Last week, a reader alerted us to this 2013 story, in which BBH Labs paid 13 homeless people to walk around Austin, Texas carrying 4G wireless hotspots during South by Southwest—an annual music, film, and technology festival. The project, called “Homeless Hotspots,” faced a lot of criticism from people who thought it was exploitative.

The homeless employees were paid $20 upfront and $50 a day, and got to keep additional proceeds from wireless usage sales. Many critics noted the per diem was less than minimum wage, and would barely make a decent payday. Tim Carmody at Wired argued that: “…turning Austin’s homeless into Wi-Fi hotspots symbolizes everything that’s awful about both South by Southwest and living in America in the 21st century.” He also expressed serious concerns about the program being more about marketing than helping a cause:

“This is my worry: the homeless turned not just into walking, talking hotspots, but walking, talking billboards for a program that doesn’t care anything at all about them or their future, so long as it can score a point or two about digital disruption of old media paradigms. So long as it can prove that the real problem with homelessness is that it doesn’t provide a service.”

According to ABC News, 11 out of 13 of the people—recruited from Front Steps Shelter— used the money they earned to put deposits on apartments. Jennifer Denton, a worker at the shelter, said: “There was a lot of discussion at the outset, when the program began, about whether it was taking advantage of the individuals. But the individuals participating were really grateful for the opportunity to be productive and earn a wage, and it had this sustainable result.”

Clarence working as a 4G hotspot in Austin
Media Folder: 

Exploitation and dehumanization

Certainly having people walk around supplying Internet seems like a trivial service, and a temporary, pay-what-you-want model isn’t the most stable or lucrative. Does any of this matter if the people involved secured housing?

Having been in Austin while the Homeless Hotspots program was running, I must admit that it made me uncomfortable. It contrasted people’s desires for constant connectivity with the stark reality of homelessness, which could have been a good thing in terms of raising awareness if it wasn’t for the objectification.

To me, a person wearing a sign stating they were a hotspot looked dehumanizing, something that already happens to all people experiencing homelessness. Often considered inferior to people who are housed, many housed people have difficulty empathizing with those who are not. And because we live in a culture that believes poverty is always an individual’s problem of his or her own doing, this difficulty continues.

Examples of ongoing dehumanization of people experiencing homelessness are everywhere: the #Fitchthehomeless campaign, which used homeless people as pawns in a political statement; people paying homeless people to recite lines for celebrity weddings; the popularity of the 2002 video series, Bumfights, which pitted homeless people against each other. In each of these examples, people experiencing homelessness are considered “lesser than” others and deserving of manipulation and exploitation.

Beyond evoking feelings of shame, inferiority and embarrassment, dehumanization can be dangerous and sometimes, fatal. According to a post by the National Coalition for the Homeless, there has been 1400 acts of violence against people experiencing homelessness reported in 47 U.S. states and Puerto Rico since 1999. In the same post, it’s noted that: “Homeless hate crimes leading to death have been greater in number than all other deadly hate crimes combined in 14 out of the last 15 years across all of the US.”

Canada has seen its share of violence against the homeless as well, with deaths and beatings recorded in Berwick NS, Calgary AB, and Burnaby BC. In many reports on violence against homeless people, few details regarding the victims are even reported.

Humour, tests and pranks 

Given the reality of violence, most blatantly violent or dehumanizing acts against homeless people are considered unacceptable, yet more subtle forms continue. A simple search of “homeless” on YouTube reveals all kinds of judgments, “honesty” tests and pranks. One recent and prominent example is How Does a Homeless Man Spend $100, in which the creator gave Thomas, a homeless man, $100 and followed him with a camera to see what he spent it on—which was presumably going to be something irresponsible, like drugs or alcohol. (The assumption being that all homeless people are assumed to be there due to various character flaws and need to be judged.) Instead, Thomas used money to buy food for other homeless people—prompting the creator to apologize and crowdfund over $140,000 for Thomas.  

While Thomas is sure in for a fantastic surprise, I worry about the direction these “awareness” efforts take us in creating a dichotomy of people experiencing homeless. We already judge people experiencing homelessness by far stricter standards than people who are not. There’s the “good” homeless people who shatter negative stereotypes (like Thomas), or do menial or questionable work to “honestly” make a living; and the bad, who won’t do that work or occasionally cope with alcohol and drugs. We’re left with the message that as long as someone does everything “right” they deserve compassion and will be rewarded. It’s my personal belief that housing is a basic human right, that everyone deserves compassion, and the way we talk about homeless people goes a long way in making real change—which takes a lot more than a few temp jobs and fundraisers.

What do you think? Is giving homeless people menial or marketing tasks for money exploitative or helpful? Do the means justify the ends? 

This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at and we will provide a research-based answer.

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