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Homeless Acting as 4G Hotspots: Charity or Exploitation?

In a controversial charitable experiment at SXSW Interactive, 13 homeless men are roaming the festival grounds as wireless hotspots, allowing tech-heads and writers to quickly blog and update their online status messages when they're within range. Touted as "Homeless Hotspots," the men have been outfitted with 4G-to-Wi-Fi gear and t-shirts declaring, "I'm ______, and I'm a 4G hotspot." We spoke to Clarence from the program to see what he thought about the entire thing.

"Feel bad about what? A job? Do you feel bad about your job?" boomed Clarence when I asked him about the campaign. He was a tall, jovial guy in good spirits when I met him on the cross-streets of 3rd and Trinity in front of the Austin Convention Center.

Clarence was clutching a Verizon 4G LTE MiFi, just like the one I had on me. After telling me sternly that if I wanted to get any details on either Front Steps or BHD — the organizations responsible for the program — I'd have to speak to them, he readily answered my questions. At the time, he wasn't helping any of the conference attendees who were around connect to the Internet.

"I'm advertising me," Clarence said firmly when I inquired whether the program was supposed to promote anything else. "I'm helping me—I don't have anything to do with T-Mobile, Verizon, none of those people. I'm doing this for me."

He confirmed that 100% of what users donate to use his hotspot will go to him or one of his colleagues. Whoever convinced the passersby to connect to their hotspot would get the full donation. The suggested amount is $2 for 15 minutes, but people could donate more if they wished. Clarence told me they don't take cash; they're not working as beggars on this job. He directed me to PayPal when I asked where I could make a contribution.

Clarence said it was part of the job to ensure people stayed connected, so if a customer moved around the space, he'd make sure to follow them.

I asked Clarence if they had been in Austin for the awful weather earlier on, and he said they had been at the Convention Center since day one. When I asked where the other guys with the program were posted, he pointed at a few corners and said the last one was probably at his other part-time job.

The New York ad firm behind the initiative, BBH, has been rapidly racking up criticism from the Internet and outraged SXSW attendees. According to Buzzfeed FWD, Saneel Radia, the Head of Innovation at BBH New York, already issued a response.

"The worry is that these people are suddenly just hardware," he said, "but frankly, I wouldn't have done this if I didn't believe otherwise." He added, "We're very open to this criticism."

But some of the organizers responsible for Homeless Hotspots defend their position. Mitchell Gibbs, a spokesperson from Front Steps -- the homeless advocacy group that coordinated the program with BBH -- told Buzzfeed FWD, "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."

The hashtag #HomelessHotspots is starting to go viral on Twitter. You can donate to Clarence via PayPal wherever you are using this link.

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via Buzzfeed FWD and NYTsxsw