Marketing firm behind ‘Homeless Hotspots’ program considering launching it in New York

As controversy swirls around an initiative to have homeless people serve as roving digital hotspots, the marketing minds behind the program are considering a New York launch.

“It’s still up in the air,” Saneel Radia, head of innovation at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, the Manhattan-based branding firm that debuted “Homeless Hotspots” at the South by Southwest interactive festival in Austin, Tex. last week.

The program made news on Sunday, forcing the company to defend its concept from a firestorm of criticism that the idea was dystopian and devalued human intelligence and dignity.

Working along with a homeless shelter, the program armed participants with a WiFi device and an ad-like T-shirt, turning them into human technology hubs offering high-speed Internet connectivity for a suggested price — $2 for 15 minutes.

Radia stressed that his firm is focused on bringing awareness to “the idea that homeless people are this invisible population among us.”

He noted that BBH’s goal is to invent “ways to improve” the current methods homeless populations use to generate revenue — and get them off the streets. The participants were allowed to keep the money they made.

“If we can give them the tools, that would be ideal,” Radia said.

But the possibility “Homeless Hotspots” could hit the streets of New York angered some advocates, who argued the controversy stirred up by the firm’s campaign detracts from the real problems facing the city’s homeless.

“BBH has crossed a line from cynicism to exploitation,” Public Advocate Bill de Blasio said in a statement Tuesday. “The campaign’s use of vulnerable people as WiFi hotspots ... has set off a justifiable national controversy.”

The mayoral hopeful cautioned that BBH should not import its initiative without speaking with local advocates for the homeless to ensure “fair and dignified treatment.”

Partnership for the Homeless CEO Arnold Cohen had harsher words for the marketing agency and its efforts, but said he would welcome a discussion with BBH officials if they came to him for advice.

“I think it's shameful that this is the conversation we're having about homelessness,” he said.

“It's more than absurd — it’s stomach-turning,” he added. “These are wonderful human beings who have lost their homes, and we need to understand the humanity of these folks and do something about it. And this is not doing something about it.”

Not everyone rejected the idea, however.

“I think it’s great,” said Joe Little, public relations manager at the New York City Rescue Mission, which has helped BBH on past projects with the city’s homeless population.

“Anytime that the poor can do something and it’s valuable enough that someone pays them for it, that is generally an overwhelmingly good thing,” he said.

“We have scores of gentlemen that are looking for work, that do day labor, that are open to whatever work is out there, and they would jump at the opportunity.”

NY Daily News