The Homeless Not-so-Hotspot

In the wake of Kony2012 protests, you may have also noticed a surge of concern from bloggers and tweeters about the slight unsavory “Homeless Hotspot” scheme launched at SXSW.

The backlash was mostly critical, saying that this scheme took advantage of homeless people, disrespected their dignity, did little for the problem of homelessness, and was a pretty selfish stunt by a company looking for dollars in exposure.If you missed it, the basic gist is this: an ad agency provided 4G Mi-Fi modems and a $20 stipend to 20 homeless individuals, and directed them to ask for $2 donations from SXSW conference attendees in exchange for 15 minutes of internet connectivity.

I would agree with most of these criticisms.  And I had actually moved on from thinking about this matter too much.  That is, until I read the words of Lee Stringer, who spoke up this past week on behalf of the homeless community, to shed a little light on the situation.

First off, Lee is a pretty remarkable guy.  According to his bio, he was homeless in New York City for twelve years before seeking addiction treatment, and since then has authored a NYT Top 10 Recommended memoir, and even co-authored another memoir with my own literary hero, Kurt Vonnegut.

I have a feeling Kurt would have reacted similarly to Lee, who challenged my criticisms from the viewpoint of the beneficiary:

“There is a big difference between the impulse to help people and the impulse to end something,” Lee wrote, hinting at the dynamic that most of us encounter in our work to ‘change the world.’  Our hearts are usually guiding us to end an injustice, but our circumstances – and our own behavioral weaknesses – typically restrict us to the act of ‘helping others’ instead.  It’s still a noble outcome, but should be properly categorized in the same category as the HotSpots: as a band-aid, and not a full healing intervention.

Lee’s point? For the critics to cool down a bit.  Sure, the stunt wasn’t ending homelessness.  But it wasn’t claiming to!  And what’s more, he says, “Two decades of social tinkering by scores of very capable social agencies have not ‘solved’ the homeless problem” either.

Touche, Lee.

He goes on to make an insightful point about the underlying issue here of seeing the people behind the issue.  ‘Ending homelessness’ will never happen, he suggests from his own experience, unless people who are homeless make the choice to change their lives, and no matter how many services are thrown their way, it is their decision to make a life shift.

And interestingly he points to journalists and bloggers reporting on these ’cause’ issues in our digitized world to realize that they may be thinking too quickly and superficially.  His warning is that, “out of this the temper of our reactions more readily rise than does the produce of our critical thinking.”

So thank you, Lee, for pushing me to think a bit more critically about this issue.

I’m still not impressed with or amused by the not-so-Hotspot concept, but I hope all of the critiques of the stunt push those of us who are committed to ending injustices to think a bit harder about the people behind our ’causes’.  

Echoing Kurt’s sentiments from the 1970’s, “What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.

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  • kateotto

    Awesome point, Allie – a small difference but really important. They totally could have still enjoyed the publicity and still given their vendors the dignity of being called a vendor/employee. Thanks for reading and speaking your mind!!

  • Allie

    Love the KV references. I think the point that lead to all the uproar (or at least the little point that irked me) was that rather than “hiring” the homeless individuals as service reps for the company, where they’d be the ones offering the service and making the financial transaction to provide the service to concertgoers (which is exactly what they were doing anyway), they were objectified ad the wifi hotspots themselves. I think it’s a pretty small difference, but I think it was the idea that the company didn’t value homeless individuals enough to call them employees (for however temporary it was).

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