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Homeless Hotspots: Where We Go From Here

26th March 12

Posted by Saneel Radia

Posted in sxsw

When we started planning for SXSW, we could not have anticipated that our idea for a four-day philanthropic project to update the street newspaper model would spark such a widespread debate.  The volume of the response to this program has reinforced our ongoing commitment to this issue, and the feedback has helped us explore the ways in which we can draw attention to it, support it, and effect change.

Homeless Hotspots has connected us with representatives of some of the nation’s leading advocacy groups and street newspaper organizations with whom we are beginning to have conversations about the challenges facing the current street newspaper model and ideas for overcoming these challenges with technology and innovation.  In many ways, we owe these connections and the future of this program to those at front lines of this issue, like Mitchell Gibbs at Front Steps in Austin, Mark Horvath of invisiblepeople.tv, and writer Becky Blanton who spoke at TED about her time being homeless.

Where we go from here is directly tied to how we wrestle with some complicated issues that any street newspaper attempting to deploy change will have to answer for themselves – issues we’ve come to sharply appreciate amidst all the debate. Our aim is to partner closely with these groups to utilize the lessons and best practices learned from this experience. Based on conversations to date, our shared goal is a sustainable model that continues to bring homeless people entrepreneurial opportunities that challenge stereotypes, derive purpose and create meaningful interactions with society.

While street newspapers are facing the same challenges as many other traditional media outlets, there are a number of more complicated issues that need to be addressed.  We’ve outlined the salient ones below.

1. Quantifying an acceptable level of provocation in the name of the cause. One of the big discussion points from Homeless Hotspots was the line “I’m a hotspot” on the t-shirts, a line we too debated internally before and during the program.  The goal of the t-shirt was to create a marketing material that was provocative enough to get message-bombarded festival attendees to actually stop and speak with a homeless person – to spark a human connection and a conversation with a person who is often treated as invisible.  Thus, the humanity of the project lived in the actual conversation between the Hotspot Manager and their customer. But what about the potentially negative reaction to that message by some that didn’t stop (or who simply weighed in from afar via the web)? It was many in this group that created a wave of negative sentiment online. While the participants in the program saw the shirts as an ideal social lubricant on the streets, the message took on new meaning when it spread online.

Any entrepreneurial sales venture for the homeless must be carefully designed.  The newspaper organization basically works like a franchisor responsible for distributing materials to franchisees, but it must also work like a social service. This balance varies widely from organization to organization and is a complicated role for social enterprise. You want to help homeless participants (i.e., the franchisees), but you don’t want to do so at the expense of the cause itself.

2. Understanding the potential for partnership with a profit-driven company or brand. Because BBH is in the business of marketing and advertising, it was assumed early on that Homeless Hotspots was endorsed by a marketer. We fully funded the initiative and purchased the pocket-sized MiFi devices from Verizon just as any customer would, yet the reaction to the false reports of brand endorsement is an important one to explore.  Many found the idea that a brand would employ homeless individuals to be offensive, while others said they’d support a brand initiative if it provided an employment opportunity. Of course, when people realized the partner was actually a local homeless shelter and that proceeds went directly to the individual Hotspot Manager, the sentiment was widely positive.

Before SXSW, we talked about how the long-term viability of a program like Homeless Hotspots would require bringing on a partner that could help financially support it. The costs of the technology and data usage for a program of this nature are significant, making the model difficult to scale beyond a short festival.  A brand partner would have the resources to underwrite the costs of an ongoing effort, incentivized by the promotion of its technology; meanwhile, a social enterprise would have stronger public endorsement, but would be challenged to fund such a venture. The potential problem we saw was that when a social enterprise brings on a corporate partner, perceptions change. Emotionally, the social enterprise simply becomes enterprise for some. For others, the opposite is true.  Street newspapers and homeless entrepreneurial efforts looking to share costs will have to decide where they fall on that spectrum and choose any partners wisely.

3. Determining the importance of content creation by participants. Where Homeless Hotspots differed most from an actual street paper is that the participants were not selling content they created (although it’s commonly misunderstood just how few of the homeless individuals that sell the papers actually create the content). Serving original content to a user upon log-in to a MiFi device is surprisingly complicated if you don’t manufacture the device yourself (thus we directed users to homelesshotspots.org for further information upon activating a connection).

There is an opportunity to create a more content-rich model for street newspapers and homeless entrepreneurs moving forward, especially as it relates to drawing attention to the causes of homelessness and prevailing stereotypes.  For example, Hotspot Manager Jonathan is a talented musician, and there could be an opportunity to use the personal and web connectivity to draw attention to his talent, such as directing customers to a site promoting his music.  The Hotspot Managers were also full of local expertise that could add more value to their conversations and connections (John Bird sees this as the future of street newspapers, which he invented when he founded The Big Issue). The absence of such content leaves a void.

The question remains whether or not consumers of the product value that content though. Looking at our own data (difficult to extrapolate from due to the extraordinarily large number of media impressions Homeless Hotspots received, which led to a disproportionate number of donations from non-users), it’s unclear how much the utility of the service vs. philanthropic impulse drove purchase. This is hard to come to terms with if you are a commercial enterprise. How can a business be a degree removed from its product? That sounds potentially negative, but we’ve left with mixed opinions on the matter. After all, the Hotspot Managers were still able to raise almost $4,000, even though the first 2 days of sales were extremely depressed by rain. If purchases were only about actual connectivity, the rain would have made Homeless Hotspots a financial failure for the participants.

What’s important is that the model moving forward must balance entrepreneurial opportunity, with supporting meaningful content and fostering personal interactions.  Our data implies it was hearing an individual’s story (many times not even first-hand) that led to someone donating. This particular phenomenon in Underheard in NY already got us to rethink non-profits last year, and it’s especially important for social enterprise. Non-profits fighting homelessness don’t just want to help homeless populations, they want to stop homelessness altogether.  But in many cases, customers of street newspapers seem solely focused on helping the individual in front of them. In a world where a homeless person sells a product without content, the one-on-one social interactions are their only opportunities for expression. Luckily, those conversations help overcome stereotypes (the 13 Homeless Hotspots participants had hundreds of conversations in just four days), but only if someone is provoked to stop and listen. Which brings us right back to issue #1.

We’ll keep everyone updated once we’ve identified which partner(s) we’ll be working with in future developments. We’re genuinely excited by the amount of interest from street papers around the world to collaborate on addressing the digitization of media. In the meantime, we can only hope the conversation around homelessness doesn’t step back into the darkness as the media circus winds down. You can certainly do your part by supporting organizations like our partner Front Steps. Even small donations can go a long way in helping them overcome their daily challenges long after conference attendees have left.

UPDATE (April 30, 2012): We are working with StreetWise, the largest street paper in the US deal with numerous modernization issues, including many of those outlined above. For more details, you can read the follow-up post.

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