Uncharitable experiment

“Homeless people as wireless transmitters.”

When I first heard of this story, I was horrified, but I’m at least (partially) relieved by the backlash.

At this year’s SXSW conference, a marketing company called BBH Labs paid 13 homeless people to walk around the conference providing people with an Internet connection. Their T-shirts bore their name and re-classified them not as persons but as wireless transmitters.

“I’m Clarence, a 4G Hotspot.”

No, he is Clarence, a human person, made in the image and likeness of God. His home was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. And despite the best efforts of government agencies like FEMA or private organizations like Catholic Charities, he remains homeless seven years later.

One commentator is frustrated by people who object to using poor people like this. He said, “This backlash almost ensures that it will expire in Austin. Is that the goal we were aiming for, to have fewer options to help the homeless?”

If that option is undignified exploitation, then it’s not really an option. Every person deserves to be treated with dignity, especially those who are suffering the most.  We must refuse to accept that the myth that the only way to help poor people is to objectify them or commodify them.



  • http://www.virds.com/ngosummit.com homepage

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  • Daniel

    This “experiment” made these homeless people VISIBLE to folks who might have otherwise ignored them altogether. If ANY of the visitors to SXSW realized that they themselves are errantly more aware of HOTSPOTS than of the HOMELESS, I would call this a grand success worthy of high praise!

  • Brian C

    Joshua, I have to charitably agree with the other commenters and disagree with you. In a nutshell, SXSW/BBH Labs should be commended for trying something new. It might work, it might not, but we should be giving the benefit of the doubt here where the alternative to action is perpetually asking for a government handout everyday.

    • Joshua Mercer

      I responded to some of the others who commented, but I’ll just reinerate: We cannot accept the false dichotomy that they must either receive a government handout or they must be exploited in a demeaning manner.

  • tz1

    So there are no churches or catholics with homes with extra rooms in Austin? We have descended to where if FEMA doesn’t do it, or some huge Charity Bureaucracy doesn’t solve an individual’s problem, it is better that they stay hidden in their cardboard box, or jail if they get too uppity.

    We don’t want to actually, really help, especially if it means personally doing something instead of anonymously with several degrees of separation each taking a cut for “expenses”.

    But we will react with great ire if they are “exploited”.

    • Joshua Mercer

      I agree with you that FEMA is a total disaster. And there are truly heroic charities trying to help people like Clarence. But are you suggesting that I don’t care about the poor? Or that I’m happy that there’s this level of separation between them and me (better that they stay hidden)? Where do you get that baloney? I’ve volunteered at my church’s soup kitchen. I drop off baby clothes and diapers to the local crisis pregnancy center. It’s precisely because I see all of my neighbors that I find this news story in Austin to be revolting. I’m not against businesses trying to help the homeless transition to more participation in civic life. But the homeless here were used and done with once the conference was over, never to be worried about again. That’s not true help. Did the business then partner with a local charity to provide these homeless persons with a true path? Or did they just want a cheap way to provide an internet connection? It’s one thing if they hired college kids or those just out of a job. It’s then understood that they’re being paid for work, here are the rules. But having the homeless there with T-shirts that say “I’m Clarence. I’m a 4G hotspot” is demeaning. If you love liberty and love free markets, don’t be afraid to tell some businessmen that they actions are disgraceful.

    • Walker

      TZ1, I am happy to say that there is an organization that is doing phenomenal work for the homeless in Austin, and spreading throughout the nation. Checkout http://mlf.org to see how subsidiarity works in our community: a local organization that helps to feed, clothe and house the homeless, but most of all promotes respect and dignity for our brothers and sisters in need.

  • Andrew Griffin

    I think “uncharitable” is not asking the homeless folk involved what they thought. The funny thing is, they defended the program, because it got them money (less than they had expected due to rain), it got them exposure and they got to tell their story (http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2012/03/13/the-homeless-defend-becoming-hotspots/?mod=wsj_share_twitter)

    From the article:
    “Many of the criticisms that the program was taking advantage of homeless people — or dehumanizing them – came from people who didn’t stop and talk with participants, he adds.”

    Interesting, I thought.

    • Joshua Mercer

      But people who work in other undignified professions will still defend their employment. that doesn’t make it moral. Women and men working in pornography are strong defenders of the business which employs them. But it’s demeaning and wrong.

      • Howard

        Absolutely, Josh. People should be dissuaded from voluntarily and legally working in their chosen profession, because *you* feel it’s demeaning and wrong. After all, *you* know better than someone else how best to live *their* life. In fact, that seems to be the entire raison d’etre of the Catholic Church these days.

        • Joshua Mercer

          I have not advocated making this illegal. I’m just disgusted by it. Not everything that is wrong must be made illegal. But nice slam on my Church there.

      • Andrew Griffin

        You’re certainly right – we can’t look at whether or not a job is dignified simply because those who do the job defend it.

        In this case, it seemed to me the outrage was over getting homeless people to do it – preying upon their vulnerability as homeless to make a quick buck. And so that was what I addressed.

        It seemed to me that the actual job – walking around with a 4G hotspot transmitter and authorizing people to use it (that’s my understanding of the job, anwyays) – differed from, say, pornography or prostitution in that it isn’t intrinsically immoral.

  • Tomb

    I’m not sure how grievous this is against human dignity. What about the guy in a sandwich or hotdog suit as a human advertisement? The indignity of sign-waving might be embarrassing to some but just a job to another. I’m not sure…

    • frank furter

      Now all you have do do is support a pro-labor candidate who favors raising the minimum wage and is not opposed to public spending to create jobs!

      • SandyC

        agreed Tomb. Did anyone bother to ask Clarence how he felt? If I were in that position, I’d be thankful to have a job, be productive, and have some money.

        I bet the company likes the free advertising. I just checked out their website!

        • Daniel

          SandyC, they did ask Clarence how he felt about being a human hot-spot. his quote appears near the end of that NYT article: “Everyone thinks I’m getting the rough end of the stick, but I don’t feel that,” Mr. Jones said. “I love talking to people and it’s a job. An honest day of work and pay.”

      • Homeschooling Granny

        Are you serious or ironic? Are you aware how many people have been priced out of the labor market because hiring them has been made too expensive?



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