Three weeks ago, no one knew Clarence Jones’s name. He was nearly invisible—a homeless man, living on the streets of Austin. Originally from New Orleans, Clarence became “houseless,” the term he prefers, when it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. After Katrina, his financial troubles snowballed, and he has since been living on the street.
Clarence was also one of the participants in the controversial Homeless Hotspots program designed by BBH New York, a marketing firm, and implemented at this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival in Austin. During the festival, Clarence wore a MiFi wireless router and a T-shirt that read “I’m Clarence, a 4G hotspot,” along with instructions for how to access Clarence’s network.
Clarence was just one of fifteen homeless people that participated in the Homeless Hotspot initiative. The program has been criticized mercilessly—in part, due to the dehumanizing statement on the shirts. On “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart attacked the project, claiming that it treats human beings as infrastructure. He sarcastically lamented that the shirts might have read, “I’m Clarence, a human being with a 4G hotspot.”
While I understand the criticisms that have been hurled at the Homeless Hotspot initiative, I’ve got a different take. I think it’s brilliant, actually. At first blush, it does seem profoundly exploitative—I’ll concede. But upon further inspection, it truly serves a noble purpose, beyond providing web connectivity to privileged kids with fancy gadgets. If you speak to the homeless, you’ll find that what most of them want, above all else, is an opportunity to step out of the shadows and become productive members of society. The Homeless Hotspot program offers both.
But the benefits don’t end there. Festival attendees trying to access a Homeless Hotspot are encouraged to donate directly to the homeless person—either with cash, or through a PayPal account that is linked from the network’s landing page. (The suggested rate is $2 for every 15 minutes.) Additionally, BBH is paying participants $20 a day for their services. One of the added perks is that the networks are password-protected, requiring some form of direct interaction between the device-owner and the homeless person.
The landing pages also tell the story of the homeless “Hotspot Manager.” For example, if you log on to Jeffrey’s network, you’re greeted with his story. “Jeff is from Pittsburgh, PA. He’s passionate about snow skiing and swimming. He’s been homeless since his treatment for Traumatic Brain Injury ceased. He wants people to understand that homelessness is sometimes out of a person’s control and that he just needs a chance.”
I’ll admit—I’m no expert on homelessness. Having never endured their suffering, any sympathy or empathy is rooted in imagination, and is inherently artificial. I’ve not spent a lot of time around the homeless, but I know someone who has.
So I called Jeremy Reynalds, the founder and CEO of Albuquerque’s Joy Junction, a non-profit organization devoted to helping the city’s homeless. Jeremy is probably New Mexico’s most-outspoken advocate for homeless people, and understands their issues and concerns better than most.
“I think it was a great idea by a company who seems to be doing its best to help,” Jeremy told me. “One of the things that I really like about this is that many people go out of their way to avoid the homeless, because they unnerve people. But, on this issue, if you wanted to have the Wi-Fi service, you had to make direct, personal contact with the homeless man or woman, which is really cool.”
“This company didn’t just work on their own, but in tandem with a local agency and case managers who really understand the issues,” said Reynalds. “Obviously, anything that would lead me to think that the homeless were exploited or taken advantage of I would not be for. But I saw no inkling of that in this issue at all.”
You can find out more at HomelessHotspots.org, and arrive at your own conclusion.
Originally printed in “Pulse,” 03/22/2012.
© Damien Willis, 2012. All rights reserved.