Homeless people as wireless transmitters

A company at the big technology conference, SXSW in Austin, TX, hired 13 homeless people to carry around wireless transmitters at the conference.  Those who participated were paid $20 a day plus donations/tips.  The suggested donation was $2 for 15 minutes. 

So what’s wrong with this?  Plenty, some people felt. 

Branding agency BBH was forced to defend its ‘Homeless Hotspots’ initiative after it was described as ‘dystopian’ – and lambasted as a ‘shameful, hideous, patronising, dehumanising idea’ by British brand strategist Luke Scheybeler

Read more here.

And here are some pro’s and con’s from Wireless:

This is my worry: the homeless turned not just into walking, talking hotspots, but walking, talking billboards for a program that doesn’t care anything at all about them or their future, so long as it can score a point or two about digital disruption of old media paradigms. So long as it can prove that the real problem with homelessness is that it doesn’t provide a service.

Where the men involved aren’t even able to tell their own stories to the world, before they’re doubly used: first by the SXSWi attendees with their smartphones, and then by the marketing firm who will sell their story as a case study or TV show pitch, or to a company looking for a new advertising opportunity at next year’s SXSWi. Where people really are turned into platforms to be “optimized” and “validated.”

I don’t believe BBH Labs’ history with the homeless provides any reason to expect anything better.

Update: AlterNet’s Sarah Jaffe interviewed Mark West, one of Homeless Hotspots’ MiFi managers. Here’s a telling exchange (hat-tip to Melissa Gira Grant):

“It’s your company,” he stressed, “What you bring in is what you bring in. They bought the devices, they’re allowing us to use the devices to bring in our own revenue.” But as my colleague Matt Bors noted, when you actually own your own business, no one takes away your supplies after four days. You don’t work for a suggested donation.

Update 2: At Hardly Normal, Mark Horvath writes about Homeless Hotspots from SXSW, criticizing Wired, ReadWriteWeb and the New York Times for their coverage of the program:

We need fresh and creative ideas to help save lives and save money. Any brand, marketing agency, or Girl Scout Troupe that takes real tangible action to help solve a social crisis should be rewarded not slammed. What BBH Labs did with Homeless Hotspots is a harmless and fun idea that provides a positive interaction between homeless people and the rest of you. Plus, our homeless friends made a few bucks. And even more important – they were given self-worth. Unless you were on the streets you have no idea how low ones self-esteem gets. The number one thing you can give another person is your attention and the Homeless Hotspot vendors at SXSW got lots of that. Every one I met was smiling ear to ear.

This video features one of the homeless people (it may take a long time to load):


What do you think?

31 thoughts on “Homeless people as wireless transmitters

  1. ARGGHH! They stole my documentary idea!!

    I don’t like their hotspot business, either. The workers are only guaranteed $20/day, while the rest of the donations get paid through Paypal, which leaves these unhoused individuals at the mercy of the corporation they’re working for. I’ve never worked with a charity that claims to want to help the homeless that isn’t skimming in some way. I stayed in one shelter where the staff (who were all earning between $30k and $50k) helped themselves to the food first, and refused food to shelter residents who were more than 5 minutes late for meals. Don’t even get me started on the corruption the Canadian Salvation Army is guilty of. One chain of cafes claims huge writeoffs for ‘donations’ when what they’re actually giving is day-old pastries that they couldn’t sell in their coffee shops anyway. The homeless are a huge business for these greedy corporations. 25 years ago, the first time I became unhoused, the services that charities claimed to be running were actually in place, and run by competent staff who understood just how important their jobs were. Many people actually became re-housed in a short period of time. Not so anymore. Thanks to 20 some odd years of neo-con poorbashing, far too many social workers approach their clients as if they are the stereotype–liars and cheats, etc. I’ve seen a disgusting number of social workers behave as if they think the meal they’re taking from some homeless person is some kind of ‘payback’ for the taxes that they believe are going to fuel somebody’s drug habit. The situation for the homeless is truly appalling.

