Using homeless people as WiFi hotspots -

Using homeless people as WiFi hotspots

A Texas company is selling this as a ‘charitable innovation initiative’


Photograph by

I am not making this up: homeless people are being used as human hotspots by a marketing firm.

It’s called a “charitable innovation initiative,” which loosely translates to “disgusting marketing ploy.” It’s happening right now on the streets of Austin, Texas, where the technology portion of the South By Southwest festival is underway. It works like this: you see a homeless dude hauling around some gear and wearing a t-shirt that says, “I’m Jimmy, a 4G Hotspot.” You pay (what you want) with cash or via SMS and then loiter around the guy for 15 minutes of the most awkward Internet access you’ve ever had. Yes, he keeps the money. No, that doesn’t make it okay.

Homeless Hotspots is brand-less for beta-testing, but if it’s deemed a success, expect future iterations to be brought to you by Verizon or whatnot.

Who’s to blame for this epic milestone in the history of bad taste? The firm is called Bartle Bogle Hegarty. Their handle, combined with the grotesque nature of their work, conjures up an icky Roald Dahl story. But there is no hint of a hoax on their website. This thing is 100 per cent for real.

BBH encourages us to think of their scheme as a digital modernization of the homeless street newspaper, a great idea that for decades allowed homeless people a way to make money without begging. But the similarities end there. Street newspapers contain content written by homeless people, advocating for their rights. Whether or not you actually read these papers when you “buy” one is beside the point: their existence dignifies the people who sell them and reminds you that they have ideas, opinions and humanity. Homeless Hotspots have the opposite effect–they reduce homeless people to fleshy routers. In airports you’ll find metal poles that perform the same task just as well. It’s degrading–literally.

And I guess it’s “working,” since SXSW attendees are debating the morality of it and people like me are writing about it. Some are urging those of us who are repulsed by Homeless Hotspots to just get over it and accept that it’s a clever way for a handful of needy people to make some decent cash.

But if BBH’s history is any indication, their handful of Human Hotspots will be exploited until the festival is done and then quickly cast aside.

If any of the homeless people participating are reading this now while wearing your borrowed WiFi gear, my advice is to do like Rusty and run:

Jesse Brown is the host of’s Search Engine podcast. He is on Twitter @jessebrown


Using homeless people as WiFi hotspots

  1. This country that I have lived in for the past 13 months (with a few more to come) is truly a remarkable place. Two words to me describe the US- innovation and excess. 

    Homeless people as wi-fi hotspots combines both attributes; it is however, along with competitive eating, indefensible.   

  2. I’m almost amazed that they aren’t using the “host’s” biorhythms to power the wifi hotspot, à la Matrix.  Perhaps the technology isn’t quite there to reach that level of gruesomeness.

  3. Z Khan ~ Essay On Dignity Of Labour:

    ‘Work is worship’ is one of the truest proverbs. The idea contained in the saying is this that all labour, manual or otherwise, is full of dignity and nobility. It equals work with prayer. It emphasizes the point that empty verbal prayers are not as valuable as real achievement in any fields.

    Many people in the present generation, however, have a mistaken idea that manual labor is the means of the power man’s livelihood and has something undignified about it. The higher and the middle classes in our country are apt to look down upon the manual work done by the poorer classes to earn their daily bread.

    • ‘Work is worship’ is one of the truest proverbs.’

      A convenient philosophy for leaders to promote. Why anybody believes it is the mystery.

  4. What’s the problem here?  

    • I agree. All the people crying about the “dignity” of the homeless are perfectly happy to hand them a toonie for doing nothing, but horrified by the idea of paying them a toonie for something of nominal value. Why? Because purchasing their service means you have to hang around with them for a few minutes.

      This is not an issue about the homeless, it’s an issue about the self-image of those who deplore it.

    • Jerry we must do the moral thing here… pretend not to see homeless people, until we walk past them. 

    • That the company doing this isn’t paying these people minimum wage to be their walk-around advertising.

      Other than that.. nothing, so far as I can see.

      • The company who put this together says the program was developed in conjunction with programs at a local shelter, and all participants were guaranteed $50 for a 6 hour day, regardless of donations received (which is more than Texas minimum wage apparently).

