Charity or insult? Homeless as wi-fi hotspots

Is it charity or an insult to the homeless? That's the question that arose during the South By Southwest technology conference last week in Austin, Texas, according to the New York Times.

At the conference, a marketing firm recruited homeless people from an area shelter to serve as wi-fi hotspots during the technology trade show. The agency equipped the people with t-shirts bearing their name, 4-G telecommunication devices, and $20. They were instructed to make themselves available at the conference to be used as a wi-fi hot spot in exchange for tips.

When word circulated at the conference, it was clear that the marketing trick was not well received. One blogger remarked that using the homeless as wi-fi hot spots was like something out of a "science fiction dysopia."

BBH Labs, the technology arm of BBH Marketing, defended the practice, comparing it to a high tech version of the street newspapers the homeless sell to raise money. The administrator of the shelter from where the "workers" were procured also defended the practice, saying it gave the homeless the opportunity to interact with more affluent people and inspired an "entrepreneurial spirit" in those who participated.

"It's an employment opportunity, regardless of who's offering it" said Mitchell Gibbs, Direct of Development at Front Steps, the Austin homeless shelter from where the volunteers came.

But Adam Hanft of Hanft Projects, a marketing advisory firm, says that''s not the point. "There is already a sense that the Internet community has become so absurdly self-involved that they donâ??t think thereâ??s any world outside of theirs,â?? he said.

Those who participated didn't seem to feel demeaned or part of a dystopian science fiction novel. Clarence Jones, who was unhoused by Hurricane Katrina, said he enjoyed the experience.

â??Everyone thinks Iâ??m getting the rough end of the stick, but I donâ??t feel that,â?? Mr. Jones told the New York Times. â??I love talking to people and itâ??s a job. An honest day of work and pay.â??

Is it exploiting the homeless to have the serve as wi-fi hotspots, or is it an "honest day of work and pay?"