    I’m not sure about the Texas shelter they’re collaborating with. It may be a better place than anything I’ve seen, but I’m dubious about anything that big that advertises its initiatives in flashing font. Larger shelters tend to function like prisons on the inside. I hope I’m wrong, but this looks like another scam, set up between the wifi providers and the shelter to soak the homeless. The statement that got my hackles up was on the company’s site: “How many times have you seen somebody buy a newspaper from a homeless person, only to leave it with that homeless person?” So there’s something wrong with somebody who desperately needs the money being able to earn a second dollar for the newspaper? They need to compete with and criticize a perfectly acceptable form of self employment, so they can control the paypal payouts?

    The potential for muggings is also very high. And who pays when the equipment goes missing?

    I’ll save my last gripe pending more input from the other commenters. Has anybody seen any mention of women selling this service?

  2. How horrible! Some company gave homeless people jobs! And the homeless people agreed to take them! I’m shocked and disturbed.

  3. $20/day + *donation* = minimum wage – 65%. that’s assuming they’re only working 8 hour days. this is sick and exploitative. a third of minimum wage to be walking talking wifi for glossy techy types. and this gives them ‘self worth’?? this makes them cut-rate commodities, not persons. disgusting. and surely illegal??

  4. It’s not that simple, Merry. I dare YOU to try it for 30 days. Call the social sci experiment Po’ Like Me. Tell people you’re homeless and try to beg, stay in a shelter, find employment. Try to convince them that you’ve never abused alcohol or drugs. Watch how many people who claim to be ’employing’ you expect you to work for about half to two thirds of minimum wage, or try to pick your pockets in other ways. Approach this company, and walk around selling their technology. Are you female? Do you know how much more often poor women get sexually harassed than women who are lucky enough to have a steady source of income? I got harassed at least once/day by people who saw me coming out of soup kitchens. My all-time record was 8 times in one day. About half these creeps actually had the gall to grope me. I carried a large hammer in my knapsack to fend off creeps. FYI, I’m actually considering hocking myself as a wifi connection, even tho I’m housed for the moment. If the company is available in my area, and if they accept me, I’ll be sure to film whatever happens for you.

  5. Sadly, elp, it’s legal. As long as the company has the paper trail to prove to the IRS that they paid these people minimum wage, the responsibility falls on the workers to fight for any missing wages in the courts. Most homeless people don’t have the resources or the expertise to pursue a claim like that, and that is precisely why companies scam them so often.

    The sad part is that there is potential for these people to make a bit more than minimum wage, as some donors will give more than the minimum. I know a man who sells those newspapers. He says he earns his grocery money every month, about $250 by selling them part time, 3 days/week. Some kind donors will give him $10 and $20 bc they’re pleased to see that he’s so hardworking. He has full control over the money exchanged. Paypal payments are more difficult for the workers to monitor. They stand to lose a lot of money like this.

  6. xena, sorry but I see no reason why this is particularly controversial. If the company had used seniors from a nearby college who didn’t have job offers yet, I think it would have been seen as a great opportunity to earn some beer money and network. My 16 year old son, who is currently trying to earn money for a trip to Africa, works for $8 an hour at a local farm splitting wood and hauling sap buckets every other Saturday. If he had been offered the opportunity to walk around SXSW and get paid, he’d have been on it like white on rice.

    As for the pay rate, I don’t think it’s that different than a waitress who get paid $1.50/hr + tips.

    And I see no proof that the company didn’t pay them what they were owed.

    So, Xena, yes homeless people are expoited in a myraid of ways that are really horrible and we should all be doing something about it. Does that mean they shoudn’t be given an opportunity to earn some cash? CAn we just assume this company is cheating them? Should people just be handing them 20 dollar bills because that’s so much better?

  7. Uh, $20 for an 8 hour day is not $8/hr. And what waitress do you know who makes $1.50/hr? Does she live somewhere where the cost of living is only 25% of what it is in the US, maybe? Or somewhere where there are no labour laws and children burn their feet off processing cocaine for warlords? What do you and your spouse do for a living that allows your son to only work every other Saturday? How is it that you are so naive about the way standard wages do or don’t cover the cost of living? I live in a tiny, brokendown 2bedroom hovel with 3 other people, 2 of whom work upwards of 44 hours/week. We’re just barely able to pay the bills and stay fed. Forget about ‘luxuries’ like beer money. (That’s in ‘scare quotes’ because I don’t consider beer a luxury. I’m allergic. Alcohol makes me sick.) I’m in a state of panic about the fact that I’ve been housed for 3 months and still haven’t found work yet. Do you understand at all that at minimum wage, 2 fulltime workers, and a third working part-time are required to keep a household out of the red?

