Homeless Hotspots: Exploitation Or Innovation?

An advertising agency sparked controversy at the South by Southwest technology conference when it hired homeless people in Austin to act as "Homeless Hotspots." Critics charge that it exploits the homeless. But Megan Garber, a staff writer for The Atlantic, sees some good in the project.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:

There is usually no shortage of creativity at the South by Southwest interactive festival in Austin. But this year, one innovation has been controversial: homeless hotspots - a project where homeless people are given wireless cards, and people can approach them to exchange donations for access to the Internet. Critics of the project say it's exploiting the homeless. But Megan Garber of The Atlantic thinks otherwise. We'll get her take in a second. But first, we'd like to hear from you.

Is this project an opportunity for the homeless or exploitation? Call us at 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, or you can join the conversation at our website, go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Megan Garber is a staff writer for The Atlantic magazine. Her piece titled "Wi-Fi Hotspots Made of Homeless People: Not as Horrible as They Seem." It ran on The Atlantic website on March 12th. And she joins us now from studios at The Atlantic here in Washington. Megan, welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION.

MEGAN GARBER: Hi. Thanks. Glad to be here.

LUDDEN: So first, you write it is perfectly OK to be offending at first glance by this project. You call it digital colonialism. So let me ask you what was your first reaction?

GARBER: My first reaction was that this was horrible and exploitative, a little bit dystopian, actually. But really the more I thought about it, the more I just thought, you know, it's a business opportunity like any other for homeless people that don't get very many business opportunities. And I think if any other type of person were, you know, afforded this opportunity, we wouldn't have any problem with it at all. It seems that homelessness itself is the main issue here. And I don't think it should be.

LUDDEN: So tell us, how does it work? Who is the company that's sponsoring this, and how does it actually work?

GARBER: The company is called BBH, which stands for Bartle, Bogle and Hagerty. They're the marketing firm that also did the Axe Body Spray commercials, if you remember those. And basically - I mean, one of their main points was just to get the word out about homelessness and the problems that it has. And it's done...

LUDDEN: So it's a marketing ploy which we could say should be judged very successful so far because we're sitting here talking about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GARBER: Exactly. They definitely got the word out. That is very true.

LUDDEN: OK. Duly noted.

GARBER: And they have actually done programs before. Yes, definitely. They ran a program before in New York City called Unheard New York, where they were trying to empower people to tell their story by giving them phones that they could use to have Twitter accounts and tell their stories via social media. So this isn't the first time that they have experimented actually with charitable initiatives.

LUDDEN: But - so how does it work, though? There's, as I understand it, 15 homeless people taking part. And what happens?

GARBER: That's right. So the 15 homeless people were given basically mobile devices where they would have the devices and they basically converted themselves into mobile hotspots, the same kind that you would have at Starbucks or something like that. And then people who are attending the conference can get sort of immediate Wi-Fi access through those devices.

LUDDEN: Because this is all these high-tech techies down there who can't stand to be off network...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GARBER: Exactly.

LUDDEN: ...even when they're crossing the street, is that the idea?

GARBER: Exactly. And one of the common complaints about the conference - very ironically - is that because there are so many people there using so many devices, the Web access is actually not very good.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GARBER: So this is good. This is actually trying to solve - believe it or not - a market problem at the conference.

LUDDEN: So there's not a set fee. People just give what they want for this access?

GARBER: Exactly. It's - you can give what you want. They suggest about $2 or so, but it can completely vary. The volunteers also get paid a set fee of $20 just for their work. So it's basically, you know, doing work at the conference, just like, you know, you would do if you were helping set up, you know, the stands or the tables or anything like that.

LUDDEN: And do we have any sense what they're making?

GARBER: They have not released the numbers yet. All that they have told me in my reporting is that the people who tend to be a little bit more gregarious and who really engage conference-goers and conversation and talk and really make a point of telling their story, they make a lot more money, but they've not released the exact numbers.

LUDDEN: OK. And they've actually put some of their stories online. Can you tell us a little bit about the people that are taking part in this?

GARBER: Sure. So the main theme seems to be that, you know, people just really want their stories to be told. They want to sort of take away a little bit of the curiosity, I guess, about homelessness, and they want to sort of make the point that this is not a choice. This is something that happened to me. There's one man, Clarence, who was a victim of Hurricane Katrina. There are other people who - there's one person who was a victim of traumatic brain injury, and so he's had trouble finding jobs. And just a lot of different stories that, I think, make the condition of homelessness a lot more relatable.

LUDDEN: All right. Let's take a call from a listener. Jonathan is in Hammond, Indiana. Hi there.

JONATHAN: Hi. How are you doing?

LUDDEN: Good. Go right ahead.

JONATHAN: All right. So I was saying that I think that the company is exploiting the image or stigma around homelessness negatively. And that I think that if this, you know, if the company was going to - was willing to do this around, you know, a bookstore or a coffee shop that this really wouldn't be a question that NPR would host kind of thing, because they're just like, yeah, you know, like we would take it in stride as a society. But I think that this company is exploiting the image of homelessness.

And while there might be some people around that have fallen on hard economic times, veterans, people that have had medical issues that - on a flipside, there's also those people that just - I don't want to say are taking their chunks(ph), but, you know, are buying illicit drugs and alcohol. And so there's that fine line between, you know, how do we support the homeless versus, you know, the company image that they're projecting by doing this.

LUDDEN: So if you were down there, Jonathan, say you're at the conference and crossing the street, wanting to check your email or something, would you take part in this program and buy access or no?

