Critics of South by Southwest's Homeless Hotspots Haven't Met Jonathan Hill

Posted by Tim Fernholz

The backlash against Austin's Homeless Hotspot program began as soon as the attendees at SXSW’s interactive began tweeting about the 13 homeless men and one woman who are carrying mobile hotspots in their pockets and hawking internet access on street corners.

From Wired’s Tim Carmody to ReadWriteWeb’s Jon Mitchell, critics (many not even in Austin) saw the program as dehumanizing and lacking in follow-through, a microcosm of the corporatized horror-tech future that SXSW represents at its worst. "Helpless pieces of privilege-extending human infrastructure," Mitchell called them.

I had a similar reaction when I met Clarence, pictured above, who cheerfully and loudly advertised his wares outside the Austin Convention Center on Sunday, and saw the reductionist 'I am a hotspot' copy on his shirt. The next morning I woke up to an e-mail about the issue from a colleague back in Los Angeles with the commentary “not sure how I feel about this!”

So I went to the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, a shelter and social services center managed by Front Steps, a nonprofit that helps the homeless, to talk to the team behind the program and the homeless people who volunteered to participate. Despite outrage about the homeless hotspots at SXSW, the participants and their advocates say it's a positive experiment.

Jonathan Hill II, one of the participants, said he doesn't find the job demeaning. In fact, he likes it better than his usual SXSW work doing manual labor at music venues, largely because it offered a chance to talk to some of the thousands of the attendees at the program, who normally ignore the roughly 6,000-strong homeless population in Austin—or worse. The copious free drinks and increased drug use that comes with the festival can create problems for homeless people struggling with substance abuse issues. Rowdy late night crowds lead to homeless Austinites being harassed by drunken out-of-towners.

Hill, Gibbs and Saneel Radia, head of innovation at BBH, the ad agency that organized the program, says the homeless hotspots program creates an opportunity for engagement and fighting stereotypes. “People see what they see [at the homeless shelter] without going in and asking people," Hill says. "We need to smash this stereotype that the homeless are hopeless."

Mitchell Gibbs, Front Steps' director of development and communications, who works with the homeless every day in Austin and has worked in social services in Austin for 15 years, told me he almost shut the program down Monday morning after the overnight spate of bad press—the hotspots weren’t well noticed the first two days because rainy weather kept many attendees off the streets—for fear that participants would be harassed. The organizers told participants what was being said about their work, and asked if they wanted to end the program a day early (with no financial penalty). The participants unanimously decided to keep going despite the backlash. “When was the last time they came to our facility? When was the last time they reached out to the homeless?” Gibbs asks of the critics.

Radia and his team work on the program in a small, concrete conference room in the shelter, upstairs past a metal detector in the funky-smelling lobby where 15 or 20 people hang around the entrance. It’s a bit different than the crass glitziness of most of SXSW gatherings.

Radia doesn’t claim his program is going to solve homelessness. His firm regularly sends staff to SXSW: Interactive, and they saw it as an opportunity to do something creative to promote an important social issue (and their company) on a big stage. He describes the homeless hotspot program as an experiment, trying to create a test case that brings the model of street newspapers into the internet age. Street newspapers create three main opportunities for homeless people, he says: to engage productively with strangers, to make money, and to create content. 

The homeless hotspot program replicates that success by forcing people to talk to the volunteers before they can access the internet (the print on their t-shirts is small to force people to come close) and make money. While it doesn’t give them the opportunity to create content, neither do most street newspapers—they rely on a small staff of regular contributors to write while most participants act as the sales force. In Austin, the primary street newspaper, the Austin Advocate, hasn’t published for 18 months.

Radia’s firm had tried giving a larger voice to the homeless before with an initiative called Unheard, an experiment that asked four homeless people to share their experiences on Twitter for two months. That experiment, among other pro bono activities the agency has pursued, helped win over Gibbs and Front Steps. “My first reaction was, ‘Here’s some more people looking to take advantage of the homeless,’” Gibbs said. But he investigated BBH’s track record and was convinced of their good intentions. He laid down some ground rules for the program: It would be voluntary, treated like any of the job opportunities his staff connects clients with, and run through Front Steps’ case managers, who work with homeless people to help them make the changes they need to find homes and jobs.

The volunteers are paid a stipend of $20 a day (Radia's team had proposed a higher figure, but their partners at Front Steps recommended a lower one) plus whatever they earn from their wireless sales; their personal stories are recounted on the program’s website. The wireless hotspots were purchased by BBH and the program was launched without any corporate sponsorship.

While Radia isn’t sure if the experiment will be successful—his team will run the numbers to see if the model is sustainable and scalable—he hopes the conversations springing up around the program will raise awareness of a problem many city dwellers step around every day and produce more efforts to use technology to help people transition out of homelessness.

Gibbs says the program doesn't address the root cause of homelessness in Austin—a lack of affordable housing—but he isn't complaining about a program that helped some of his clients earn some money and share their stories. “If BBH had approached the Girl Scouts, or the Boys and Girls Club, would the reaction have been the same?” Gibbs asks. “It’s an entrepreneurial opportunity. These folks get to collect the benefits of the sale, [and they are] folks who don’t want to become invisible.”

A real-life contrast are the volunteers, sponsored by FedEx, who walk around the convention wearing jackets (in 80-degree weather) festooned with USB ports so people can gather around them to charge their phones and other electronic devices. The promotion struck me as rather dystopian, but I didn’t hear many complaints about the program dehumanizing the human chargers, or any other number of ridiculously demeaning publicity stunts at the festival—yes, there are “booth babes” at SXSW.

That's not to say BBH isn't benefitting from having their agency's name in front of the many attendees at the festival, although perhaps the critical press will leave them more tarnished than they had hoped. But whatever problems exist in their model, it seems strange to criticize one of the only companies in a sea of mindless self-promotion that is advertising itself while having a positive impact, however small, on people who need a helping hand. 

The homeless hotspots created this controversy largely because of the idea that homeless people are somehow different from everyone else. But when you actually speak to people like Clarence, Jonathan, and their advocates, you realize they aren’t much different from the thousands of other folks trying to make a buck off the festival—except that in so doing they’re also publicizing an important social issue that makes many people uncomfortable. “Some of us are educated, some of us had jobs, we’ve fallen on hard times,” Hill says. “Everyone is a paycheck away.”