    Last I checked, most of the tip money my waitress friends earned was cash. *Some* reataurant patrons will pay with plastic, but a majority of the tips that pass through waitresses’ hands are still in cash.

    Yes, these homeless people should be handed cash for the work they do, as well as cash tips/donations. And I highly doubt that students would do this for $20/day, unless there were free gadgets to top-up the puny amount of cash paid out.

  8. Then again, students could demand that the paypal accounts be set up in their names. This is another luxury that the homeless don’t qualify for. I’ve only met one homeless person who was able to keep her credit score above a 4. Most have their credit ratings trashed and their cards revoked when the desperate circumstances that lead to their evictions ruin their lives. Some have never even had a credit card. Ever.

  9. Walking around SXSW isn’t splitting oak and carrying buckets filled with maple sap all day, and that job is only available for one day every other week. He’d do it just to be at SXSW. And I do know waitresses who make that as pay and are pretty much tip based. Not to mentions sales people who are only commission based and have no base salary at all. I know women who sell Mary Kay, Tupperware, Avon, and numerous other similar items and they don’t get $20 a day up front. And they’re not exploited children. And I bet there are students who would do it. But you didn’t answer, if it had been students, would you feel differently and complain they’re being exploited? And I didn’t say homeless shouldn’t be handed cash for work they do. Should they just be handed cash for begging on the street instead of what this company did? You haven’t proven that they didn’t get the money they were promised. And I bet a lot of those people handed them cash.

    So if all charity is corrupt and all such jobs are just excuses to exploit homeless people, I guess there’s nothing any of us can do to help the homeless without incurring your wrath. Except give them a hand out.

  10. Merry, I think you’re missing the point here. Perhaps what we can do for the homeless is find them a job, with some dignity, that pays a living wage.

    Or, at the very least, stop seeing them as a source of cheap labour, since last I checked, slavery was illegal.

  11. There seem to be a number of different criticisms. One is that the pay is completely dreadful. In fact, though, it is comparable to what salaried workers who get a lot of tips work for. These include bar tenders and waitresses. Further, with any luck, since the tips are designated as donations, they will not be taxed. There’s been a big crack down in the US on people who do not pay taxes on tips, so quite a lot can be lost that way.

    A second objection we might call the “things may not be as they seem.” Xena has pursued this argument at lenght (and surely enough). It is true that there are all sorts of opportunities for bad things to happen, but I don’t see evidence that they are happening. So this is a conditional objection.

    We might note in this regard that Austin, home of the original slackers, may be different in its attitude to the homeless. Riding home this evening I was listending to NPR’s vignettes about Austin. One was about the recent death of a flamboyant cross-dresser (to the extent that he wore clothes), and the fact that the mayor declared the day after he died to be named for this guy. I think it was an official holiday. The city is exceptionally tolerate, though I do not know that this extends to the homeless. However, during my years at Berkeley, which has at points been dramatically accepting of difference, homelessness was not a badge of dishonor.

    Another argument, which I think no one has made, is that the homeless are being used as function by very wealthy technocrats in a way that is distasteful to the point of being immoral. I think Merry’s points are in effect objections to this complaint. I don’t think we’ve discussed it thoroughly, but I’d be concerned that wanting to prevent this use of the homeless is paternalistic.

    Xena, your representations of homelessness are horrific. I think probably you should consider that you’ve made you point, at least as far as commenting on this post goes.

  12. Anne:

    In putting limits to Xena’s account of her homelessness, aren’t you silencing a marginalized person, according to the criteria set forth by the post on Derailing for Dummies?

    I find Xena’s accounts to be quite powerful and informative. What’s more, they ring true, from what I’ve observed about the situation of the homeless.

