Despite protests, homeless hotspots in Austin worked


Many were irked by “Homeless Hotspots,” a controversial experiment involving homeless people — but most participants wound up no longer homeless. Photo Credit: Matthew Woitunski/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY

An experiment was announced last year in Austin, Texas, called “Homeless Hotspots,” where homeless people were paid to carry around mobile Wi-Fi hotspots. There was a lot of criticism made of exploitation and so forth, but regardless, the experiment actually worked.

Homeless Hotspots courted controversy

There’s an annual festival in Austin, Texas called “South By Southwest,” usually abbreviated SXSW. There’s a lot of art, music, food, films and so forth – it’s basically the Gathering of the Juggalos for hipsters.

SXSW delenda est.

For SXSW 2012, BBH Labs, the experimental division of marketing company Bartle Bogle Hegarty, announced a charitable experiment, called “Homeless Hotspots.” The idea was to employ 13 homeless people, sourced from an Austin shelter, the Front Steps Shelter, and equip them with a 4G MiFi, or mobile Wi-Fi device, according to Wired.

They’d walk around and people could pay to use the Wi-Fi. They were paid $20 upfront and $50 per day for four days, according to Forbes. According to the Daily Mail, they kept the proceeds from sales.

A lot of people were ticked about it, too.

Worked despite objections

Naturally, the naysayers had a point. A per diem of $50 is less than minimum wage, if they work more than 7 hours. Even minim wage doesn’t make much of a payday.

Offering homeless people a pittance to engage in a marketing stunt certainly does reek of exploitation. The proceeds didn’t seem like it would be much; the hotspots were “pay-what-you-want” with a suggested donation of $2 for 15 minutes of WiFi use.

But what if it worked? What if the money added up to enough for these people to start getting on their feet?

Homeless Hotspots did just that. According to KVUE, ABC affiliate for Austin, there were 13 participants in the experiment. Of those 13, 11 are no longer homeless as the money they received for it was enough to get them into housing. Several earned more than $600 from it.

Certainly novel

As a result of the controversy, Homeless Hotspots wasn’t put on again at this year’s festival, according to ABC. The fallout had company getting lambasted repeatedly online and in print for the experiment and has basically been keeping quiet ever since. Even appearing to exploit the homeless carries some stigma and the bell can’t be un-rung, in some people’s minds.

Jennifer Denton, head of the Front Steps Shelter was quoted as saying that despite the “discussion at the outset,” the participants were grateful in the end “to be productive and earn a wage.” Maybe more companies should do things like this. If it helps to get people off the streets, it appears to be worth it.



Daily Mail




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