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Homelessness Meets Privilege at SXSWi

Yesterday, I attended Leslie Cochran’s memorial service in Austin. Though the weekend had been rainy and cold leading up to Sunday, the sky turned blue and the sun began warming the city just hours before the memorial. On the shores of Town Lake, Leslie was remembered for his loving nature and willingness to help others. Leslie’s sister described him as embodying the spirit of Christ with his unflagging generosity. His eccentricities, which attracted so much attention, were only a side note. The memorial focused primarily on his humanity, flawed at it was–his erratic behavior, alcoholism, and stubbornness were remembered in addition to his generosity. People sang and cheered for Leslie. Biodegradable balloons (pictured) with messages to Leslie were released to heaven along with the shout, “heaven just got a lot more weird.” The community spirit of the event showed what I love about Austin: it is an unconditionally accepting, fundamentally odd place.

Today, I woke up to Twitterific discussions of the “Homeless Hotspots” available at SXSW Interactive (SXSWi). The project equips homeless people with 4G wireless hotspots and sends them out into the wilds of SXSWi to find people in need of a data connection. The suggested payment is $2 for 15 minutes of 4G access. The criticism of the project centers on whether it truly helps the homeless participants in a sustainable way, as well as whether it’s respectful to them as people. The criticism is fairly well founded, and I (like others) have a particular problem with the fact that the shirts say “I am a 4G hotspot” rather than “I have a 4G hotspot,” which takes away a degree of humanity from the hotspot providers.

Given this criticism, however, it’s striking that only two of the many pieces of coverage on the issue I’ve checked so far seem to have actually talked to any of the people participating in the project. Most journalists went straight to the project organizers, not the participants, bystepping the people the whole thing is about. I’m really disappointed in this lack of engagement, because it means that coverage of the issue is perpetuating the very de-humanization it purports to oppose–we (myself included) are talking about homeless people in the abstract, rather than actually engaging with them as people. That’s the truly sad thing.

At Leslie’s memorial, I started thinking of him as an entrepreneur of sorts. I guess I’d had the idea in my mind previously, to some extent (thanks to those refrigerator magnets, which I do in fact own) but the juxtaposition of his memorial service to SXSWi brought the comparison into starker relief. Standing in the gravel listening to Leslie’s friends speak, I tried to imagine Leslie giving a keynote at SXSWi. Would he be taken seriously, or reduced to a caricature? Would people be capable of accepting that a homeless person might have something to teach them–something worth a $600 badge price? I can’t see it happening, nor do I necessarily think it should–Leslie was not a technology expert (to my knowledge). But he did clearly understand something about engaging with people, a topic that seems to be at the heart of SXSWi today.

The kerfluffle about Homeless Hotspots is reminiscent of the controversy regarding (Stop) Kony 2012. Both controversies involve well-intentioned but marketing-centric efforts to help people. Both efforts have been criticized for failing to address underlying issues. Even the criticism of both efforts has the potential to further increase knowledge about important social issues, and that awareness is a good thing. But it’s not good to not get your information right, nor is it good for marketing campaigns–or journalistic coverage–to gloss over the actual voices and identities of the people involved in an event.

I think part of the negative reaction to Homeless Hotspots comes from the notion that it’s somehow insulting for for homeless people to provide access to 4G technology, being that it’s something they may not have consistent access to themselves. But many of homeless people have cell phones, if not consistent ways to charge them. And this type of reaction even has a faint scent of privilege: what do those homeless people have to do with my 4G network? I don’t think anyone actually believes anything like this, of course, but it seems to be at least a minor feeling in the discussion. I liked Danny Page’s suggestion that programs teach programming to provide sustainable skills, not just provide temporary employment. But anything is better than nothing, and anything that gets people advocating for the homeless–not just talking about them–is better than nothing.

In Twitter cofounder Biz Stone’s SXSWi keynote this afternoon, he suggested that marketing is the new philanthropy, which felt false to me. Marketing has the (potentially unfair) reputation of being self-promotional, about a product rather than a person or cause; marketing has the tendency to gloss over facts in favor of hyperbole. It’s too sanitized; it’s not real enough. But Stone also called for people to be creative, embrace failure, ask questions, and develop empathy, and it’s hard to argue with any of these directives. The last is especially relevant in this context. But I hope that when people leave Austin, they also remember the people who literally aren’t connected. The people who provide the hotspots, not use them. The people without jobs, much less badges; without homes, much less without 4G access. Say what you will about the Homeless Hotspots experiment, it’s accomplished one thing I’ve definitely never seen before: a discussion of homeless people at SXSW.

All I can think of at this point is an image described at Leslie’s memorial service yesterday. Leslie was staying with a friend, who bought him a denim apron to use while house cleaning. The friend returned home to find Leslie on her porch, naked except for the apron. I think SXSWi has found itself a little naked today, its privilege exposed, but I hope the conference can use the opportunity to learn, grow, and do some good for people in need. As Leslie’s friend Liz suggested yesterday, “Just say ‘Hi.'” Greet homeless people. Greet non-homeless people. Talk to others as people–not hotspots. Not homeless people. Not startup founders. Not people in need. Just as people, who have something interesting to say and are willing to listen to you.
I pledge to say hi to homeless people from now on, and to donate to a homeless organization in my area when I return from Austin. If every single person who discussed the Homeless Hotspots controversy does the same, it will have done at least some good.

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