  13. I completely get why folks think this is exploitive and dehumanizing. What I’m not clear on is how this is worse than a number of other jobs that we don’t complain about. I do know folks whose hourly wages as servers are no where near enough to live on, and when tips don’t come in, they can’t pay the bills. I know folks who put up with discrimination and harassment because they’re afraid they’ll get fired if they complain, and aren’t able to find another position. I know folks who are forced to work overtime. I know folks who have been fired for being late because public transportation was unreliable. I realize of course there are differences in degree. But I wish we’d get up in arms about how exploitive we are of the lower economic classes in general more often.

  14. Yes, Merry. If you really know student waitresses who make $1.50/hr, I’m just as appalled by that. Waitresses where I am make $8/hr+ tips. Min wage is $10.25. My 19-year-old daughter does hard physical labour, unloading trucks for min wage. I think she’s a little underpaid for what she does bc I know men who make $18/hour for the same job. I’m also appalled by the belief that women should marry and live on handouts from rich husbands, while they have tupperware parties for *pin money*. I wasted a year of my life trying to sell Amway. Most of my ‘sales’ were products I used myself. I spent more on their ‘motivational meetings’ than I made in actual sales. I had to quit bc I couldn’t afford to live on their overpriced food products. Of all the Amway products I tried, only 3 were items that were good enough to justify the extra cost. Mary Kay is ok, to the best of my knowledge (no animal testing?) but only a tiny percentage of people who sell it make enough money at it to even consider making it their primary source of income.

    And the Mary Kay corporation doesn’t demand that their customers pay Mary Kay directly, by credit card, with the distributors getting paid whatever the corporation feels like paying them. That is the issue here. It’s too much headache for a company to babysit employees’ earnings without some kind of *money managing* fee, at best. At worst, they could skim a considerable percentage of many employees’ earnings, and fanaggle their loopholes so they don’t have to pay it back.

    Can I *prove* that these people are being ripped off? Not yet. But time will tell.

    I didn’t say *all* charities are corrupt. I said I have yet to deal with one that’s not. (*Note: I did not include my very positive dealings with The Red Cross. They do what they promise, and have many many volunteers who give their best effort out of pure humanitarian spirit. But they deal primarily with disaster relief, not employment programs.)

    Funny how some people see giving a hardworking waitress or cleaning person a $10 or $20 tip for a job well done as an expression of gratitude, while they see the same act as a ‘handout’ when it’s offered to a hardworking newspaper vendor on his way out of despair.

    I certainly hope the wifi customers are giving these workers cash tips. I hope fp will keep us posted on this.

  15. Dr. Jacobson, pardon me. I was still typing when your comment went up.

    Thanks SW, but it’s ok. There are other things I should be doing right now to make sure I stay housed. I’ll be back in a few days.

  16. Bah! Did it again. I forgot to change the settings after Synaesthetik posted her comment. #14 and 15 were me, Xena. Synaesthetik is the other 48 hr/wk wage earner in my household.

  17. I appreciate Anne’s summary of the issues addressed here so far, which I think is spot on.

    In re: pay, many commenters here and elsewhere have criticized the $20/day wage. That criticism leaves itself open to several replies, I think.

    As Anne noted, $20/day + tips is comparable to the wage structure in many service jobs. While tipping may not be the best remuneration strategy in general, it seems odd to criticize the practice only when the homeless are the ones getting tipped. If I were offered such a contract, I find it at least plausible that it could be worth my while. All the more so if my other relevant option was asking for money with a sign.

    Secondly, the nature of the job is not easily construed in terms of a conventional employer/employee relationship. IIRC, there must be some direct supervisory relation between an employee and a manager for a job to fall under the purview of the minimum wage laws. While some companies seek to abuse this distinction in order to avoid the minimum wage, it seems pretty clear that the role of men like Clarence really is much more like that of a contractor than that of a conventional employee. When an employer can’t easily direct one’s labor, it is usual to structure the arrangement under some other remuneration scheme that better aligns the employer’s and laborer’s interests. The short term nature of the contract is another consideration that weighs against the conventional employment model.

