem to grasp how this project might credibly be viewed as dehumanizing. To be clear, I don’t think it’s necessarily dehumanizing.  But it still strikes me as potentially dehumanizing, and probably  more dehumanizing than most service jobs have a potential to be.  Unlike others, I’m not sure how I’d feel if I were in a position where wearing that shirt were among the more attractive income-earning choices available to me.

    If this type of thing takes off, it’s probably a good thing that a homeless person would have one more choice for income.  Having more choices makes one better off.  I get it.  But I’m not going to go to a homeless person and tell him or her how much better off they are now that they have more choices.  At least for the time being, I have a home and a job and a modicum of financial security.  If it’s condescending to deny homeless people the opportunity to make that choice (and I agree it is condescending), it’s also condescending for someone like me to wax avuncular and say, “good boy, now you have job.”  I admit that’s not necessarily the attitude that proponents of this project are adopting, but I can see how someone might be tempted to make that interpretation.

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    • I agree to a point, but as with all things it is not WHAT it is about, but HOW it goes about it doing it. But here is the thing. At this level in the economic ladder there are no choices that are not “potentially dehumanizing.” Hell, just being in that situation means you have already passed the “dehumanized” rung and are on the way down. Even taking advantage of valuable and useful charitable gifts for food and shelter are dehumanizing, though they are often part of the “re-humanizing process.” (as I would argue this service is) There is very little that is more dehumanizing than to admit to yourself that you are so poor and unable to support yourself you need to rely on others for food and shelter and donations of hotel toiletries to get a decent bath. (or go to the bathroom in the street or alley. It’s all fun and games when you are a drunk teenager on your way to a Phish show, but having no choice but to dump in an alley and nothing to clean yourself with but old newspapers is the epitome of “de-humanizing”)  Ask anyone who has relied on a soup kitchen for food about the FIRST time they walked in. Homeless people have no fixed address to put on job applications, no internet connection to look or apply for jobs, little access to bathing and toilets and no way to get new clothes or wash them? How are they ever going to get a job?  What are their options for a “humanizing experience”?

      At least this company is willing to but their brand and information on this and the process creates an open and audit-able paper trail. Just during the time it took me to write this someone, somewhere has offered to give a homeless person money in exchange for some menial task and then not paid them and possibly roughed them up a little.

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    • Just to clarify, I support the program because I support choice and free enterprise and I see the opposition as being against choice and free enterprise specifically because homeless people are involved. I don’t support the program out of any notion that I think it’s what’s best for the homeless participants (even though from the outside it seems like a clear improvement over what most homeless people normally do), but because it seems like they themselves do.

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        • I guess you could say that freedom of choice is restricted by biology in certain situations, but that kind of opens up a slippery slope argument to there being no choices at all.

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          • In research ethics, there are restrictions on compensation, as well as participant populations, for precisely this reason. Research requires informed consent, which, admittedly, is a pretty high standard. Everyone knows about the informed part, but there are rules for the consent part as well. Some of rules involve compensation (which is usually given either in the form of course credit for certain student populations or money for everyone else). Specifically, compensation can’t be too great ((we’ve generally offered $8/hr for behavioral studies and $50/hr for imaging studies) because the greater the compensation, the less people feel like they can not participate, and therefore the more problematic their consent is. Most labs also have rules about using homeless people as well, for the same reason (we’ve generally required that they be student, faculty, or staff for paid studies).

            I definitely think there’s something to this, and while there may be potential slippery slopes to avoid, I don’t think we can simply assume consent or choice when certain levels of need are involved. It’s something to work out, though, empirically and conceptually. In fact, I bet some work has been done on this. I’ll have to look it up later (unless someone here knows of that work).

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            • I don’t know of any such work, but I’d be interested in reading it as well.

              Your post reminds me of making money for beer by participating in business school studies as an undergraduate!

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      • Carr

        I think my comment was too punchy for the point I wanted to make, and I think I agree with you at least most of the way.  This job has for me a certain “it doesn’t feel right” quality to it, though.  Of course, my not “feeling right” isn’t really a basis for sound policy.

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