In SXSW ‘homeless hotspots,’ have we lost our humanity?

So many homeless, and such a need in today’s society for fast Internet access–put them together and what have you … Continued

So many homeless, and such a need in today’s society for fast Internet access–put them together and what have you got? What you’ve got is a dangerously new low in degrading the human being down to the level of a listening post.

BBH experimented with having homeless people carry special equipment and wear T-shirts advertising themselves as 4G hotspots at the South by Southwest (SXSW) “geekfest” conference in Austin, Texas. The homeless person as hotspot accepts a donation in exchange for 4G access for the donor.

Michael Buckner


Director Christopher Miller, writer Michael Bacall and actor David Franco attend the Q&A for the World Premiere of “21 Jump Street” during the 2012 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival at Paramount Theatre on March 12, 2012 in Austin, Texas.

Thus, when we log on to the Homeless Hot Spots Web site, we are introduced to Clarence. In fact, when you visit Clarence’s homepage, you are invited to make a donation. The page explains, “Homeless Hotspots is a charitable innovation initiative by BBH New York. It attempts to modernize the Street Newspaper model employed to support homeless populations.”

Is this really what this is about? BBH New York calls the homeless their “collaborators.” They contend the have offered “homeless individuals an opportunity to sell a digital service instead of a material commodity.”

Before we judge, let’s meet somebody else. Let’s meet Moody Roark, a vendor for Streetwise, the Chicago street newspaper.

Moody’s “poet name” is ‘r.e. moody.’ According to his bio on his Web site hosted by Streetwise, Moody “is a Vietnam veteran who has always set a good example for other vendors. He works hard, has a great rapport with his customer base and cares about the people with whom he interacts. He is also a very talented poet and began writing poetry at the age of 12.”

Here’s a part of one of r.e. moody’s poems: “The war has just shed another forgotten soldier of fortune. Stripped of his strength, a stranger to these times; Merely a babe these days, these times. Troubled man, the hero…”

Moody Roark’s poem helped me think about what’s in the news today, the American soldier accused of the massacre of women and children in Afghanistan. According to media reports, this American soldier had brain damaged from a combat injury.

Moody made me reflect: Don’t we make a mistake in calling those we send to war “heroes” when perhaps, with their injuries, body, mind and spirit, we should call them “babes” or even “victims”?

But who’s kidding whom here? BBH claims it is taking the high road, trying to get street newspapers modernized through digital technology. Streetwise is already in cyberspace, in a way that does not make Moody a cyber-portal, but lets him showcase his art and his knowledge. Moody became who he is today through war, the Vietnam War. We learn from Moody. We learn about war, something very much needed today. He is making money selling Streetwise, but he’s not selling his soul. He’s touching ours.

Streetwise, I contend, is a way for Moody and many other vendors like him to have some basic dignity, not only in the way he makes money from selling papers, but from their online showcasing of their work as creators, as artists, as people of ability.

Clarence, on the other hand, stands on the street with equipment strapped to him and is a means to someone else’s connectivity.

If we cannot see the difference, then as a society we have truly lost our moral compass.

UPDATE: I would like to add, having read responses to this post from many whom I respect, that I believe my analysis above is incomplete. I believe this issue of “homeless hotspots,” as I presented it above, falls into what has become typical for dealing with homelessness today. We focus on the homeless as themselves a problem to be solved. I still believe that treating a homeless person as a 4G Internet site is degrading to them, but the overarching issue must be considered within a failure of social policy on a huge number of levels. Homelessness is the product of many social policy failures relating to joblessness in a slow economic recovery, the housing debacle, cuts in programs for addiction recovery and the failure to treat the post-traumatic stress disorder of many of our returning veterans. For far more complete considerations, please consult the National Coalition for the Homeless, the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, and the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans among others.

An On Faith panelist and former president of Chicago Theological Seminary (1998-2008), Thistlethwaite is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.


Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is Professor of Theology and immediate past President of Chicago Theological Seminary. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Her most recent books are "#OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power" and, as contributor and editor, "Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War."
  • RMLC

    I’ve only read a few stories on this subject so far, but as far as I can tell, I see this as a positive thing. The people participating are working an honest job, interacting with people in a positive way (this is a big one), and, I would suspect, feeling a sense of self-worth. Also, they are giving exposure to the homeless community.

