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Interesting responses to the question of employing homeless people as wi-fi hotspots

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I'd written earlier about the outrage many felt that homeless people were being used at the South by Southwest conference as roaming mobile hotspots (for pay). I felt the issue was a bit more complicated than many we're claiming. It seems our commenters agree. Here are a few of the most interesting comments:

Randy Riddle:

Let's cut to the chase - this makes people feel really uncomfortable because it cuts at the heart of the class divides in the US, having very visible "labor" do "grunt work" for some well-off people who can afford to attend a major geek conference and fret over checking their email on an expensive technology device produced with close to slave labor in China.
Panhandling or selling blood is less of an insult to their dignity? I've got to be blunt: this sounds like a job to me, and even though it's not a job I'd choose to do unless I was in serious need, it's a way to make some money. If they were being asked to wear a costume, or behave in some undignified way, or something like that, I can see the trouble. As it is, I have to agree that it seems to be just a guilt reaction of some sort to decry this. I never like to see people having to wear costumes and wave signs by the road to advertise something, either, but that job might be supper for somebody's kids tonight. I've taken on jobs before myself that were not going to be long-term or lead to a career. I'd be thrilled if we could offer everybody well-paid manufacturing jobs with benefits, but until that day, I don't think we ought to see exploitation in every instance where the poor are asked to perform a service.
I find this offensive and heres why. This is nothing more than gross exploitation of the poor. There is NO sustainability to this project. As soon as SXSW is over the Mi-Fi program ends and what do you have left, a couple of humiliated homeless people with a little bit of money in their pocket. Whats the saying “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”. Why cant the homeless be trained to make this a sustainable way of living. Give them the tools to start a genuine enterprise providing Mi-Fi and that IMHO would be a win-win for all involved.
I was just pondering posting about this myself. I am generally of the opinion that nobody is forcing them to do it, and if it helps them out a bit - it is certainly better than panhandling. Is it dehumanizing? Maybe, but then, most technology is. I think they could be approaching it better though. Instead of basing it entirely around being a service provided by "homeless people", they should just be considered volunteers... and try to get people who are not homeless involved too. There are a few different things I have seen in Austin. Homeless selling newspapers, selling roses, selling oranges, selling bottled water... I don't really think this is any different.
A reader in Colorado:
For my part, the question was asked - is this just a cynical stunt to take advantage of the homeless, or a genuine effort to help them? My answer: cynical stunt to take advantage. That's replying to the question that was asked. Do I begrudge homeless people from doing it? Of course not. But that's not the question that was asked.
Jim Morrisey:
Any other reaction to this than: "that's a good way for homeless people to make money" is just privileged guilt. If they are homeless and panhandling and are offered to make money this way and they choose to do so, what's the issue? If they were forced to and the government was monitoring in them in some way then I can see an argument against it.
If you've ever been poor, or desperate for money you'll take it where you can get it. Hopefully it will help pull some people out of homelessness and bring more awareness to the issue. The homeless are often invisible, maybe this will cause people to pay more attention to them and even result in them getting to know some of them personally which may lead to assistance with food/clothing, shelter etc.
I feel disgusted every time I see a person waving a sign for a nearby business on the corner. It makes me sick that it is cheaper to pay a person to stand out in the heat/cold/rain flagging down traffic than to actually market traditionally.

Selling wi-fi access on the street is a bit different, though. A homeless person is given an actual product to sell, which provides them a more honorable way to ask for money. The homeless person is not begging, but is marketing. The money he/she raises goes directly to them. While a customer is loading tweets or emails, he/she can be conversing, which brings the two participants together, even if only for a moment. That might increase sympathy and understanding, which might ultimately lead to mending our social safety net whose holes these wi-fi marketers have fallen through.

Unlike sign-twirling or cardboard-flying, this idea is dignified and humanizing, and I think it can result in some good.
One other comment about this quote:

"Shouldn't it be up to the homeless themselves to decide whether they think it's too humiliating to their personal dignity to make a few bucks by selling wi-fi access? ... Are we in fact being elitist by thinking that this is somehow elitist?"

I think this is a great question that applies pretty much to all advocacy for the poor. If liberals like myself have faults -- and we have many, imho -- one of the biggest is probably our tendency to rain down sanctimony from our high horses.

But at the same time, our country is classist and many of us are upper class and therefore have a bigger voice. And with this bigger voice, we really need to speak up when we suspect someone is getting exploited.

Your question is a good one, though. I think it's important that when we do speak out, it's out of humility and compassion and not just out of sanctimonious navel gazing outrage. Once again, intent matters, I think.
I know a couple senior homeless women who are forced to work by panhandling: the safety net is so shredded that even if they've qualified for government support, it's not enough money to both feed and house them.

They have no choice but to do the only work that will feed them, and give them an occasional roof over their heads.

I'm pretty sure they'd be happy to wireless hot spots.
They are exploiting the homeless the way any employer could be said to be exploiting a low paid employee. It's a work from home job that could help them earn a few bucks which they sorely need. Plus it helps folks on the go ... Win/win ... I think it's brilliant but the practice should be monitored so that it doesn't get out of hand and spiral into exploitation of those unable to defend themselves ...there is of course the possibility of that ... On the surface however it seems like a pretty ingenious idea.
My g_d, it's the Depression all over again. Grown men selling apples and pencils and paper flowers.

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