In what has become a highly controversial move, advertising agency BBH transformed some of Austin’s homeless people into mobile hotspots during SXSW Interactive. Thirteen homeless from Austin’s Front Steps shelter donning an “I’m a 4G hotspot” T-shirt and armed with a MiFi were strategically placed throughout SXSW and offered internet access around their personal location to attendees.
Attendees were encouraged to donate money to the “Homeless Hotspots” based on the amount of time they spent online, with a suggested donation of $2 for every 15 minutes. Money was collected via PayPal, with all of the proceeds of a hotspot going directly to the homeless person who was wearing it.
Each homeless hotspot’s location was tracked on a virtual map, and logging on to the website allowed you to find your closest hotspot, as well as learn more about the person wearing it. The test program was designed to be a modernized version of the Street Newspaper, a paper that is created and sold by the homeless as a form of income. Rather than being seen as a way to help the homeless, however, many SXSW attendees saw the hotspots as something that made the homeless be seen as products rather than people.
In a statement on its blog, BBH defended its actions, “Obviously, there’s an insane amount of chatter about this, which although certainly villianizes us, in many ways is very good for the homeless people we’re trying to help: homelessness is actually a subject being discussed at SXSW and these people are no longer invisible.”
At least one of homeless involved in the project, Melvin, agreed: “I would say 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. That’s a good side of it, too — we get to talk to people. Maybe give them a different perception of what homeless is like,” he says in an interview with Buzzfeed.