'Homeless Hotspots' program sparks debate

Google Maps is used to indicate where the "Homeless Hotspots" are located. A controversial new experiment at South by Southwest puts Wi-Fi units in the hands of the homeless. Accused of condescension and exploitation, Homeless Hotspots creators hope the debate will encourage entrepreneurship and visibility.

Kai Ryssdal: This is a big week down in Austin, Texas. South by Southwest is in full swing. There's music and movies, and technology at South by Southwest Interactive.

And that's where we start today, because we saw a thing this morning that literally made us ask whether it was real news or something from The Onion -- Homeless Hotspots. Homeless people wearing T-shirts labeling them as Homeless Hotspots. Turns out they're selling wireless Internet access. The whole thing is getting a lot of negative feedback; "exploitative" is one of the kinder descriptions.

Saneel Radia works for BBH, the marketing firm behind the experiment. We got him at a homeless shelter in Austin. Saneel, thanks for joining us.

Saneel Radia: Good to be here.

Ryssdal: So let's dig a little bit. You're in Austin for South by Southwest, can't get online, you need a Wi-Fi connection, and you see a homeless person wearing a shirt that says "Homeless Hotspot." What do you do? How does it work?

Radia: The short version is what we're doing is we're trying reinvent the street newspaper model. When we looked into it, we realized that actually they do a lot more than just provide money for the homeless. They give them a social interaction that's actually quite critical to their success. And so we thought that reinventing it would give us the opportunity to bring the homeless out of kind of invisibility as we've seen them treated at big conferences and such.

Ryssdal: Let's remind people what street newspapers are. They are newspapers sold by homeless people, sometimes content-generated by homeless people, and then they get to keep the proceeds.

Radia: That is exactly right. The goal is to go make you introduce yourself. So there is no way to hop on their 4G network without going and speaking to them. That's that social interaction point. These aren't just people that are antennas -- that's somehow been implied in this kind of hardware application that looks bad. They have a service that they offer, which is to get you online. And they generally tell you their story. Once they tell you their story, you get the code, you text in, and then you can join their network and then the money goes directly to them for the access you just got.

Ryssdal: Not to put too fine a point on it, but did you think about how it looks? 'Cause it just looks not great.

Radia: Absolutely. I think that's a very fair question. What's interesting about it, though, is everyone who has dug below the surface has left with a very different perspective. I wish that anyone who knows someone in Austin or is in Austin currently goes and speaks to one of these people. There is no way to engage with one of these people without feeling quite warm-hearted about it. So I hear the point about if you got a 140 character update from Twitter, that looks bad. That said, look at any of the original source information and you realize this is actually a program with an exceptional amount of integrity trying to help people.

Ryssdal: I'm going to try this again, perhaps less delicately. It sounds almost condescending. It sounds, look at these homeless people, we're trying to do this nice thing for them, wouldn't that be nice?

Radia: Yeah, and I apologize to anyone that's offended by that. Many of the street newspapers that we've been speaking to realize it's actually not condescending. What we're doing is we're taking a model that exists already -- street newspapers. It's really that social interaction point, the ability for them to express themselves, to be a bit entrepreneurial. Again, if you really get into the experience, it is the opposite of condescending. It's very empowering, actually.

Ryssdal: When you guys were brainstorming this, did you anticipate the blowback? Did you think about this?

Radia: Certainly we did think about it. It would be naive not to think that this is going to be debated. By putting this model out there, and letting people debate -- this is what worked in their program and this is what didn't work -- we're actually uniquely qualified to say, we can take our licks for whatever we got wrong. What we're motivated by what the people who adopt it get right as a result.

Ryssdal: Saneel Radia, he's the director of innovation at a company called BBH. It's a communications firm in New York City. We got him at a down in Austin, Texas, at South by Southwest. Saneel, thanks a lot.

Radia: Thank you so much, Kai.

Ryssdal: So what do you think? Condescending or a good idea? Let us know. Leave a comment or write to us.

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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