    If someone went into a homeless shelter and offered someone a temporary job cleaning your office or selling coffee on the street outside your buliding, would you still find it offensive? The people working as homeless hotspots are provididng a valid, highly desired service in an increasingly digital world and are getting paid for it. As long as there isnt some sort of ulterior motive yet to be unvieled by BBH, I don’t see this as degrading or exploitative as everyone makes it out to be.

    I also trust that the person who runs the homeless shelter that collaborated with the project is an advocate for his clients and wouldn’t do something that was not going to be a positive experience for them.

  • James210

    It’s called “target softening” using long range aparatus? tie in at ledreshp

    well, examples of responsibility, passing the buck, aren’t usually a cause for celebration now are they? The best recourse is to not have followers , or leaders, then you don’t have to worry about anyone to blame, but god.

    A sign of responsibility is not the anger but the grief(?). Compound this discipline-with,(-guilt), and then superior/peer anger from judgement(?),and you might as well dig a hole. almost…

    “Blame the best” has always been a rule, and not the given, dogma. For it is said that the true children of failure shall/may rise and wage, the balance of fury due on those responsible, for ignorance. Thoughts?

    the book of slavery(?) I do- not prefer to swear an oath on.

    it’s called a bevel, one can have a compass but if one doesn’t set the straight and and keep the narrow, then one can meander anywhere. guilty (how’s that)? :}
    one lacks a pony

    cultures in the cities are very different, I’m surprized the professor has the ignorance to actually lower herself in talking with the non-favored angels of our world. Did you tithe, professor, after the sermon?

    I still remember coming into this hole one night and commenting on Paul’s love for the church or perhaps several churches.

    where’s the demon? and what would they think? and the spectre of leash? go forth and multiply?

  • pasta_head

    “selling his soul”, huh? I think Ms. Thistlewaite can take her condescending “contention” and shove it.

  • ccnl1

    Have we lost our moral compass by paying the following individuals money for promulagatind dark age mumbo jumbo?

    Rev. Franklin Graham $800,000+/yr.

    Rev. Billy Graham, $400,000/yr

    Rabbi Bradley Hirschfield $331,708/yr

    Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, $200,000/yr

    Erica Brown $134,221/yr

    Eboo Patel $120,000/yr and his $1.5 million investment fund held in his “non-profit”

    Dr. Herb Silverman $100,000/yr. ?

    Imam Rauf and his wife Daisy, $400,000/yr/ea estimated

  • ccnl1

    Oops, make that “promulgating”.

  • jwind

    The article’s depiction of “equipment strapped to him” makes me think that you didn’t bother to do any substantive research on this whatsoever. The “equipment” the folks are using is a MiFi hotspot fits in the palm of your hand (3×2 inches) and weighs only 2 ounces.

  • eddikon

    Get a grip, and lose your self-important attitude.

  • eddikon

    We lost our collective moral compass thousands of years ago when we began to rely on religion and the clergy to oversee our spiritual lives. If you really care, sell all of your possessions, and the money to the poor. Better yet, quit preaching to us, and bring a few homeless families into your overprivileged home.

  • ElizaD421

    I disagree. I understand the point you are making, but I disagree. I think a day’s work is a day’s work. I don’t think there are companies out there lining up to hire homeless people. I think basic human dignity is served by being able to earn something rather than to rely on the kindess, or perhaps pity of strangers. If this same company hired college kids to do the same job no one would be complaining, nor would they describe them as having “equipment strapped” to them.

    I think for a lot of people this is acknowleging the presence of a person that may otherwise be invisible to them. Has anyone asked the homeless that took this job if they feel used? or taken advantage of? Or is our moral compass so far off, that what the actual people involved think / feel doesn’t matter?