    Thirdly, the arguments about pay seem to presume that it is unjust to hire someone for less than the minimum wage. While I think it is uncontroversial that people have a strong claim to some baseline level of material sustenance, it’s never been clear that the minimum wage is the best way to accomplish it. Even among left-wing economists, you very rarely see unqualified support for the minimum wage as a policy intervention. It’s usually a bit more like: “well, the minimum wage is like the 8th-best policy measure in terms of efficiency, but it’s the one we’ve got, so we might as well stick up for it.” Some surplus is captured by low-wage workers, but there’s also deadweight loss, and not all low-wage workers (e.g. high-school kids) are even desired targets of the policy. At the margins, you have people who really wouldn’t be hired at the wage floor, but could still make a meaningful choice about working for a lower wage. You can criminalize paying people less than the minimum wage, but you can’t criminalize not hiring people at all. If the basic problem is people not having enough money, we should figure out how to make sure that people have enough money through reasonably fair and efficient means. Proposals like the universal basic income, which is endorsed by economists on the left and the right, seem much stronger to me in that regard.

    I find the “argument from distaste” interesting; I expect that it is what motivates much of the controversy. We might find the tone of the t-shirts slightly off-putting, but the job description strikes me as rather better than waiting or bartending, which we do not regard as inherently degrading. Sometimes laws (or moral censure) aimed at preventing people from engaging in certain types of labor can make those people better off, but does anyone see that possibility here?

    Lastly, to address Xena’s comment, the homeless are predominantly male. The gender imbalance also increases with the severity of the homelessness; if you divide the homeless into ‘people who do not have a house to sleep in at the moment’ (~80%) and ‘people who are chronically living on the streets, often suffering from mental illness or drug addiction’, (~20%) you find men even more highly concentrated in the latter category.

  18. Last point, S&S. I promise. The author of your linked study states that the respondents were people who use soup kitchens and were therefore not a representative sample. My stats tell a slightly different story, tho I will concede that the numbers I recall do put single homeless women who would qualify for this type of employment in the minority among the unhoused. My numbers showed that they were a larger minority than 21%. However, my stats are out of date, and I’ve been asked to stop commenting on this post.

    I would encourage all of you to compare data from several sources before buying into the stereotypes of the unhoused as unwashed middle-aged male whinos. *Hint* Google homeless LGBT teens and battered women. These groups are noticed less often, simply because they are much better at hiding their homeless status than middleaged male substance abusers.

  19. I have a few, not clearly coherent, thoughts:

    1) Isn’t part of the ‘distaste’ factor that humans are being used as a tech device?

    2) If students were offered such a job, they might see it as a lark – rather than as a desperately needed lifeline.

    3) Part of the problem of the wage is that this is a short-term job. Another part of it is that we probably all imagine the tech co. having a pretty big advertising budget; so, this seems like skimping on the poor folks who will grab at anything.

  20. I wouldn’t call myself an expert on the topic, but everything i’ve read indicates men as a group to be disproportionately likely to be homeless, especially long-term, chronically homeless. People end up homeless for lots of reasons, many of them gendered–I’m not suggesting that homeless women or otherwise-gendered people don’t exist. But I haven’t seen anything to suggest that men don’t make up the majority of the homeless, and a strong majority of the ‘hardcore’ homeless.

    I would also point out that if you are able to hide your homeless status, you are much less likely to be homeless months or years later, which speaks to the original point.

  21. >>Yes, Merry. If you really know student waitresses who make $1.50/hr, I’m just as appalled by that

    You shouldn’t be (appalled, that is). And you should acquire a little bit of knowledge about the service industry before you begin to opine. It’s common to pay members of the service industry a wage between $1.50/hr and $3/hour. They make far more than that, of course, when you count their tips. When I worked in the service industry, I averaged $20+/hour all told, despite being payed $2.50/hr. Do you want to claim that I should have instead made $25/hour? Surely not. Let’s be reasonable here.

  22. Chris,

    I think the t-shirts might have been poorly worded, but certainly the service they provide isn’t essentially different from that of a TV camera or boom mic operator, neither of which we moralize?

    Is it not preferable to extend opportunities to people who need them more rather than less? In terms of the labor, skill and availability required, the deal seems like a reasonably square one, comparable to waiting tables. Is there a reason to withhold the opportunity specifically because homeless people are the ones most likely to need it?

