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Controversy About "Homeless Hotspots" at SXSW

Homeless HotspotAt South by Southwest (SXSW), a music, film, and technology conference, a marketing agency had an idea to help attendees get online. BBH Labs gave 13 people from a homeless shelter devices and T-shirts that give people Internet access, a hot commodity at the high-tech conference.

The program, "Homeless Hotspots," has been criticized by the New York Times and others. A writer for the New York Times SXSW blog asks, "When the infrastructure fails us… we turn human beings into infrastructure?" Tim Carmody of Wired.com said it “sounds like something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia.” To many, the concept feels exploitative, a way of using homeless people to support the wealthy and connected.

Defenders of the program say it's a clever way to raise awareness about homelessness. Mitchell Gibbs, the director of development at Front Steps, from where the homeless people were recruited, supported the program. BBH says the program is modeled after Street News, a newspaper about homeless people sold by homeless people. BBH also clarified that participants at SXSW were given $20 each day and are keeping whatever money they get when people donate online.

Discussion Starters:

  • What's your view of the program? Is it clever, exploitative, or something else?
  • If you were at the SXSW conference, how you think you might feel about using one of the hotspots?