  • vix1pal

    I think this is a wonderful idea! It allows people to regain some of their dignity from dificult and over-whelming circumstances.. Part of the human condition is that we all want to acomplish something earning your own money is one way to achieve this. People spend too much time considering “the political correctness” of every last detail of our lives. My guess is that this program was created because one or more of their employees was touched by the plight of a homeless person the encountered. Being homeless takes away your dignity an honest days work… not so much!
    The homeless population is often overlooked and avoided by the luckier people in our midst. This gives them a chance to say hello, make eye contact and stop being invisible. This is a job. One that doesn’t discriminate due to homelessness and one that you could concievably earn decent money at.. i am forty-one disabled for 8 years and had to move back in with my parents,,, I would be greatful for this job and a chance to regain my independence! In the begining I would be a little embarresed but then the reality check money for needed items or a place to sleep. There many reasons for homelessness it doesnt mean its your fault and the pride of being able to say I am now working and sharing my story is incredible. Everyone loves a comeback story… especially if you are tha star.
    On the subject of Clarenc.e and Moody it sounds like comparing apples and oranges. Moody sounds like a talented and creative artist who has a gift he can share. Do you know Clarence because everyone has a talent but often you can not put a price on it. The important part is how well they do their job which for all intensive purposesIi will classify as two part 1 announce and share a 4G hotspot with anyone nearby. 2 share a moment in time, put a face on a real human tragidy.
    I would like to say good job to the person who thought up this idea it seems to be twisted with the unique segment of the populati

  • vix1pal

    amen brother LOL do you know the difference between a religion and a cult?…………………………. the number of members


    On the same note, AdBIRDS of Austin Texas has a registered user affiliate program anyone can join, and is planning such an outreach and empowerment program. Realize that it is tough and dehumanizing for people to beg for money on the street; and it is beneficial to both individuals, local businesses and the community to pay people for promoting products.

  • ccnl1

    Corrected copy:

    Have we lost our moral compass by paying the following individuals money for promulgated dark age mumbo jumbo?

    Rev. Franklin Graham $800,000+/yr.

    Rev. Billy Graham, $400,000/yr

    Rabbi Bradley Hirschfield $331,708/yr

    Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, $200,000/yr

    Erica Brown $134,221/yr

    Eboo Patel $120,000/yr and his $1.5 million investment fund held in his “non-profit”

    Dr. Herb Silverman $100,000/yr. ?

    Imam Rauf and his wife Daisy, $400,000/yr/ea estimated

  • James210

    I stand corrected?
    since when? you don’t strike me as the humble, peaceful, accepting mistake type indvidual.
    I thought it was rabii?

    proffffessor if we may discuss for a moment ,forgiveness? from the atheist point of view, as a human quality.
    One need not socialize with those responsible for abuses? it is my understanding that the shame placed upon those for the situation(because god doesn’t exist in this scenario), is the guilt? and the community shun of said abusers is the judgement?

    if i may ask an opinion to ponder, how can one identify whether they have been abused by , say family?
    when said family, “fishes” their own? when said family, “confesses”(?) their own? when said family, “disrespects” their own, to making them feel like nothing more, then/than common trash?
    the rage and the fury is letting them know what they did, by looking them in the eye and saying(along the lines).
    , ‘be silent for the venom that comes from your mouth is your own sin(!) is advice that i give to myself all the time.’

    never fish your children, never probe for truth or lies and, never use a disrespect to talk to them and never tie them to a chair and try and force them to eat food they don’t want.
    because i can tell you it has no effect on the psychy and an attitude towards those in authority.

  • James210

    though i have never pik’d a wallet, someone please remind the ladies to keep their purses secured, in the bar.
    i pik’d a 2-man team off two weeks ago, they come back, they may not.
    just so you know what kind of hunters you have in your bar.

  • James210

    when did i lose my blonde hair(humanity)? about age 7
    when i shoplifted a special police badge from safeway.

    mom made me give it back to the manager.

  • theburgerwolf

    exactly! I don’t understand how giving homeless people jobs is degrading, I mean it’s a lot nicer for them than to be begging on the street! I’m sure most of these guys jumped at the opportunity to have a REAL job, even if it’s only for a week or so!

  • znocjza

    How is it immoral to pay homeless people to oversee network equipment?

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