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'Homeless Hotspots' stir debate at SXSW

By JAKE COYLE - AP Entertainment Writer
March 13, 2012 at 10:05 p.m.
Updated March 12, 2012 at 10:13 p.m.

Melvin Hughes, a homeless man hired by BBH Labs to provide and promote a mobile 4G Wi-fi service during SXSW, holds the T-shirt he was given by the marketing agency in Austin on Tuesday. Hughes said he was paid $20 up front and a minimum of $50 for about six hours of work over four days this past weekend. He may receive extra money if those who use the online 4G service made a donation.

AUSTIN (AP) - A charitable marketing program that paid homeless people to carry Wi-Fi signals at South By Southwest has drawn widespread debate at the annual Austin conference and across the country.

BBH Labs, a unit of the global marketing agency BBH, gave 13 people from Austin's Front Steps Shelter mobile Wi-Fi devices and T-shirts that announced: "I am a 4G Hotspot." The company paid them $20 up front and a minimum of $50 a day for about six hours work, said Emma Cookson, chairwoman of BBH New York.

She called the experiment a modernized version of homeless selling street newspapers. All of the money paid for Wi-Fi - an often difficult thing to find at SXSW - went to the participants, who were selected in partnership with Front Steps. Two dollars was the recommended donation for 15 minutes of use.

But many have called the program exploitive. Wired.com wrote that it "sounds like something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia." Technology blog ReadWriteWeb called it a "blunt display of unselfconscious gall." The topic became one of the most popular in the country on Twitter by Tuesday.

Critics have claimed the experiment turned homeless people into inanimate objects for the benefit of well-heeled techies. In an online op-ed, The Washington Post wondered "Have we lost our humanity?"

Cookson took pains to say BBH was listening to criticism of the experiment, which ended Monday. It had been meant to begin Friday but rain delayed its full implementation until Sunday.

"It gives a personal interaction, a connection for homeless people with regular folks with whom they don't often connect and get walked past," says Cookson, who declined to give financial totals but said it was "more than we anticipated."

She said BBH doesn't currently have plans to continue the plan, and that "lots and lots of questions have been raised." Still, she called it "a big success just in terms of getting attention for the issue and getting debate going."

One of the participants, Dusty White said the experience of talking with SXSW attendees and earning some cash "made me feel proud."

"I felt like it was a positive thing," said White.

Mitchell Gibbs, director of development and communications at Front Steps, said he was initially skeptical after being approached by BBH, but was won over by previous work they've done with the homeless.

He put the offer to participants in the shelter's Case Management Program, a step-by-step program to move people out of shelters and off the streets.

"Everybody was educated and aware about the process," said Gibbs. "Everybody was excited by the opportunity to make some money."

Gibbs said the shelter's participants enjoyed the experience.

"We've had more community conversations about homelessness, affordable housing, employment opportunities and shelters than we've had in I can't tell you when," said Gibbs. "We count that as a win."

White added, "I would do it again."

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