1. The clear, obvious reason that the company that did this does not have the best intentions is in the name. “Homeless”. What does that even mean in this context? Did they check to make sure the people they gave hotspots to don’t have a place to sleep at night? Or did they have to be people who are not only houseless, but hang around downtown, too (as if there are no homeless people in the suburbs)? What was the criteria? How does “homeless” factor in at all to the required task at hand? If this was just a job, or just charity, they could have taken out a Craiglist Ad. “Wanted: people without anything to do, to earn tips for providing Wifi to conference goers.” Just like a hundred other low-paid, sub-work gigs that are advertised and taken by people who need cash, every day of the year, in every city on earth. Not a mention of “homelessness” in that ad. And yet, we have the name: “Homeless Hotspots”. Their choice of an alliterative title for this start-up is the calling card of insensitivity and mockery. They might as well have called it “Bum Spots”, or something just as painfully derogatory.
2. All of which is to say, this is endemic of a huge perception problem regarding houselessness. One of the reasons that I use the corrected term “houseless” is that it points back to the actual problem. It hasn’t been converted into a class of untouchable people, “the homeless”. In American culture, “homeless” is something that you can “look like”. Something that you can “talk like”. It neglects to be aware of the facts of the issue of houselessness, which is that all kinds of people are without a place to take shelter at night. People with jobs, people without jobs, families, children, the elderly, students, and yes, people with mental health and substance abuse problems. All of these people are houseless; they are united by their lack of shelter, not, that they need to pick up some cash tips or find something to do with their lives. Of course, when we say “homeless”, we think of that class, of that particularly unwanted set of transients that cause problems in front of the the grocery store, block the sidewalk in the shopping district, or that we have to come uncomfortably close to on public transit. This lame hotspot idea does everything to reinforce that perception of an untouchable class, and nothing to alleviate the problem of a lack of affordable housing.
3. Houseless people don’t need cash. They need shelter. Of course, we all need cash, and those who are houseless often have a number of precarities. But the term defines the need, and it defines the specific problem. Houseless people do not need jobs, per se. They need a place to sleep at night, so they can be well rested in the morning to go to a job, or look for one. Houselessness does not define a state of “needing something to do”, it defines needing a place to go when one is doing what one does during the day.
3B. You know what people who are hard up really need? Transportation. Even when there are services available, they are often spread out across the city. And if you are houseless and forced to carry all your possessions with you all day long, that makes life pretty difficult. How do you get to the doctor? To a job interview? To a court date? Someone should point a start-up towards that problem. Oh yeah–not real profitable, probably.
4. There are start-ups to help the houseless. Here’s one in Portland: Right to Dream 2. Of course, it’s not trying to make money, it’s trying to overturn laws that make it illegal for people to sleep outside in the city. Their catchy slogan? “Sleep is a human right.” If you are concerned about houselessness, you should call your city government and ask them to make sure that tent cities are given permits.
5. I already complained on Twitter that a big stupid aspect of the Homeless Hotspots is that it gives a lot of bleeding hearts the right to sound self-righteous about houselessness, because now they can talk about houselessness in the same sentence as SXSW and 4G internet. I won’t really repeat that, because it doesn’t make me feel any better to complain about it, and just kind of annoyed. But, I do wish that the internet didn’t have to use annoying knee-jerk reactions to viral social media stories as the opportunity to actually educate people about social justice issues (cf. Uganda) but here we are. I guess no opportunity is a bad opportunity. So, just one more time: estimates guess that 3.5 million people experience homelessness in a given year in the United States. That is over 1% of the population. Almost none of them have Wifi hotspots.
6. So let’s say that this was just a program that paid people (any people willing to do so) to carry a Wifi hotspot. Okay, kind of interesting. Now, let’s say that the company trying this service created a pilot program to help people who are often on the streets (who may indeed by houseless) to get the first place in line for these programs. Okay, that’s more interesting. Then, let’s pretend that the company also started a bunch of on-the-street tech solutions, like quick cell phone charging, SIM card re-ups, Google Search Service, or single-use phone calls and phone cards, all provided by these foot-traffic retailers. Give them a Symbol device, and I bet you can have them trained in an hour. Now we’re talking. That is potentially a sustainable business model that would not only provide real jobs and provide a service. As the saying goes, the street finds a use for things, at that would be letting the street sell its own tech. Every single one of those services I just mentioned are not useful, but they are things that people on the street actively need, and are currently ripped off for by larger businesses, for whom it is not profitable to maintain a pay phone, or a public computer, etc. But this so-called start up is not letting the street find its own uses for things, it’s forcing the street to adopt to the needs of a tech conference.