Blog Post

(de)humanizing the homeless?


In the March 12, online edition of the New York Times,  Jenna Wortham reported from SXSW about BBH Labs’ newest marketing venture, outfitting volunteers from a local homeless shelter to wear Wi-Fi transmitters and become “Homeless Hotspots.”  As you might imagine, there was some criticism.  Detractors called the venture exploitative and discomfiting, Wortham writes.  For their part, BBH Labs called it a charitable experiment.  Volunteers were given $20 for the day to walk around the festival, helping attendees connect to the web, wearing t-shirts that identified them by name and as a Hotspot.  Volunteers were allowed to keep any donations given them.

On its face, it does seem rather problematic.  After all, the company is paying roughly $2.50/hour if volunteers work a full 8 hours.  That’s fine if they were waiters or bartenders but given that the volunteers are much less well off, the company itself could have employed a bit more charity itself, perhaps paying volunteers $ 50 or even $100.  This is aside from the fact that in asking homeless people to act in service of others for minimal remuneration the company could be seen as taking advantage of a financially unstable population. This is apart from the fact that the name of the program signals that the person acting as a hotspot should be known by what they are, or where they live, rather than who they are. 

That said, however, there also are some positives in this experiment.  For one, volunteers are able to make an easy, honest dollar.  Wortham quotes one volunteer as saying he is social and appreciates the opportunity to work.  Perhaps most importantly, though, is that festival attendees eager to upload, download, share and tweet, were reminded what a privileged life those of us with computers and a “need” for constant access lead.  It’s easy to forget – and I include myself in this, btw – that not everyone has such easy access, or more pressing needs than 4 full bars.  This experiment was a stark reminder of the disparities that are always already present.

But where I think the program has gone a bit sideways is that it’s too difficult to tell if this is meant to be a lasting, leg up for folks, or just a short-term experiment that will drive folks to a website in order to drive buzz for a company.  Tim Carmody writes on Wired that his worry is that “[T]he homeless turned…into…walking, talking billboards for a program that doesn’t care anything at all about them or their future, so long as it can score a point or two about digital disruption of old media paradigms. So long as it can prove that the real problem with homelessness is that it doesn’t provide a service.”

I am in agreement with Carmody.  This campaign reminds me a little bit of the Benetton ads that featured death row inmates in 2000.  While bringing the issue of capital punishment directly in contact with (hyper)consumption , the company also managed to exploit those inmates and cause undue stress on the families of victims.  Back then, Benetton said they were doing it to prove a point: but the point was lost in the exploitative nature of the ads (inmates were not paid to model).  In the Homeless Hotspot case, I also fear this will happen.

The website for the program is quite thin.  It has three pages: Collaborators (volunteers), The Project, and Locations.  But there is no concrete information about homelessness in the US, in Texas, or Austin.  Although visitors can click on a link to PayPal funds to the shelter where the volunteers are staying, they are not directed to other local charitable organizations where they could help.  Volunteer’s stories are only a few sentences long. You get a glimpse of them, but no lasting impression.  It seems as if the project was created on the fly and will disappear just as quickly.  In the end, my jury still is out.  I am glad that the men who volunteered are able to earn some money and if it makes them happy and it is something they want or are proud to do. I am less glad that as of right now, I don’t have the impression that the Homeless Hotspots program will go any further than SXSW.  Taking the program further and making it less of a shock experiment rather than the start to an enduring conversation on homelessness and inequality would make the program much more innovative and much less exploitative.



I can hardly bear to read this, Kimberly---you write so powerful about this really callous exploitation of the homeless.


For something of an antidote, check out the exhibition of my friend, artist and activist and stylist to the homeless of Beverly Hills, Lisa Lesniak.   She helps people who have lost their homes to regain dignity, self-confience, and even a chance at a better life, and her portraits of them capture that renewal of vitality:





Hey Kim,

I heard about this on NPR and I'm glad you wrote about it! I too can see the positives and negatives, but WHAT AN OPPORTUNITY!! Wouldn't this be a very cool project from some social entrepreneurship program at some B school to round out this beginning idea and make it work for everyone? The shelter(s), the people who live &/or stay at shelters, the business, the community? I don't have any ideas off the top of my head about how to make this work on all sides, but really, it seems like with a team of engaged people (representing each group) they could come up with a seriously terrific plan. Methinks a challenge needs to be issued.


Dear Cathy anbd Nancy -

My response to your responses from two days ago somehow flew away. hmmm. Lemme try and re-type what I think I thought I said. ^-^

Thank you for your responses. I am with you, Nancy, that this could be a really great project for someone with business, tech, and PR savvy to tackle with a dedicated team of people.  I could see a project such as this (getting rid of the name "Homeless Hotspots" for something a lot less offensive, possibly) becoming a new wave in terms of helping low-income people get on their feet, like Streetwise (in Chicago) and other publications sold by the homeless or low-income.  My parents and I were talking about how this would/could work and although it would take a lot of seed money, I could totally see how using a system like Paypal, and partnering with airports, cities and even concert venues (how often are you standing in lines waving your phone around like a lighter trying to get a signal? Not everyone has an iPhone...) to have a dedicated team of volunteers being social, providing a service and also helping themselves? This would be such an awesome project to work on - so if anyone out there is starting an idea like this, I'm ready to jump on board!

Also, Cathy, thank you for directing me to Lisa Lesniak's work. The images are beautiful and it is a great project. I can only imagine what something like that does for the self-esteem of the folks who are featured.  It reminds me that often, we are quick to jump on folks for spending money on "trivial" items like lipstick, or hair care when there are admittedly, more pressing financial matters at hand.  But we don't take into account how good it feels to be visible to others in the way we *want* to be seen. I am hoping Ms. Lesniak's exhibition travels, or that someone picks up the bug and starts a project like it in Chicago, NYC, or possibly other cities that have a homeless population but aren't as well known for it. What kind of work would a Lesniak production do in a city like Minneapolis, or Little Rock, or Indianapolis or Detroit, cities that aren't often featured for issues with low-income populations? Seeing her work is inspiring, just as I hope someone at SXSW could be inspired to take the existing Homeless Hotspot program and make it into something equally productive and progressive.