Question: Does a person with a buck in his pocket possess a greater moral compass than those without so much as a dime?
How about having two bucks in your pocket? What does that buy?
Well, as you may know by now, if you happened to be at this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Tech Conference in Austin, Texas, a pair of dollars would get your smartphone or laptop at least 15 minutes of 4G WiFi access from a homeless person armed with special equipment that transforms him or her into a walking hot spot.
This was the brainchild of New York’s Bartle, Bogle, Hegarty (BBH) ad agency, whose tag line is, appropriately, “When others zig, zag,” and whose “lab” dreamed up the idea as a “charitable experiment.”
Working in partnership with Austin’s Front Steps Shelter, BBH Labs outfitted 20 homeless people with self-powered 4G Mi-Fi modems, gave them each a $20 stipend, and sent them off to earn more money by mingling with conference attendees and offering them internet connectivity for a suggested $2 per 15 minutes.
Of course, let’s be for real. BBH Labs was banking on garnering high visibility from it all. And they weren’t disappointed either. No sooner did the story hit the pages of the New York Times, than bloggers from coast to coast began piping in. And for most of them, the response was shock and outrage.
I spent a dozen years on the street during the height of the homeless explosion. And after plowing through a half dozen or so heated “homeless hotspot”--headlined blogs, I honestly felt like saying, Hey! I know you mean well, but please, take a cyber breath, will you?
Take, for example, the cyber journalist who was so abashed that the scheme robbed homeless people of their dignity, she went so far as to wonder if society had taken leave of its humanity. Her passion was heartening. Yet her comments struck me as being a bit armchair in perspective.
I mean, before I landed a gig selling--then writing for, then editing--Street News, I took in an average of $40 a day digging refundable cans and bottles out of the trash.
There were others on the street who panhandled for cash. Given a choice, I’d take toting a MiFi modem around over both, as far as dignity is concerned. Plus, five minutes at it, me being me, and my customers would know who I am and what I am about.
Speaking of Street News, it was ironic to find so many commenters using the selling of homeless newspapers as the paragon against which the WiFi experiment paled in comparison. As I remember, when Street News first appeared on the scene it was met with some of the same kind of hand wringing then that has surfaced in response to this new initiative.
Funny, since it always struck me that in branding Street News as a social instrument, i.e., a charity, it undermined the premise that those who sold it were engaged in real enterprise. Enterprise means having a product that consumers demand. If the product relies on the fact that the seller is needy to create that demand, then it falls a lot closer to the exploitation side of things.
Homelessness is a complicated issue, complained one blogger. This isn’t going to solve the problem. And he is of course right about that. But this was an initiative of a for-profit corporate entity. It’s not a social program. For-profit corporations don’t do that. Nor are they expected to. In fact, their boards and officers are bound by law to do what is fiduciarily beneficial to their shareholders, i.e., promoting corporate interests and maximizing profits. No-one’s jaw need drop open when they do this, even if non-domiciled persons are involved. It’s what they call enterprise.
While we’re on the subject, look around you. Two decades of social tinkering by scores of very capable social agencies have not “solved” the homeless problem--which I take to mean ending homelessness outright. I have to tell you that a chill has always gone down my spine whenever I hear that phrase, because this is easily done: Simply outlaw it; force street people indoors if you have to; make them move in with their relatives, regardless of how toxic the relationship, and it’s a done deal.
There is a big difference between the impulse to help people and the impulse to end something. Sure, someone living on the street might at times long for a roof and a warm bed. But not everyone on the street is ready to make the wholesale move indoors successfully. I know that for many years I wasn’t. I also know that when I was ready, there were true angels of charity standing by, ready to offer up a hand in getting me there.
At the same time, it often is that paternalism rides in on charity’s wings. Which brings me back to the question I opened with. Within the chorus of advocates in the “homeless hotspots” commentaries I read, there was nothing about what homeless people themselves thought of the idea. I’d hazard to guess that most of them were not as perturbed as were those who spoke in their stead. Being needed, even for a simple thing like touting WiFi access, was not by any stretch offered as a constant color on my pallet when I was out there.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not out to bash anyone here. I’m aware that in these fast-paced, high-tech times, journalists must rush to make deadline, bloggers must race to beat them, and that out of this the temper of our reactions more readily rise than does the produce of our critical thinking. And I too, in my urge to help the next fellow must inevitably resign myself to struggle and stumble at finding my way.
What I try to keep in mind is that every social problem, after all, boils down to a fundamental question: How, in an increasingly textured world, are we to reasonably exist? How are we to remain human to one another? And the answer to that has been--and will likely always be—that we just keep at it.Get up every morning and give it another honest-to-God try.