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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Homeless Hotspots, A Good Idea Long Overdue, Sadly Killed

March 14, 2012 - A clever marketing scheme turned some selected homeless people into walking Wi-Fi "Homeless Hotspots." Participants wear "MiFi" devices, turning them into two-legged mobile wi-fi transceivers. It has, briefly,  provided an innovative way for some homeless folks to make a few honest bucks, while providing a way for pedestrians to connect to the Internet on the fly. The suggested fee for the Homeless Hotspots is $2.00 for 15 minutes, but customers can negotiate a lower fee on a per case basis.

It is also a clever marketing gimmick by New York-based marketing firm BBH, which operated what they called a "charitable experiment" at the "South by Southwest" tech and arts festival (SXSWi) in Austin, Texas this week. BBH has called the MiFi operation a kind of replacement of the homeless newspapers that are sold on the streets of some cities. That's a bad analogy except that it does allow the homeless participants to make some money by hawking something on the public way. Nevertheless, it quickly became controversial, and was objected to as dehumanizing and "insulting" to the homeless.

I believe that the objections, which seemed to come mostly from folks who have never been homeless themselves, was misplaced. I say this as somebody who has been homeless, albeit briefly, and who is still desperately seeking employment and a more stable housing situation. More about that later.
The "Homeless Hotspots" has been criticized as "insulting" by idiots (yes, "idiots") like Patrick Jones of Buzz60. Jones, who looks like his mother still helps him put his socks on, doesn't like the idea of people actually doing something to earn a little pocket change.

"Money makes the world go 'round," says Jones, "but is it worth being treated like a transmission tower?"

Jones is one of those morons who, apparently, looks down on anybody who actually works for their money. His criticism is poorly considered. The so-called Homeless Hotspots are not treated "like a transmission tower" any more than a waiter is treated like a food vending machine. But Jones had more stupidity to spew.

"I mean," Jones blathered on, "would a company that really cares ask someone to wear a shirt that reads 'I'm a 4G hotspot?' instead of 'I'm holding a 4G hotspot' assuming that company actually considers you human?" Seriously, what an ignorant, elitist a-hole.

Here's the deal: While homeless last summer, I became friends with quite a few homeless folks in Madison, Wisconsin. A little newspaper called "Street Pulse" that is written and sold by homeless people gives those people a sense of purpose and dignity, and a way to make enough money to buy a burger and a soda and maybe some fries. They love that paper, and the camaraderie that comes with it. They stand on the sidewalk, sometimes for 10 hours a day, hawking it to passersby. Perhaps one in 500 people who walk past them will stop and buy the paper for the suggested price of $1.00. The vendors pay 25 cents per copy, and they get to keep 75 cents per sale.

Patrick Jones would probably call selling Street Pulse dehumanizing. He would say that the vendors are treated like newspaper vending machines. He would probably think that the non-profit group behind Street Pulse does not consider its vendors to be human. But I know, from talking to the vendors and from sitting in on more than half a dozen Street Pulse staff meetings, that just the opposite is true.

I've never met one of the Human Hotspots, but I'm betting that they were given a renewed sense of pride in knowing that they were working for money. $2.00 is much more than 75 cents. What snot nosed jerks like Patrick Jones don't understand is that work gives one a sense of contributing, of somehow being part of society. Jones is, apparently, too proud to do anything like sell a service or product on the street because it is beneath him.

Believe me, I am not the only one who feels this way about elitists who criticize occupations that they consider too lowly for human participation. Ironically, it is people like Patrick Jones who are guilty of dehumanizing the homeless by mocking what they do, even when what they do is an honest method of making a buck.

Sadly, because of the whiny outcry of the armchair critics, the program will be ended. A report by The Daily Mail (UK) says that marketing firm BBH "has been forced to back off the controversial plan." The Daily Mail quotes Emma Cookson, chairman of BBH as saying, "We have no definite, specific future plans yet, in New York City or elsewhere. This was an initial trial program," and, "We are now listening carefully to the high level of feedback."

Here's some feedback for you, Ms. Cookson: Don't kill this idea. It has merit. Perhaps the initial execution was flawed, but I think you're on to something good.

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