The Common Good

'Homeless Hotspots' a Controversial New Charity

A new charity project debuting at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas, is sparking controversy.

BBH Labs, a creative technology group in New York, has started a campaign called “Homeless Hotspots,” in which homeless people are equipped with the tools to act as portable hot spots for nearby people seeking 4G access.

Here’s how it works: The homeless person wears a t-shirt with the words “I’m a 4G Hotspot” written across the chest, accompanied with an SMS code and key number. Inquiring minds plug the information into their phones or tablets, give a donation via Paypal, and are given access to their service. Every dollar goes directly to the person providing you access, with a suggested donation of $2 for every 15 minutes.

Currently the project is still in the testing phase. This week while SXSW attracts thousands of musicians, film junkies, and journalists, 13 homeless men — such as Clarence here — are occupying the city to provide 4G access, and see how the trial run goes.

This mingling of technology into homeless charity isn’t new to BBH Labs. In the past they launched Unheard in New York, a project that has given a select few homeless people pre-paid cellphones and twitter accounts to “give a voice to people who need it most” and to “include them in our global community.”

The attempt of this new project is to modernize the street newspaper model of employing homeless people, but rather than selling a newspaper (a medium on the decline), they are providing a service that is in growing demand.

Though, BBH recognizes that there’s still work to be done. Responding to many criticisms, they state:

"The biggest criticism (which we agree with actually) is that Street Newspapers allow for content creation by the homeless… However, we’d really like to see iterations of the program in which this media channel of hotspots is owned by the homeless organizations and used as a platform for them to create content. We are doing this because we believe in the model of street newspapers."

But is this really a charity?

While the intentions of “Homeless Hotspots” seems to come from a good place, is it not dehumanizing? Turning homeless people into tools that provide use to the more privileged techies?

Hopefully as this develops BBH will continue to address criticisms and work to make a lasting impact, rather than gunning a quick fad at SXSW.

Joshua Witchger is an online assistant at Sojourners. Read more from Joshua on his blog hail fellow well met.

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