There’s presently an enormous amount of media buzz about global marketing and branding agency, BBH’s experiment of hiring homeless people to act as Wi Fi Hotspots at the SBSX (South by Southwest) technology conference in Austin Texas.
In case you’ve been out of town and missed the story, essentially the agency hired homeless people, dressed them in T-shirts labeled “I am (name). I’m a 4G Hotspot,” and released them around the SBSX event. Using a Paypal link, event attendees could pay or donate money to gain Web access.
Emma Cookson, BBH’s chairwoman, defends the practice, saying that it gives the homeless a way to earn money and enables them to engage with the rest of society. She adds that all of the money collected by the homeless people goes to them.
Detractors are loudly screaming that it’s demeaning and abusive to have a human being be used as a technology hotspot. Some, especially those in New York City cite the dangers of engaging a homeless person on the street, pointing to the fact that a large majority of that city’s homeless are suffering from mental or physical health challenges.
I’ve read several accounts of the story and watched a news video with a panel of “experts” discussing it.
What I find particularly interesting, especially from the media, is that the people speaking out against the idea all have homes and jobs.
While this, obviously, is not an ideal way for someone to live, neither is being homeless or going without food. Having done both on more than one occasion, I have a different perspective on this issue than most.
Is it demeaning to provide someone with a way to earn money, honestly and ethically? I think not.
Is it abusive to give an, otherwise invisible, homeless person a way to engage mainstream citizens in conversation? I think not.
Listening to the CNN interview with BBH’s Cookson, it became obvious that the agency was as concerned for the homeless people as they were for the marketing potential of the stunt.
She compared the project to being the high tech replacement for the homeless newspapers of years past. Once a lifeline for the person suffering from homelessness, the newspapers have all but vanished, as have many main stream papers,being replaced by digital alternatives.
What’s important to ask here, rather than whether it’s demeaning to the homeless person or not, is what is the potential for good?
How might this type of practice actually help those whom we’ve conveniently forgotten on our streets?
Wanting someone else’s perspective on this, I reached out to Joe Vitale, author of “The Attractor Factor,” and several other bestselling books and star of the law of attraction movie, “The Secret.”
Since Joe was also once homeless and is now a highly successful author and teacher, I wanted to know how he felt.
Here’s his response:
“I think giving homeless people an opportunity to make money while also helping entrepreneurs is a win-win. Any disagreement with that is simply people revealing their own limiting beliefs about money and the “right” way to handle it.”
“People used to say P.T. Barnum exploited handicapped people like General Tom Thumb, yet Tom would have died penniless without him. With Barnum, he became world-famous and a multi-millionaire, and that was in the 1800s.”
I agree wholeheartedly with Joe. The bottom line here is people are able to earn money. They are not being forced to do this. They are jumping at the chance.
Trust me, when you’re at the bottom, it’s all up from there.
They’re having an opportunity to, not only feel a part of something, but to engage everyday people in conversation. This alone will help raise their self-esteem.
The people in cities where this is being done will have the chance to learn that the homeless, previously thought of as “untouchables,” are people just like them.
Given a hand up instead of a hand out, they can bounce back and become productive members of society. I did, Joe did, as have countless others who, for whatever reason found themselves at the bottom.
The biggest problem with the homeless condition in America is the fact that the rest of society do not, as a rule, relate to it. Most working people do not see this as something that could, through no fault of their own, happen to them. They’re wrong. It could, and has, to many who thought it couldn’t.
The job now is to find ways to help put an end to this black mark on America’s soul. What we’ve been doing, as well intentioned as it has been, has not worked.
As any successful person will tell you, when what you’re doing is not getting the result you want, you do something else.
While the “Human Wi Fi Hotspot” may seem strange, it’s a step in the right direction.
If nothing else, it’s brought the problem into the conversation and that’s never a bad idea.