        • My mistake then. I really don’t have any clue why someone would be against it. Hell, it strikes me as a better job than those poor schleps who have to get out there and spin signs along the road-ways.

          At least these guys get to decide where they’re going to hang out.

  5. What do you expect from a society that has an epidemic of obesity and homelessness? Maybe some of the former could hire some of the latter to lessen their life’s burden?

    • As Fran Leibowitz said, “Let the lonely lead the blind.”

      • :) That’s marvelous. What was the context,do you know? Obviously i was being sarcastic.

        • As I recall, it was part of polemic against people with dogs. That was her response to the objection that dogs are useful companions to the blind and the lonely. I haven’t read her in years (I don’t think she has written in years) but I remembered that line when I read your post.

  6. I guess I’d see selling hotspot service as more dignfied than panhandling. 

  7. I do volunteer  work for a couple of Homeless organizations and I’ll tell you they love this.

    • They’re doing it in Calgary?

      • No, we aren’t. But always looking for an innovative and easy way to help them out of the streets. And having close contact with many of the homeless, they would like this too, most of them like to find a job that can help even if it is just to cover their immediate needs and doesn’t need a lot of training.

        There is a homeless guy who started his delivery coffee to offices in Calgary for a very minimal charge and is doing very well. Most have very little education and are intimidated by system and they feel lost, anything relatively easy like this, that allows some minimal interaction with people and makes a little money I think is a winner, and they are not offended by it.

        I think is good IMO.

  8. They’re being paid to provide a service… I don’t understand your uproar.

  9. I think Jesse is protesting too much.
    If he is not and I’m wrong, then you should look up “the Streisand effect.”

  10. Another perspective:  CNET.

    Important to note, the participants in the program keep all money they raise, and are GUARANTEED at least $50 for a six hour day from the company, regardless of how much they make in donations, which is more than Texas minimum wage.

    •  And by CNET, you of course mean Maclean’s…

      • Disqus messed up the link.

        Let’s try that again: CNET article.

        Google “Homeless hot spots at SXSW: A manufactured controversy” if the link gets messed up again.

  11. Their problem is, they shouldn’t have made T-Shirts that introduced the program by saying “I’m Clarence, A 4G Hotspot”.  Forget about the merits of the program, the second you see that you want a shelter to start handing out competing t-shirts that say “I’m Clarence, a HUMAN BEING”.  They clearly didn’t think that through.

    The program seems as though it may well have some merit, but unfortunately the marketing on the T-shirts is literally dehumanizing.

    • So when someone identifies him/herself as a Cook, or a Nurse, or a Truck Driver, or a Cabbie then they are dehumanizing themselves?

      I think that people are horrified at the idea of treating the homeless the same way that they would treat anyone else. In our culture everyone is identified by what they do. When you’re at home, you’re whatever you call yourself. When you’re at work, you are the work that you do. That’s consistent across all ‘class’ levels. I think people get angry at having to confront their own attitudes towards the homeless.  

      •  There’s a distinction you’re missing.  I think it would be beneficial for you to get it after some thought than be told.

        • Well, aren’t you the generous benefactor? I’ll just sit here quietly and think about what I’ve done, mister.

      • A cook, nurse, truck driver or cabbie is not the equivalent of a “4G hotspot”.

        Referring to someone as a 4G hotspot isn’t like referring to someone as a teacher, it’s like referring to someone as a telephone pole.

        • why not? If my job that voluntarily accepted was to be a telephone pole, what would be wrong with saying “i’m a telephone pole”?

          • What would be wrong with using homeless people as telephone poles???

            Is there any limit? Can we use them as tables, and chairs, and ottomans as well? What about rugs? I need something to wipe me shoes on when I come in from outside. If I can get a homeless person to volunteer to take the job of lying in my hallway and letting me clean my shoes on him, is that OK?

          • Are we paying them appropriately?  Do they have the freedom to leave the job?

            I mean, no, it’s not a job I’d want to do, so the amount you’d have to pay me to do it would be fairly exorbitant.  That said, if you’re willing to pay me $500/hr to be a table, then with appropriate restrictions, like no gum stuck to the table, trivets and heat protectors used, etc, let me know where I should set up.

            And any really rich folks/celebrities reading this.. think about it.. what a conversation starter at your next party, eh? You could even claim it as some sort of art piece commenting on the human condition to your liberal friends.

