The Damning Backstory Behind "Homeless Hotspots" at SXSWi

Logo Courtesy BBH Labs

It sounds like something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia. But it’s absolutely real — and a completely problematic treatment of a problem that otherwise probably wouldn’t be mentioned in any of the panels at South by Southwest Interactive.

Homeless Hotspots is “a charitable experiment” by BBH Labs, the skunkworks wing of marketing firm Bartle Bogle Hegarty. In Austin, BBH Labs is partnering with Front Steps Shelter to equip people from Front Steps’ case management system with 4G MiFi devices to serve as pay-per-use hotspots for attendees at SXSWi. People in the program wear T-shirts reading:

I’M [FIRST NAME],
A 4G HOTSPOT
SMS HH [FIRST NAME]
TO 25827 FOR ACCESS
www.homelesshotspots.org

The recommended donation (according to shortformblog) is $2 for 15 minutes of wi-fi access, but BBH Labs says it’s officially pay-what-you-wish. Whatever is paid goes to the homeless MiFi manager — either directly if you pay cash, or every two weeks if you use Paypal. BBH Labs gets exposure for its program as well as data for how it might scale — potentially acting as a replacement for newspapers sold by the homeless today. “We’re believers that providing a digital service will earn these individuals more money than a print commodity,” writes BBH Labs’ Saneel Radia.

Here is a video of Clarence, one of the Homeless Hotspots managers in Austin, explaining how the program works:

Okay. I’m going to resist the urge to rant about how 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. (RWW’s Jon Mitchell doesn’t; go read him.) I will resist the urge to rail against commenters at BBH Labs’ blog who complain that Homeless Hotspots hasn’t fully thought its own implications through because How do the ‘houseless people’ charge the units?, partly because 1) believe it or not, that guy goes on to makes some fair points and 2) as Dan Sinker said on Twitter, I don’t want my brain to catch fire.

Instead, I’m going to try to stick with what is known, by way of homeless advocate (and tentative supporter of Homeless Hotspots) Mark Horvath, creator of the We Are Visible campaign to help people facing poverty and/or homelessness to get access to digital technology and social media.

You see, before BBH Labs created Homeless Hotspots (or The Guardian’s much-lauded “Three Little Pigs” video about news in the age of social media and citizen journalism), a team of BBH Labs interns created Underheard in New York, which gave four homeless men mobile phones, Twitter accounts and unlimited texting to share their lives and tell their stories. These stories were amazing, particularly Danny’s, who was able to use Twitter to locate and reunite with his estranged daughter.

Stories like this helped Underheard in New York attract wide media attention. The program ran for sixty days, then was put on hiatus while BBH Labs took the project back from its intern creators and figured out its future. In the Homeless Hotspots post, BBH Labs’ Saneel Radia points to Underheard as an example of the company’s past success in homeless advocacy programs, and writes that “you’ll be seeing an update on its unexpected future at some point soon.”

It’s expected that this “update” will be a reality television show based on the original program. And this is where Mark Horvath’s doubts about Homeless Hotspots comes back in, by way of comments he left on the BBH Labs blog, that both read BBH’s experiment in the best possible light and also make the most telling criticisms (emphasis added):

I love this idea. I love anything that creates a positive interaction between the public and our homeless friends. Just like the street papers, a “homeless hotspot” is not going to provide the money needed to get someone off the streets into housing, but the paradigms changed and wrong stereotypes shattered help in creating favorable public policy.

My only concern is this a marketing gimmick or a cause campaign? Underheard in NY once gave credit on their site to my work teaching social media literacy to homeless people as birthing the idea. It was a great idea. But outside of providing a pre-paid cellphone to four homeless men for two months there was no other support. The guys were not even taught social media very well. This is understandable as Underheard in NY was a project by four young interns and nothing more. They were shocked, and so was BBH at the result. But what happened to the four homeless men when this was all said and done?

Willy, the creative mind behind Underheard in NY, I thought was brilliant, and Willy had great intentions of helping his new homeless friends. I was working with him and the others to expand this to other cities. But once Underheard in NY started to get serious media attention BBH took over the project and shut it down. Too me, that was irresponsible because four homeless men were sprung on the world in a huge way and then just cut off. They didn’t even continue paying their cellphones!

I love the Underheard in NY case study video but I find it misleading. Underheard in NY did not create all that media, the social media community did. Underheard in NY just introduced four homeless friends to the world by accident, and then when it started to get popular support to Underheard in NY was stopped. Underheard in NY ended as nothing more than a marketing campaign created by some very smart interns. I did hear from an insider that BBH is in the process of creating a reality TV show based on Underheard in NY. It’s teased in this post that something is in the works so I hope that whatever happens in the future support to our homeless friends becomes a real priority…

Cause marketing only works when the brand and cause engage in a mutually beneficial relationship. Underheard in NY was never really a cause campaign because the four homeless men never received intentional support. It was a very creative marketing campaign that I hope BBH turns into a successful cause campaign that intentionally helps fight homelessness.

I believe social media and technology, and brand/cause relationships, can have a huge effect on fighting poverty and homelessness. I am excited to see how this turns out and I encourage BBH to keep taking risks like this. You never know what will work unless you try. Homelessness is a serious crisis that effects us all. We need creative solutions and risk takers to fix a broken homeless services system.

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.

Where the men involved aren’t even able to tell their own stories to the world, before they’re doubly used: first by the SXSWi attendees with their smartphones, and then by the marketing firm who will sell their story as a case study or TV show pitch, or to a company looking for a new advertising opportunity at next year’s SXSWi. Where people really are turned into platforms to be “optimized” and “validated.”

I don’t believe BBH Labs’ history with the homeless provides any reason to expect anything better.