A Cause For Concern: Homeless Hotspots at SXSW

If you haven’t already heard, there is some controversy being stirred up about an organization at SXSW (but unaffiliated with the festival) called “Homeless Hotspots” were 13 homeless individuals have been given 4G hotspots and placed throughout Austin where festival-goers can pay them in order to use their mobile devices. The organization claims it is trying to revitalize the model of selling street newspapers with something more relevant and likely to actually help homeless persons make more of a profit, while also upholding the street newspaper goal of building confidence and self-worth. To be clear, each manager is paid in full whatever they earn, which has been projected to be at least $50 a day for 6 hours of work. The charity has estimated that they “are not selling anything” and that “there is no commercial benefit whatsoever.”

Most of the scrutiny of the project points toward the notion that by becoming hotspots these individuals have been dehumanized and placed in the peripheral vision of the privileged. Even the program’s organizer, Saneel Radia, has identified with this criticism stating, “The worry is that these people are suddenly just hardware, but frankly, I wouldn't have done this if I didn't believe otherwise.” 

While many have villainized the organization for it’s use of hiring humans to become hotspots, the individuals themselves, who can be read about in their profiles on the charity’s website, seem somewhat positive about their participation in the charity. A Buzzfeed interview with one worker, Melvin, shed some positive light on the program and what it’s trying to accomplish. The Ohio native said, "I would say that these people are trying to help the homeless, and increase awareness. They're trying not to put us in a situation where we're stereotyped. That's a good side of it, too — we get to talk to people. Maybe give them a different perception of what homeless is like." 

After hearing both sides of the argument it is hard to decide what is so unsettling about this story. Yes, it seems that it has already positively affected and engaged a few homeless individuals and even created awareness that homelessness is not always a matter of making the wrong choices. It’s also obvious that this organization’s hearts are totally in the right place; hey, at least they are out there giving hope and empowerment to some individuals. At the same time, I could never see myself walking up to a homeless person and paying them for wi-fi for an iPod that cost $300 to send out a self-absorbed tweet about what trendy band I’m seeing next. There is just something instinctual odd about it that doesn’t sit right. 

Still, we do it everyday, even if this charity has reminded us. Our generation especially has tried to put these very real problems out of our minds, and while the internet has fueled awareness, it has also concurrently caused us to buy into all the myths of rugged individualism and as a result we have become overtly self-consumed. The proof is on any given social media news feed 24/7. Obviously building our infrastructure is vital to the repair of our economy, but mixing it with charity has somehow manipulated it and stripped it of it’s virtue. So much to the point where homeless individuals are being asked to become infrastructure because of their plight.

Isn't charity doing something for someone and not expecting anything in return? What is the obsession with always needing a t-shirt or something in return to raise "awareness?"

I realize this article has little to do with music, but I'd appreciate any input on the matter. Leave a comment if you agree or disagree or just have something to add.

Tom Dennis


  1. It's very easy to make judgements about the homeless, even though most of us have never been. If the organization is doing it for the right reasons and the individuals don't feel exploited, who are we to judge?

  2. Yeah, that's a good point. I even read that one worker referred to it as his "small business."

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