Pilot program at SXSW festival helps homeless people earn cash

POSTED: Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - 12:15pm

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - 12:19pm

When the economy took a downturn a few years ago, Mark found himself out of work.

"My company downsized and I found myself not being able to pay for rent or work or have an income," said the former electrician.

But during Austin, Texas' South By Southwest festival, Mark has the opportunity thanks to a British advertising company that is turning him into an internet hotspot.

Homeless Hotspots is a pilot program making its debut at SXSW and puts wireless internet devices around the neck of 13 homeless people who volunteered.

They all walk the area around the convention center and anyone nearby can have access to their 4G wireless connection.

"Hotspots, Hotspots! If you need to get online, I am your guy," yelled Mark among hundreds of people passing by.

In exchange for the internet, users are given a password to donate to Mark who keeps all of the donations, but the best gift might not be monetary.

"I got to meet some nice people from Europe and Australia," said Mark.

BBH, the company with the idea for the program says they have received criticism from those who think it is exploitative, but the program simply brings the old newspaper sales model into the digital age.

"Any donations go directly to that person," said BBH's Tim Nolan. "All their stories are extremely human and touching."

Front Steps director of development Mitchell Gibbs agrees that the program puts a human touch on the homeless problem in Austin.

"A client told me that it is a chance to talk to people who normally would have walked right past me," Gibbs said.

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