Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Homelessness…a new digital career?

Using the homeless for internet access…and I thought getting a free connection in Starbucks was unique.

At last week’s SXSW Music Festival in Austin, TX, New York City based advertising agency, Bartle, Bogle and Hegarty (BBH), introduced festival goers to the first “Homeless Hotspot,” a trial initiative aimed at improving the lives of the homeless, as well as providing the public with an instant internet connection outside of normal business centers and coffee shops.

Throughout the festival, homeless individuals from the Front Steps Shelter in Austin had the opportunity to sign up for the Homeless Hotspot program. Each participant received a MiFi device and t-shirt which read, “I’m (insert name), a 4G hotspot” (see photo). Customers could approach the homeless person and login to the 4G network using their phones/tablets/laptops for a quick internet connection. The homeless were paid $50 up front for their service, and were able to keep any tips received. Customers were encouraged to donate $2 for every 15 minutes of internet usage.

While some critics argue that such a program exploits and takes advantage of the homeless, others believe it to be beneficial to the lives of the homeless and an opportunity to aid and assist those less fortunate. When some of the homeless participating in the program were asked, many said what they enjoyed most about the initiative was the human interaction, when usually they were ignored or treated as nonexistent. To them, it wasn’t only putting quick money into their hands; it made them feel as though they had a purpose. One man said this was the first honest job and honest living he made in a long time.   

However, since receiving national attention, the backlash received from around the country has halted future plans for Homeless Hotspots at this time in cities such as New York.  Although I admire BBH’s innovative and creative, outside the box idea, and would probably use this service if offered, I do think it could cause additional controversy if the trend were to spread. For example, I am not homeless, but what if I wanted to stand outside and let people pay me for internet access? Could the program turn you down for not being homeless? What might start as an honest way and innocent way to assist those less fortunate could end up a way for others to take advantage of the program. 

Kristen Seabolt is an Associate Account Executive at Maroon PR. Contact her at Kristen@MaroonPR.com 

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