Homeless hotspots: a charitable experiment gone wrong? (April 2012)

At this years’ SXSW (an annual music, film, and interactive conference and festival held in Austin, Texas), marketing company Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) ‘tried a bit of charitable innovation’: ‘Homeless Hotspots.

In an attempt to modernize the street newspaper model, which BBH argues uses an ‘output that’s archaic in the smartphone age, they partnered with Front Steps Shelter to equip homeless people with 4G MiFi devices to serve as a pay-as-you-go Wi-Fi hotspots for SXSW attendees.

This ‘charitable experiment’ generated a huge amount of interest with many debating if it provided homeless people with ‘entrepreneurial opportunities that challenge stereotypes, derive purpose and create meaningful interactions with society, or if it was just an exploitative marketing gimmick?

Whilst some argued that ‘it is very demeaning if the only thing you can give a homeless person is a job as a piece of gadgetry’ and asked ‘where was the humanity of it all, others responded that it is ‘no different than paying someone to wear a sandwich board or hand out flyers.

I commend BBH for recognising that like any print publication, street newspapers ‘are under duress from the proliferation of digital media’, and for wanting to modernise it, but I’m not sure that homeless hotspots are the way to do it. Firstly, the experiment didn’t modernise street newspapers, and secondly it placed too much emphasis on the hotspot manager being homeless.

Regarding the first, a key feature of street newspapers is that they are ‘written by homeless people, they cover issues that affect the homeless populationand the vendor is a ‘salesman not the recipient of a donation. I think BBH focused too heavily on providing a digital service and overlooked these key features, although they have acknowledged the need for the model to include content creation by the homeless moving forward. I recommend BBH check out INSP’s innovative project to sell digital street newspapers via QR codes that can be read on a smartphone, tablet or computer.

Regarding the second, was it really necessary for the hotspot manager to wear a t-shirt that said ‘I am a homeless hotspot’ and therefore highlight their homelessness so publicly? As no other employer feels the need to highlight their employees’ housing situation on their uniform to generate sales, I share Tim Carmody’s concern that it was all just a marketing gimmick.

I understand that the experiment’s priority number one was ‘social engagement’, achieved by making homeless people visible by creating an opportunity for a conversation. Whilst BBH believe the humanity of the experiment lived in the actual conversation between the hotspot manager and their customer, I wonder if these conversations enabled the hotspot managers to challenge stereotypes, derive purpose and create meaningful interactions with society? I also wonder if an experiment to properly (and less publicly) employ homeless people with training and support to address the variety of issues they may face might have been a better way to enable these things.

But then again, if the hotspot managers feel they benefited from the experiment in some way, who are we (the non-homeless community) to pass judgment? 

What do you think: charitable innovation or marketing gimmick? Please leave your comments below.

Thanks for reading :)



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