For the better part of the past 48 hours, folks have been asking if we’re outraged. The unspoken assumptions are 1. that we’ve been following the Austin, Texas “Homeless Hotspots” controversy (it’s been hard to avoid) and 2. that we find the enlistment of persons experiencing homelessness in a project to sell Wi-Fi access to participants attending a technology conference somehow morally reprehensible (um, not so fast).
Here are a few things we find morally reprehensible and outrageous:
- The persistence of homelessness in the wealthiest nation in the history of history.
- 50 million Americans lacking health insurance each year with an equal number underinsured and at risk of medical bankruptcy – both of which can lead to homelessness.
- New federal data analyzed this week by the National Low Income Housing Coalition showing that a full-time worker must earn $18.25 per hour to afford the rent and utilities on a modest two-bedroom apartment – when the federal “minimum wage” is just $7.25 an hour.
- The budget of the Department of Housing and Urban Development at 40% of what it was in 1979 – adjusting for inflation – and the credible rumors of continued cuts.
Contemporary homelessness emerged over the past 30 years following specific public policy decisions, and despite recent acknowledgement at the highest levels of the federal government that supportive housing is in fact the solution to homelessness (as we were delighted to hear HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan tell the Daily Show audience early this month) evidence mounts at overburdened shelters, soup kitchens, and health clinics that the problem is only getting worse. That’s what’s outrageous. More women. More men. More children. More entire intact families sleeping on park benches and under bridges because the shelters are full. Late last year, a woman 8 ½ months pregnant, turned away from shelter, slept on the front porch of Health Care for the Homeless. That’s what’s reprehensible.
Current events at an Austin technology conference aren’t in the same book let alone on the same page.
Now, we’ll grant that the very concept of people without homes serving as hotspots to provide Internet access from our phones, tablets, and laptops also strikes us – in the words of several early commentators – as a bit “dystopian.” But isn’t the reality that millions of Americans live in overcrowded shelters and cardboard boxes with millions more lacking health insurance and employment far more “Brave New World-ish” than a handful of people selling mobile Internet access? And while it’s definitely a phenomenon worth contemplating – leaping in a few days from tech blogs to mainstream television and radio and even across the pond to the BBC – it’s hardly the issue that should inspire outrage or divert our attention from the more important work of ending homelessness altogether.
As the sponsoring company BBH Labs points out, Homeless Hotspots was conceived as an extension of the “Street Newspaper” concept where homeless individuals produce and sell papers for a buck or two – bringing this model “into the digital age.” Critics and supporters subsequently have debated this very point. We’re drawn to the argument that people experiencing homelessness take a more active and empowering role in the creation of newspaper content, that such initiatives provide opportunities for community organizing and education, and that this may differentiate one activity from the other. But we’re not sure the models are all that different. As with so many endeavors, it would seem to hinge upon the implementation. Street newspapers can be operated in an exploitative or empowering manner. Factory jobs and just about every other form of employment can be exploitative or empowering, too. The offering of a product or service (in this case a decent Internet connection) for money is what we do here in the Unites States, is it not?
An important thing accomplished by both street newspapers and Homeless Hotspots, as pointed out by blogger and activist Mark Horvath, is that each provides opportunities for meaningful human interaction between people in the general public who may not fully understand issues of homelessness and marginalized individuals who understand those issues all too well. Also in both models, the exchange of money takes place between customer and vendor rather than between beggar and begged. (Although the former roles may generate greater levels of comfort among all involved, we shouldn’t forget that begging and the conditions necessitating it ought to make us uncomfortable.)
Baltimore launches its own street newspaper this month – primarily in non-digital hard copy for now. The editors and writers of the street paper – most of whom are people with the past and current experience of homelessness – may wish to bring the Hotspot concept to Baltimore, but we’ll let them be the ones to make that decision. I’m eager to learn their take on the issue and the controversy – though I’m sure the arguments in the group similarly will fall all over the map. Which brings me to the penultimate point: if one wants to evaluate the usefulness and degree of possible exploitation of an activity involving people experiencing homelessness – how about we start by asking people experiencing homelessness. Glad to see mainstream media finally getting around to direct interviews with Homeless Hotspots participants yesterday. Knee-jerk assumptions that “we” must advocate for “those” who can’t – the bottom line of an outraged “action alert” that recently hit our inboxes – misses the reality that the most powerful advocacy comes from those with the most direct understanding of the problem.
Final point: Homeless Hotspots is no substitute for health care, housing, and jobs – resources needed to end homelessness. Shelter isn’t the solution to homelessness. But in the absence of sufficient housing resources, it’s a humane interim step. A week-long conference gig isn’t the solution to joblessness. But in the absence of employment paying a decent living wage, who’s to begrudge anyone the opportunity to make a few honest bucks? Anything truly solved at the end of the day? Not particularly. But neither are we convinced that there’s any real harm done. And who knows? Maybe by facilitating conversation and awareness, some good will come out of it, too.
We welcome anyone whose fire has been fueled by outrage over this “social experiment” to join us in our necessary work toward public policies capable of making homelessness increasingly rare and brief. Ending homelessness will be our best collective social innovation.