Homeless as Mobile Internet Hotspots: job or exploitation?
John Terrett is Al Jazeera’s US correspondent.
That’s Mark … a popular guy.
He must be, he’s surrounded by people.
“Need to get online, I’m your guy”
But wait, think again.
Everyone’s gathering round him because he’s satisfying their need for speed – internet bandwidth.
“Fast, fast, fast … 4G”
Mark’s one of a small band of people who live on the streets in Austin, Texas, who’ve been selected for human WIFI hotspot duty.
Visitors to events run by the company behind the South-By-South West music and film festivals follow directions on Mark’s shirt to get online.
In return they tip him – two dollars is recommended for fifteen minutes of airtime.
But when Mark’s day is done he has no place to go back to – he’s homeless.
“The company downsized that I was working for… I found myself not being able to pay rent or find work … or have an income.”
Mark says for him becoming a homeless hotspot was a good opportunity to put cash in his pocket and meet new people, “a chance of a lifetime,” he calls it.
Thousands of kilometres away in Washington DC, Eric Sheptock says this sort of thing goes on here too.
Highly paid lobbyists who don’t want to queue to get into Congressional hearings on Capitol Hill pay so called “line-standers” to do it for them and yes, says Eric, often their homeless too.
“These line-standers get paid to stand in line overnight for eight hours until the lobbyists come in, in the morning, and then they give the spot to the lobbyist and many of the lobbyists are actually lobbying for policies that are hurtful to the homeless community.”
Eric has another examples from the capital city too.
Bailiffs trawl the streets looking for homeless men to act as “heavies” during the evictions of people who can no longer pay their mortgages.
It’s a practice Eric abhors – homeless creating more homeless – but he’s seen more – online videographers paying homeless people to engage in street fights or pornographic acts in return for a handful of bucks.
Homeless hotspots in Austin are not as dramatic as the previous two examples but homeless activists are unhappy about the way they’re being marketed as a chance for the homeless to make good.
The idea came from the British advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) Labs which started the idea in New York.
At South-By-Southwest in Austin BBH partnered with a Texas based homeless advocacy organisation which admits to having concerns at first but found the idea provides something over and above cash – human contact.
Mitchell Gibbs, from Front Steps said: “One of our clients said to me this morning, this is giving me the opportunity to talk to people who normally would have walked right past me.”
Back on the streets of DC, Eric has his doubts about employing the homeless as human hotspots.
“Anything that doesn’t lead to actually ending a person’s homelessness is a matter of exploitation.”