    It seems like your concern is that the company could have paid them more. That’s not obvious to me, especially when the market in question has very low barriers to entry. All you need are some wireless transponders and a modicum of technical knowledge, neither of which are in short supply at sxsw. Given its status as a mecca for tech startups, which fly to technological solutions for first world problems as moths to a flame, I wouldn’t be surprised if that market were fairly close to equilibrium by now, at which point the wage for walking around with a transponder would equal the marginal benefit of hiring an additional laborer. Would you be surprised if the firm found that, for $80/day, the optimal number of laborers was zero? How would you feel, then, about a homeless person who wished to waive their right to receive the minimum wage in order to work at the original wage point?

  23. Lucky you, AnonGrad. Most of the waitresses I know averaged $40-$60 in tips on an 8 hour shift, Fridays and Saturdays. Counting their wage, that’s between $13 and $16/hour. Weekdays, they made less, depending on the restaurant. Some nights (usually Wednesdays) they went home with no tips at all.

    Then again, most of the waitresses I know are middle aged women. You were young and good looking when you waited tables, right? Judging from your admonishment to “acquire more information before [I] opine”, I suspect you still are. So what city is this rockin place in? I could use an $18/hr. job. My experience as a waitress was not much better than my friends’ experiences. And that was when I was still in my 20’s.

  24. In the US, there’s a “pre-tip” direct minimum wage for nonexempt tipped workers, currently $2.13/hr. More here:

    But since the Dept. of Labor puts the national *median* hourly wage for wait staff at full service restaurants, *including* tips, at less than $10/hr, I’m guessing there are plenty of people whose pure wage is down near the $2.13 minimum. The employer is required to make sure that hourly wage *plus tips* isn’t falling below the national minimum wage for covered, nonexempt workers.

  25. That’s kind of scary, Nemo. Add that to my list of reasons I’m glad I’m Canadian. As Kathryn said above, many people just don’t make enough tip money to offset such a low wage.

  26. At least if the employee doesn’t make enough tip money to offset it, the employer is required to make up the difference. So the end result should be that they make no less than the regular federal minimum wage overall. Though that can’t exactly be easy to live on either. (Some states have slightly higher requirements of their own, but not much.)

    Of course, call it an “internship” and anything goes! (OK, I exaggerate. A bit.)

  27. SW: Your question raises a lot of issues, and I’m not sure where to begin, but I’ll try. The bloggers are this site are not just writing. We’re also suppose to moderate the site a bit at least, and to see to it that the “be nice” rule is followed. So each of us can try to change the direction of interactions. In contrast to derailing, we usually do that to protect the interests of our general readership, rather than self-interests. And we are usually pretty direct, rather than indirect and manipulative.

    Most commentors have really two functions; they convey information, and they take part in a group discussion. You want to say that Xena’s conveying really interesting information. In a way, that’s not my focus when I say she’s said enough. I think she is also intimidating. I don’t think that she is actually bullying, but she comes close to something very similar. Thus Merry says that it seems we can’t suggest anyway to help the homeless without incurring Xena’s wrath. I don’t think it is appropriate for someone to be expressing wrath at others’ opinions here. That’s certainly not how a philosophy blog should be operating.

    It would be amazing if each of us never make a mistake in our decisions. And we do worry about censoring and silencing. So I think your question is more than appropriate. It is also the case that “moderating” can be a disguise for asserting class or gender, etc., privilege. We do worry about such things.

  28. Hi Anne:

    Yes, Xena can be intimidating. That’s true.

    When I read what she says, I think of the phrase, “Napoleon in rags”.

    I’m sure that you know the song.

    I tend to pay attention when Napoleon in rags speaks out: Xena is not the only person whom I see in those terms, which for me mean something very positive.

    Generally, people are amused and condescending towards Napoleon in rags (as the song suggests), but are all too submissive when Napoleon changes her rags for
    imperial robes.

    I’m not accusing you or Merry of being amused or condescending, merely noting a possible danger.

    I want to congratulate you on your open and forthright blogging style.

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