News from the USA this week provides a worrying insight into the ethics of companies looking to make a quick buck. A New York advertising agency is currently using 13 street homeless people in Austin, Texas as Wi-Fi antennas and has termed the project ‘Homeless Hotspots’. Giving each person a transmitter to carry they offer consumers the chance to access the hotspots for $2 (approx £1.30) per 15 minutes of internet use.
They state that all proceeds go directly to the homeless people involved and believe it is the 21st century’s evolution of the ‘Big Issue seller’. This is no charity though as the agency receives valuable information in return on the internet viewing habits of the consumer paying to use the hotspots. This can then be sold to big companies looking to target their advertising at specific audiences.
Of course the homeless people receive a source of income from the project which might not otherwise have been available to them. However, this is hardly enough to allow them to obtain permanent housing and change their lifestyle. Surely education and a job with the agency would be more beneficial to them than irregular $2 payments.
Twitter users have been forthcoming with their opinion on the matter, some praised the project as a ‘positive interaction between the public and homeless people’ others described it as a ‘gimmick’. What are the thoughts of the homeless people involved you may ask? An interview with one of the 13 suggested the project gave him the opportunity to ‘talk to people, maybe give them a different perception of what homelessness is like’.
The problem may lie with the general public’s perception. One commenter on the agency’s website complained ‘my homeless hotspot keeps wandering out of range’. This perhaps shows that to some at least, the homeless people have become commodities, things rather than people. Even the t-shirts they wear, proclaiming ‘I’m [First Name], a 4G Hotspot, SMS to 25827 For Access’ appear to de-humanise them. If projects like this become popular with advertisers then how long before the attitude towards homeless people changes from a human being in need of help, to another product to be used and discarded.
By housing law specialist, Andrew Middlehurst