Homeless, But With A Wi-Fi Job To Do

A few weeks ago I wrote about coming across a homeless person in New York City selling Dan’s Papers. He had found them in a stand, of course, where they are free. “Two dolla, two dolla,” he shouted to passersby, waving it around happily. I went to him and told him I wrote articles in it and that it was free. “Two dolla, two dolla,” he said. So I gave him two dolla and he gave me a paper. He had a whole armload of them.

I was reminded of this on Thursday morning when I came upon an article on the front page of the business section of The New York Times.

USE OF THE HOMELESS AS INTERNET HOT SPOTS BACKFIRES ON MARKETER was the headline.

Here’s what happened. Last weekend was the big music, film and interactive conference festival in Austin, Texas called South by Southwest. At the technology conference, a marketing agency came up with this grand idea. Because there are so many people online at this conference, very often people can’t find a signal. What if we went down to the homeless shelter and put some homeless people to work carrying around little Wi-Fi transmitters? They could be living Wi-Fi hot spots.

Everyone thought it was a great idea. And so, two days before the event began, the company, BBH Labs, put together a website, www.homelesshotspot.org, went down to the homeless shelter and recruited volunteers to work during the conference wearing a wireless transmitter that spit out Wi-Fi. The marketing firm would provide them with a personalized t-shirt. And they’d tell these people to go to where the biggest crowds were so it would do the most good. The pay? $20 a day plus donations.

What a great idea! No? BBH got 13 eager volunteers to sign up within half an hour. And on Friday morning, the first day of the event, BBH drove a van down to the shelter and picked them up. They were rigged up with the t-shirts and the hot spot devices turned on.

I do imagine these homeless people sitting quietly in the van heading down to the convention.

“Think this could make us sick?”

“Don’t care.”

“Anybody see me glowing?”

“No.”

“Is this how the Ghostbusters got started?”

“I wonder if we’re sucking up all the hot spots all around.”

“Don’t care.”

And so they arrived, hopped out of the van and went to work.

One of the volunteers sported a t-shirt that read I’M CLARENCE, A 4G HOTSPOT. SMS HH CLARENCE TO 25827 FOR ACCESS. Clarence looked happy about it and got his picture in the Times wearing his gear.

But things did not go well with the Silicon Valley folks. As they began to realize that homeless people were among them, they began to get nervous. It was freaky. Had they been coerced into doing this? Wasn’t this embarrassing, all these rich Internet types having to interface with all these panhandlers?

Well, actually, no. Saneel Radia, who is the director of innovation at BBH told The Times “we saw this as a means to raise awareness by giving homeless people a way to engage with mainstream society and talk to people.”

Apparently, the homeless people felt that way too. Clarence Jones, 54, the man inside the Clarence t-shirt, told The New York Times he was just happy to have a job. He said he was from New Orleans and had been homeless since Hurricane Katrina. “Everyone thinks I’m getting the rough end of the stick, but I don’t feel that,” he said. “I love to talk to people and it’s a job. An honest day of work and pay.”

There was also criticism made of the Internet people for their attitude about all this. One marketing executive there said “there is already a sense that the Internet community has become so absurdly self-involved that they don’t think there’s any world outside of theirs,” he said.

The real mistake, it seems to me, was that good Radia made the decision to brand these people “homeless.” He could have avoided all this bad PR if instead of announcing these people were homeless, simply put them out there as warm-blooded Americans happy to have a job. Instead of Homelesshotspots.org, they could have formed BBHhotspots.org.

There are more than 1.5 million people in this country sleeping in cars, on the streets, in shelters, in churches and wherever else they can find a bed in this economic downturn. Do any of them want a label that says they are homeless?

How could I even tell the guy selling Dan’s Papers on the street in Manhattan was homeless? He did need a bath from what I could see. Besides that, he was having a great time and he had a very good business going. No money invested. All the money got 100% profit. After all, I did give him the two dollars.

But that was because this was a really good paper.

I did give him the two dollars. And I got a really good paper.

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