‘Homeless Hotspots’ Debut at South by Southwest to Online Uproar

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Homeless Hotspots

Homeless people as wireless hotspots? Yes, it’s happening at South by Southwest, an annual music, film and interactive festival in Austin, Texas.

This is by no means a joke. Instead, it’s all part of a public-relations stunt from New York-based marketing firm BBH and local homeless-advocacy group Front Steps. According to BuzzFeed, outside of the conference are 13 homeless people acting as your own personal router. Armed with devices, “…for a PayPal donation, [they] will provide conference-goers with Internet access for as long as they want.” South by Southwest Interactive often finds a range of tech entrepreneurs and journalists in attendance each year. In fact, Twitter made its own debut at the festival several years ago.

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The buzz at the conference has been fierce, and can hardly be called positive. “Anyone else find using homeless persons as “Homeless Hotspots” at SXSWi disturbing, dehumanizing, offensive?” suggested attendee Anniina Jokinen.

The Homeless Hotspots campaign has since made it known to the general public that all the money goes to the homeless individuals. “It’s their business,” the campaign reiterated, noting the enthusiasm the project was receiving among participants. Similarly, Front Steps shot back, saying that:

I think the fit [with Front Steps] is in the empowerment, education, and encouragement of the client to earn an income while saving the majority of those earnings with a goal of moving to safe and stable housing.

Saneel Radia, who was behind the campaign, says he gets the reaction, though he is not regretting the campaign. “The worry is that these people are suddenly just hardware.”

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Erica Ho is a contributor at TIME and the editor of Map Happy. Find her on Twitter at @ericamho and Google+. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.