'Homeless Hotspots' from the ground level

The "Homeless Hotspots" program unveiled at South by Southwest has ignited both outrage and support. But participants in the Front Steps homeless shelter say it's a beneficial program.

Kai Ryssdal: We did a story yesterday that caught a lot of people's ears, about something happening at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin this week. Homeless Hotspot is the headline. Homeless people in Austin acting as wireless Internet hotspots -- selling Wi-Fi access and getting to keep the money.

As often happens, there was way more to the story than met the ear, which we learned by talking to the guy who thought up the idea. Today, one of the men who was part of it. Dusty White's been living at a homeless shelter in Austin for about a month now. Mr. White, good to have you with us.

Dusty White: It's a pleasure.

Ryssdal: So tell me what you think about this program? When they came to the shelter and said listen, we've got this idea for Homeless Hotspots, what'd you think?

White: I thought it was an excellent program. It gave me a little bit of recognition and not only that, it was a positive attitude interacting with people.

Ryssdal: So tell me how it works in practice? You're walking around Austin, whatever you're doing, and somebody sees your T-shirt and they've got a laptop and they say, 'Hey man, I need some Wi-Fi.' Is that how it works?

White: That's correct, yes sir. I carry a device. What I was was just really a human satellite Wi-Fi. And we helped out quite a bit.

Ryssdal: How's it working for you? Are you making money out of this thing?

White: Yes sir. I'm a people person. I like to interact. I've always been in some kind of communication. It was very nice interacting with a lot of people. I've met people from Denmark. I've met people from Germany, England, London.

Ryssdal: You've had a lot of business then?

White: Oh, I have had a lot of business and promotion was our shirts. I don't know if you've seen our shirts or whatever?

Ryssdal: I've seen pictures, yeah.

White: Yes sir. That's where a lot of people were kind of curious. They were very intrigued by it. At first they were very hesitant, but once you started talking to them, explaining your situation, explaining what we were doing, they took the time to talk to us.

Ryssdal: And the thing that got us actually was the T-shirts and the headlines that you saw yesterday about 'Oh my god, they're turning homeless people in Austin into Wi-Fi hotspots.' And it seemed a little -- you're chuckling -- it was a little bit wow. Really?

White: Well, you've got to understand. A lot of these guys here at this shelter at this point and time, or this homeless situation, are educated people. I used to think they were bums or they were too lazy to work or they was some kind of mental issue. Now I've seen a different outlook in the homeless population. This is all new to me. I've been homeless for about a month and a half in my life. And it's not what you achieve in life, sir, it's what you overcome.

Ryssdal: So did the mainstream media get it wrong yesterday with 'Oh my god, this is horrible, look what they're doing?' Did we blow that?

White: Yes sir. I feel like that that was... yes sir. I do. All the persons that participate in this program here at the Front Steps program.

Ryssdal: Yeah. Front Steps is the shelter. Right?

White: That's correct. Yes sir. Every one of 'em enjoyed it and they're still talking about it and they would do it again.

Ryssdal: Dusty White, thanks very much for your time, sir.

White: Thank you very much, sir.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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