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Would Homeless Hotspots work here?

The Homeless Hotspot stunt at this year's South By Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) festival in Austin, Texas has divided opinions all over the internet. Could it ever work in Australia?
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Written by Luke Hopewell, Journalist on

commentary The Homeless Hotspot stunt at this year's South By Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) festival in Austin, Texas has divided opinions all over the internet. Could it ever work in Australia?

Would a Homeless Hotspot initiative help those sleeping rough?

Would a Homeless Hotspot initiative help those sleeping rough?
(Homeless on 6th Street image by Franco Folini, CC BY-SA 2.0)

BBH Labs announced at this year's SXSWi that it would have 13 homeless people walk around the city with Wi-Fi-enabled 4G cellular hotspots, and T-shirts emblazoned with the words:

I'm (Name), a 4G hotspot. SMS HH (Name) to 25827 for access. www.homelesshotspots.org

The idea, according to BBH Labs, was to "modernise the street newspaper model employed to support homeless populations".

"As digital media proliferates, these newspapers face increased pressure. Our hope is to create a modern version of this successful model, offering homeless individuals an opportunity to sell a digital service instead of a material commodity.

"SXSW Interactive attendees can pay what they like to access 4G networks carried by our homeless collaborators. This service is intended to deliver on the demand for better transit connectivity during the conference," BBH said on its website.

BBH teamed up with Front Steps Homeless in Austin for the stunt, which saw the 13 homeless people reportedly paid US$50 for six hours of work offering the hotspot service. From there, people who want to access the hotspot will make a donation to the person managing the service. BBH recommended US$2 per 15 minutes as a donation that can be made either in cash or via PayPal. Users can, of course, pay more for access but some form of donation must be made to get online.

The service has raised eyebrows the world over and drawn scorn from some of the loudest voices in technology journalism.

Some see it as a disgusting stunt that dehumanises homeless people, while others see it as an idea with merit that can help those less fortunate while digitising the sale of dying "street newspapers".

"_blank"="" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer nofollow">Wired's Tim Carmody said that it sounded like "something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia" in a piece that dove into the agency's past stunts, while The Verge's Laura June said that it's something that you should probably be offended about, adding that the wording of the T-shirts serves to dehumanise the people providing the service.

In Australia, the closest thing we have to such a scheme is The Big Issue magazine. Authorised homeless people will buy The Big Issue magazine from the publisher for $2.50 and sell it for $5. The profit then stays with the person who sells the magazines.

It's been going since 1996 and, according to figures on its website, The Big Issue has seen $13.2 million given to the nation's homeless.

Given this success, ZDNet Australia explored the hypothetical scenario of a Homeless Hotspot idea being trialled here in Australia, asking telcos and charities whether they would be on board with such a project.

If private telcos like Telstra, Optus and Vodafone were hypothetically approached by non-profit organisations like Homelessness Australia or Mission Australia to provide homeless people of Australia's capital cities with free 3G Wi-Fi hotspots to operate for a profit in a similar way The Big Issue operates, would they go for it?

The idea garnered a lacklustre response from telcos.

Telstra said that it wouldn't participate in the hypothetical scenario, while pointing out that it already donates hundreds of millions of dollars to charity every year.

"We contribute in excess of $240 million per annum in discounts and access services to low income, needy and vulnerable Australians, and we have excellent partnerships with charities including the [Salvation Army], Homelessness Australia, Anglicare, St Vinnies and others," Telstra pointed out.

Vodafone declined to comment on the scenario, while Optus hasn't replied to a request for comment as yet.

On the other side of the coin, however, some of Australia's peak homeless aid bodies seemed to be tentatively in favour of the idea.

Travis Gilbert, policy and research officer for Homelessness Australia, feels that empowering homeless people to participate economically and socially is something that the organisation would support.

It is in many respects similar to something like selling The Big Issue, which is supported by many in the sector but not others. Social enterprises are another example of a business model that can help to provide employment to people who have experienced or who are experiencing homelessness.

Harnessing ICT is an innovative means of providing people experiencing homelessness with a means of earning money. We would like to see people adequately remunerated for any work that they do and in some respects one of the downsides to this kind of work is that remuneration people receive is dependent on the generosity of the public.

Homelessness Australia would also have some concerns about readily and conspicuously identifying people as 'homeless'. The idea has potential as long as it is done in a way that is not demeaning and empowers people while providing opportunities for economic reward and social interaction. As part of a suite of initiatives that facilitate social inclusion and economic participation it probably shouldn't be dismissed out of hand.

That said, providing more affordable housing and access to support services so that people have a base from which to participate fully in their communities and seek employment if they have a capacity to work remains our preferred solution to the problem of homelessness.

Mission Australia spokesperson Paul Andrews disagrees with the initiative, however, saying that it was conjured up as nothing more than a marketing stunt and, at its core, has nothing to do with helping the homeless.

"I understand why the 'homeless Wi-Fi' initiative has appeal to the public and to media. On the face of it it's a quirky, novel marketing idea. It also appears to have the support of the homeless people involved. But it's a marketing gimmick, that's all. It's also not about any serious attempt at ending homelessness for these people or doing something long term to get them back on their feet.

"It's the equivalent of giving a homeless person a sandwich board to wear and saying you're doing something to help them, when it's quite obvious you're not," Andrews told ZDNet Australia.

Andrews added that drawing comparisons between initiatives like The Big Issue and the Homeless Hotspot initiative was nothing more than hollow semantics.

"Behind The Big Issue is an entire organisation devoted to working with the vendors to make sure their job selling magazines is just the start of them getting on with their lives. The Big Issue works with vendors — alongside organisations like Mission Australia — to address their needs, be they around homelessness, drug/alcohol misuse and mental illness.

"It's certainly got nothing to do with helping homeless people address the real challenges in their lives. If those behind the promotion were serious about doing something to end homelessness they would emulate the example of The Big Issue and put in the effort behind the scenes."

At this stage, the Homeless Hotspot initiative is likely unsustainable in Australia, simply due to the fact that it's a seemingly selfish way to provide help to the homeless. Rather than support an ecosystem like The Big Issue, that sees the homeless community support themselves via the charity of others, it shifts into a new environment of "what can the homeless provide for me in exchange for my charity?"

This consumerist drive that sees the average Australian taking a service from the less fortunate in exchange for so-called charity that by definition ought to be given out of the goodness of one's heart, can put an uncomfortable feeling deep in the pit of your stomach, making it an idea that is deeply unattractive to any organisation that values its charitable, corporate image.

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