'Homeless Hotspots' Stir Controversy at SXSW

Marketing Firm, Front Steps Shelter Attract Attention at Tech Conference

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By Jonathan Moormann, Christian Post Contributor
March 13, 2012|2:04 pm

Although this year's SXSW featured a number of tech industry up-and-comers, one of the biggest stories of the conference centered on a controversial plan to let the homeless act as roving Wi-Fi hot spots.

These so-called "Homeless Hotspots" are the brainchild of Saneel Radia, Head of Innovation at advertising firm Bartle Bogle Hagarty New York.

As Radia put it in a post on BBH's website, "These are homeless individuals in the Case Management program at Front Steps Shelter. They're carrying MiFi devices. Introduce yourself, then log on to their 4G network via your phone or tablet for a quick high-quality connection. You pay what you want… and whatever you give goes directly to the person that just sold you access."

Radia says that the idea for the project came from improving on the model of "street newspapers," in which homeless individuals create and distribute newspapers to earn a profit without begging.

"We're believers that providing a digital service will earn these individuals more money than a print commodity," Radia explained.

In addition to "Homeless Hotspots," BBH also created a program last year called "Underheard in NY" which sought to create more awareness of homelessness by giving homeless individuals Twitter accounts.

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Still, not everyone shares Radia's excitement for the program.

According to The New York Times reporter David Gallagher, "It is a neat idea on a practical level, but also a little dystopian."

The program has also lit up Twitter and other social networks, with SXSW attendees and observers calling it everything from "unseemly" to "a Swiftian parody."

Front Steps Shelter, the homeless outreach group that cooperated with BBH on the program, still maintains that the participants benefit from the project and enjoy the work.

As Front Steps spokesman Mitchell Gibbs told BuzzFeed, "I think the fit [with Front Steps] is in the empowerment, education, and encouragement of the client to earn an income while saving the majority of those earnings with a goal of moving to safe and stable housing."

The Christian Post's calls to BBH were not returned by time of press. 

 

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