JONATHAN: I, personally, would not. I think that I have done my fair share of supporting, you know, shelters and places where the homeless can go in a positive manner to, you know, get their feet back under them. And so I would not participate in this.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, thanks for the call.

JONATHAN: All right. Thank you very much.

LUDDEN: So, Megan, I guess it's a common reaction there.

GARBER: I think it is, and I think it's a great point because it really is a fine line. I mean, you know, empowering and exploitation - there can be a really small space between the two. And I think all of that is right. I think there are also problems with the optics of it, you know? The whole program is called Homeless Hotspots. So the implication is not that homeless people are using the idea of hotspot to empower themselves, it really conveys this idea of the homeless person being used as a hotspot. And I think, you know, there are problematic things with that.

So, you know, I'm not 100 percent in favor of the way that the program has been marketed. But I think that ultimately, you know, the people are making a choice to participate in the program. They're hoping to use it to tell their story. So I think, you know, in the whole, it's for a good cause, and I think it's a good thing. But it's a very good point. This is not 100 percent without problems.

LUDDEN: And you've written that it kind of juxtaposes poverty and privilege. I mean, the idea of someone sitting there, checking their high-powered friend's email next to - I guess it can make for some uncomfortable situations or maybe some engaging situations.

GARBER: Exactly. And I think the point that it can do both is actually a good thing because, frankly, this is something that we should be talking about. And there are homeless people in Austin just like there are homeless people in most cities. And I think, you know, the tendency is just to ignore it and to say, well, that's not my problem. It's, you know, I'm not part of this conference. And I appreciate that BBH is trying to sort of juxtapose, you know, the real world reality with the digital potential that's being explored at the conference.

LUDDEN: All right. We have an email from Katie in Berlin, New Hampshire, who says: Just got back from South by Southwest. Thought the Wi-Fi homeless idea was great. She says: There are two things always in short supply at South by Southwest - taxis and Wi-Fi. If we can help the homeless and solve a problem at the same time, I think it's great. A lot better than making them drive Pedi cabs. OK. Let's take a phone call here. Troy in Richmond, Virginia. Hi there.

TROY: Hi. How's it going?

LUDDEN: Good.

TROY: I wanted to chime in on the homeless - the hotspot issue.

LUDDEN: We'd love to hear your opinion.

TROY: I think it's both. I think it definitely is exploitation, but I don't necessarily believe that exploitation, in this manner, is a bad thing if it's regulated. So it may give the homeless person a chance to network. Just because they're homeless doesn't mean they don't have skills and don't have an ability to get back into the workforce. So I think that's good. On the other hand, I think that they need to be fairly compensated. It's like it should go in with, like, a union right from the beginning of some sort is my opinion.

LUDDEN: OK. That's an interesting idea. All right. Thank you so much. Let's take another quick call here. Robert in New Haven, Connecticut. Go right ahead.

ROBERT: Yes. Hi. I completely agree with your guest. I think - and I think she has really said all the right things. I would just contribute one thing that I've been in two places where there have been bottle bills introduced. And one of the arguments against a bottle bill...

LUDDEN: And you might tell us what that is?

ROBERT: Right. Collecting cans and bottles, bring a deposit on cans and bottles. One of the arguments against them has been that it would be degrading to homeless people to be going around with shopping carts collecting all of these cans and bottles. Well, you know, that's looking out for other people's - I don't think it's necessarily such a altruistic view. And, in fact, it's an argument that the bottlers, particularly, like to make. It benefits everybody. And there are a lot of opportunities for this population to get a job and to connect with other people. I think it's very good on many levels. I'm in favor of it.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, thanks for calling. Megan Garber, the organizers have said that they kind of see this as modernizing the - little businesses you see of homeless people selling newspapers that they have produced on the streets, that kind of newspapers are old fashioned. People don't actually read them anymore, but this is something people could really use, and it's kind of a business concept.

GARBER: Exactly. And I think they're really focused on allowing the people themselves to tell their stories. So that's why, you know, there's conversation involved. You don't just enter a code to get the Wi-Fi access. You actually talk to the people. And they're trying to frame it very entrepreneurially. They're not, you know, like I mentioned, there is this sort of human hotspot framing, but the way that they also talk about it is that the homeless people are actually managers of these technological devices. And, you know, they're selling a product, and part of what they're doing to sell that product is telling their stories. So they're really trying to bring that newspaper idea of, you know, the narrative, the empowering narrative, to the technological world.

LUDDEN: And do you have any idea if there are plans to expand this experiment?

GARBER: Well, it will depend on the success of the experiment. And I think part of the success will be determined by how much money the people actually make. But I really do applaud the idea of, you know, trying to use new technologies to find new ways to help people. And I think as much as we can talk about this being exploitative, I mean, bottom line, these people are volunteering for the program. They're excitedly volunteering. They actually applied for it and, you know, went through a fairly rigorous process to be part of it. So I think, ultimately, that says everything - that they want to be involved.

LUDDEN: And 15 was the limit, but more people wanted to take part.

GARBER: Right.

LUDDEN: Did you speak with the homeless shelter that is also taking part in this, that is sponsoring those?

GARBER: I did not. I spoke to the head of innovation at BBH, who was running it. I'm unfortunately not in Austin. So I was hoping I could actually talk to some of the people who are on the street there and get that perspective. But I've had to rely on other reporters to do that.

LUDDEN: All right. But you've got free - lots of Wi-Fi here in D.C., so...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GARBER: Exactly. Not as much of a problem for me.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, Megan Garber is a staff writer for The Atlantic, and she joined us from studios at the magazine here in Washington. You can find a link to her piece at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And, Megan, thanks so much.

GARBER: Thank you.

LUDDEN: You are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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