Street newspapers, sold mainly by homeless individuals, have become common since the founding of New York City’s Street News in 1989. Some have been written and produced by homeless contributors, while others cover mainstream issues and pop culture in an effort to gain broader readership and raise more funds for their homeless sellers. Street newspapers can provide work for homeless individuals—if not living wages—and increase awareness of homelessness among people who purchase them.
Mark Horvath points out that street newspapers also offer an alternative to panhandling for many—and an alternative, more positive interaction with homeless men and women for passers-by, which has the potential to change the way the average citizen perceives homelessness. A recent charitable innovation initiative by BBH New York called Homeless Hotspots says it seeks to modernize this model in the face of declining newspaper sales by hiring homeless individuals as “hotspot venders” carrying 4G hotspot cards. At the South By Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas where this initiative took place, homeless men and women charged passerby at “pay-as-you-wish” rates for access to their Wi-Fi connections.
Critics object that the effort was dehumanizing—the t-shirt slogan runs “I’m Clarence, a 4G hotspot,” supposedly equating homeless men and women with wifi. But as many of you know, being homeless in our society is already a dehumanizing and degrading experience—and whereas paper news used to be the voice of the people, now more of us get news online. Where does that leave the homeless? I’ve heard many people complain about homeless men and women with smart phones, as though these neighbors have no right to be heard in our modern media landscape. Perhaps critics haven’t done the math, and realized that it costs about $100 for a basic smartphone, and $50/month for unlimited data, whereas in Silicon Valley “cheap” studio apartments are going for more like $1,300/month. A smartphone—in lieu of a laptop computer—is no longer a luxury good, in the age of email. It’s even less so for somebody without a fixed physical address at which to receive snail mail.
Whether or not you agree with the Homeless Hotspots’ bold idea, it’s obvious that the world of media and news is changing rapidly. Our question is, where does that leave our homeless neighbors?
Leave a comment, and let us know what you think. How can we come together to make sure the voices of the homeless are heard?
- Homeless Hotspots program at SXSW causes an uproar (ubergizmo.com)
- SXSW 2012: British ad agency turns homeless into wifi hotspots (telegraph.co.uk)
- Homeless hotspots: Charitable or churlish? (blogs.vancouversun.com)