            Heck for a small surcharge, I’d be willing to wear an “Occupy” billboard to look like I just came from the protests.

        • So if the T-shirts said, “I’m a hotspot Provider” you’d be onside?

          I do understand your point, I just think it’s a little bit strained.

          • Yes, in fact, that would be much better.

            I don’t think I’m straining much to make my point. It’s the difference between giving the homeless person who helps you out at the gym a t-shirt that says “Sparing Partner” and giving him a t-shirt that says “Punching Bag”. It’s the difference between labelling someone as a human being delivering a service, and labelling them as an inanimate object spitting out a signal.

          • Yes, but in all your t-shirt scenarios you’re discounting the free will of the person sporting the message. It’s not for us to say what is degrading to the person who wears the t-shirt, that is their call to make. You can’t – or at least you shouldn’t – condescend to people by making such judgements on their behalf.

            See, that’s what lies at the heart of this, IMO. This arrangement does not appear to trouble the homeless but it sure seems to trouble some folks who are comfortably ‘homed’ (if I can abuse the language in that way.) People who claim to be concerned for the dignity of the homeless won’t grant them the simple courtesy of letting them look out for their own dignity.

            It is a patronizing attitude, IMO.

          • you’re discounting the free will of the person sporting the message.

            No I’m not. A human being is perfectly free to choose to wear a dehumanizing t-shirt. I’m not suggesting these men (and women?) were in any way incapable of making an informed decision, I’m suggesting that the people running the program shouldn’t have made whether or not to wear a degrading t-shirt a part of the volunteers’ decision making process at all.

            Maybe it’s a bit patronizing, but I just don’t see the “here, wear this degrading t-shirt and make some money, or don’t, and don’t” as exactly a great “choice” to present a homeless person with. There’s probably all sorts of things that a homeless person would “agree” to do that a homeowner would not. And they’re perfectly free to make that choice. I’d just prefer if rich people presented less humiliating choices, when the opportunity presents itself.

          • Sorry, one more thing.

            If I remark that I’ve noticed that there are traffic counters at a busy intersection am I describing college students in lawn chairs, or little black boxes on the curb?

          • A “counter” can be a mechanical counting machine, or a human being that counts. However, unless they performed some sort of Johnny Mnemonic-style surgery on these volunteers (God, please, tell me they didn’t, lol) there’s no way for a human being to be a “4G hotspot”.

          •   I’d just prefer if rich people presented less humiliating choices, when the opportunity presents itself.Maybe you should stop humilating them by telling them that you know, better than they do, how to protect their dignity.  


          • Again, they’re fully capable of protecting their own dignity, and deciding where to draw those lines for themselves. However, why does a group trying to assist them have to lower the bar?

  12. For those who support this and see nothing wrong…I imagine then that you are more willing to believe the studies on the biological effects of wireless technology that are funded by telecom companies, which conclude electromagnetic radiation is harmless, vs. third-party studies that have observed a host of illnesses including cancer. 

    • blah blah

      • Lol. Come on. Shirley you learned more than that in school.

  13. right, cause begging for spare change is soooo much more dignified than, you know, ACTUALLY WORKING.  

  14. Hmm, more self-righteous blather from Jesse, surprise, surprise.  He even has the hubris to suggest to the homeless people reading this blog (I’m sure they do all the time, what with your clear concern with the less fortunate) that they should refuse to be paid for providing a useful service to others.  The indiginity of it all!

  15. Sorry, Jesse, but this article is ridiculous heaped on insulting with strong overtones of hypocrisy and snobbery. Here are just a few things wrong with it:

  16. This honestly isn’t as bad as you make it sound. I hate when people just rag on one side and can’t see the big picture. Yes this could be considered degrading! However, do you think think homeless people feel degraded for asking for change anyways? They are providing a service, and interacting with their community as well as making a bit of cash for it… Kind of like the squeegee kids, I would rather pay someone to wipe my windows then just ask me for money cause they are providing a service, just like any other business. If you consider them to be exploited then why are they doing it in the first place? They wouldn’t do it if they didn’t want to or have to, to survive. If you’ve never worked a job you didn’t like just to survive you need to take a step back and keep your mouth shut. The only bad thing about it is the company supporting this is dressing it up to be something it’s not. Something corporations do everyday.