So many homeless, and such a need in today’s society for fast Internet access--put them together and what have you got? What you’ve got is a dangerously new low in degrading the human being down to the level of a listening post.
BBH experimented with having homeless people carry special equipment and wear T-shirts advertising themselves as 4G hotspots at the South by Southwest (SXSW) “geekfest” conference in Austin, Texas. The homeless person as hotspot accepts a donation in exchange for 4G access for the donor.
Thus, when we log on to the Homeless Hot Spots Web site, we are introduced to Clarence. In fact, when you visit Clarence’s homepage, you are invited to make a donation. The page explains, “Homeless Hotspots is a charitable innovation initiative by BBH New York. It attempts to modernize the Street Newspaper model employed to support homeless populations.”
Is this really what this is about? BBH New York calls the homeless their “collaborators.” They contend the have offered “homeless individuals an opportunity to sell a digital service instead of a material commodity.”
Before we judge, let’s meet somebody else. Let’s meet Moody Roark, a vendor for Streetwise, the Chicago street newspaper.
Moody’s “poet name” is ‘r.e. moody.’ According to his bio on his Web site hosted by Streetwise, Moody “is a Vietnam veteran who has always set a good example for other vendors. He works hard, has a great rapport with his customer base and cares about the people with whom he interacts. He is also a very talented poet and began writing poetry at the age of 12.”
Here’s a part of one of r.e. moody’s poems: “The war has just shed another forgotten soldier of fortune. Stripped of his strength, a stranger to these times; Merely a babe these days, these times. Troubled man, the hero…”
Moody Roark’s poem helped me think about what’s in the news today, the American soldier accused of the massacre of women and children in Afghanistan. According to media reports, this American soldier had brain damaged from a combat injury.
Moody made me reflect: Don’t we make a mistake in calling those we send to war “heroes” when perhaps, with their injuries, body, mind and spirit, we should call them “babes” or even “victims”?
But who’s kidding whom here? BBH claims it is taking the high road, trying to get street newspapers modernized through digital technology. Streetwise is already in cyberspace, in a way that does not make Moody a cyber-portal, but lets him showcase his art and his knowledge. Moody became who he is today through war, the Vietnam War. We learn from Moody. We learn about war, something very much needed today. He is making money selling Streetwise, but he’s not selling his soul. He’s touching ours.
Streetwise, I contend, is a way for Moody and many other vendors like him to have some basic dignity, not only in the way he makes money from selling papers, but from their online showcasing of their work as creators, as artists, as people of ability.
Clarence, on the other hand, stands on the street with equipment strapped to him and is a means to someone else’s connectivity.
If we cannot see the difference, then as a society we have truly lost our moral compass.
UPDATE: I would like to add, having read responses to this post from many whom I respect, that I believe my analysis above is incomplete. I believe this issue of “homeless hotspots,” as I presented it above, falls into what has become typical for dealing with homelessness today. We focus on the homeless as themselves a problem to be solved. I still believe that treating a homeless person as a 4G Internet site is degrading to them, but the overarching issue must be considered within a failure of social policy on a huge number of levels. Homelessness is the product of many social policy failures relating to joblessness in a slow economic recovery, the housing debacle, cuts in programs for addiction recovery and the failure to treat the post-traumatic stress disorder of many of our returning veterans. For far more complete considerations, please consult the National Coalition for the Homeless, the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, and the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans among others.
An On Faith panelist and former president of Chicago Theological Seminary (1998-2008), Thistlethwaite is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.