Homeless WiFi - The Kony of SXSW
March 13th, 2012 | Back to Blog Listing
If you're not familiar with this project yet, an ad agency called BBH has equipped 14 homeless people in Austin with 4G data-enabled devices. They've asked their participants to roam the South by Southwest festival offering free WiFi to people.

The stunt has attracted a host of negative publicity. People have been suggesting it is unethical, immoral, and exploitative. I even read one article claiming that the agency is essentially commoditizing (generally read as enslaving) the homeless. Unfortunately, these claims couldn't be further from the truth. In fact the only unethical component of this whole matter is how quick the media has been to present a new bandwagon for the uninformed to jump on.

A few points to consider:

Firstly, this is not a bad financial deal. All of the individuals are being paid a minimum stipend of $50 per day, $20 of which is up-front. If that number seems low, keep in mind that they're not exactly doing work, rather they're just instructed to go about their day; people will find them. The company is also suggesting that people provide donations for the service; the suggested rate seems to be about $2.00 for 15 minutes of access. In addition to their stipend, the homeless keep all of the donations that they're given. That adds up pretty quickly at a festival like SXSW.

Secondly, they're entrusted and invited to participate in a worldwide event. I'm not a social worker, but I have to assume that when you entrust somebody with an expensive piece of hardware (one they could easily run off with), provide them with a festival t-shirt bearing their name, and give them a legitimate reason to interact with the general population, this is possibly the greatest offer many have seen in some time. It provides a presumably disparaging person with opportunity, something we all hope for.

Thirdly, I also have to assume that the fourteen people selected for this project are fairly competent individuals. That is to say, there is a certain level of communication and responsibility necessary for this project to be successful, even if it is minimal. It seems that the ad agency would be somewhat selective in their process of choosing who was eligible to participate. This would suggest that the participants are of pretty sound mind.

Which brings me to my only real problem with the outcries. Where is the consistency with the argument? I see homeless individuals working all sorts of jobs around Austin and I've never read of people being lambasted for hiring them. I've watched them distribute leaflets, hold business signs, sell papers, work parking lots, and on, and on. So I'm curious where the outcries are for homeless people being paid to hold "Liquidation Sale" signs on street corners. Is there some sort of line in the sand that we cross once the job takes on a more technical nature?

Unfortunately we're seeing these sorts of baseless, and even counter-productive outcries occur all of the time through the internet. In my opinion, they're exactly what turn legitimate problems into fashionable blips. There are no doubt cases whereby homeless people have been exploited for their "services". For example, about a decade ago Indecline Films started putting out a series called 'Bumfights'. The clear difference is that they sought drunken and probably mentally unstable individuals and paid them to incite violence against one another. There is a clear common sense distinction between these types of cases, and it's just sad that people are so willing to rally against anything, even when there are numerous and obvious benefits.

If people really wanted to help the homeless, they could trivially forgo spending $1,395 on their SXSW badges and instead donate that directly to a homeless person or any number of local shelters. But of course we all know that's never going to happen.

My take of these matters is simple. If people are unwilling to put real action ahead of empty talk, then perhaps they should at very least stop speaking for others. Especially when those others are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves.