Wednesday, March 14

Homeless Hotspots

An unexpected debate is rising out of SXSW in Austin this week.  No it's not about social media or the latest tech gadget, it's about the homeless.  Homeless Hotspots.

Homeless Hotspots is a well-coordinated effort from a collaboration of individuals (led by an ad agency) to give homeless people some "work" and an income stream.  This week in Austin, homeless people are heading to WiFi dead zones with codes in hand,  and then selling the service for $2 for $15 minutes. From what I have read, the money goes directly to a homeless service and the folks participating also get paid along with any the tips (although I am not sure at all how much). What appears to be a pilot in Austin may very well spread to other cities including New York.

The firestorm of debate in person, in the news, and online has been intense.

On the one hand, you have those who support it saying that it once again raises awareness of the issue and offers a real way to give these folks some support and money.  Plus the folks participating have volunteered to do so, giving them a way to start earning some money to get back on their feet.

On the other hand, you have those who say it's exploitative and in poor taste, admittedly an honest reaction.

I'll admit at first glance I said "ouch," partly in initial reaction to the name. At first it seemed like it would actually keep people on the streets and use them as puppets. Admittedly I didn't like it at first and I still am thinking it through quite honestly.

But then as I thought it through, I kind of do like it. We are always complaining that we don't do enough or that cause money gets lost in bureaucracy or that we are not being inventive enough to solve our societal issues. Along comes a group with a very creative idea to directly help people in need. I applaud it. Sure, it has a bit of uncomfort, but if it works and helps people get off the streets and on their feet, then I'm going to be one of the first to say that I love a creative solution that works.

Is it really that much different than having homeless people sell newspapers or stand at cash-donation stands?  The idea is more creative and a bit on the edge, but is the concept all that different?

We all should be using our creative minds to come up with new ideas to help people. The bolder the better.

What do you think ... what's your experience? Jim.

Jim Joseph
President, North America at Cohn & Wolfe
Author of "The Experience Effect" and "The Experience Effect for Small Business'
Professor at NYU


  1. I read this yesterday in one of the periodicals and was flummoxed with the obvious thoughts. Is this exploiting the homeless, or giving them a chance to earn some money and provide a needed service at SXSW. Perhaps it's both.

    I'm not sure this should be a bone of contention, but it is. One of the arguments was that the start-up community is blind to anything but its goals, so it looks for any hook/tactic to get publicity. However, on the other side, this gives the homeless population that wants to participate (big point here) a way to earn a daily fee and tips. The fact that they have to voluntarily participate is key and probably the biggest point of the argument. It's not like the start-ups are secretively hooking up antennas to the brands tee shirt and asking them to wear it.

    This is like a vicious circle. I think it's exploitative and then I think it's a good chance for the homeless... and then I think it's exploitative!

    I guess I'm still flummoxed.

    Andrew Levy

  2. With any of these kinds of issues, it's easy to be flummoxed. But I have to applaud creative solutions -- the goal should be to get it right, that's all. JIM