What Happens When SXSW Meets Austin's Homeless

SXSW is a place of privilege. It is also a place where many people try to innovate new ways to do good in the world. But that doesn't change the dynamic of how hard it can be to come face to face with your own privilege.
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SXSW, the annual gathering of tech, film and music creative leaders in the country, is up in a tizzy over homeless folks. No, the people at SXSW are not in an uproar over the fact that people are homeless. The latest hot topic of criticism is that a New York-based marketing firm, BBH, is running a project called Homeless Hotspots. Homeless Hotspots employs thirteen members of Austin's homeless community to provide mobile 4G connectivity for SXSW attendees in return for donations.

I've never heard so many thought leaders talk about homelessness before! Definitely not as many people expressed such outrage over the newly proposed policy in NYC, which would make it incredibly hard for homeless individuals to have access to even basic shelter. I also haven't, sadly, heard so many influential people at once talk about long term solutions and innovations that can change the fact of the growing rate of homelessness in America. Instead, the talk at SXSW is about criticizing this one program, and questioning whether it is exploitative and whether it should exist if it doesn't also provide a long term infrastructure to deal with employment needs among the homeless. (I should point out that there's not nearly such an uproar about the short-term service-based employment of several new pedicab drivers in Austin for the convention. For some reason, paying temp workers for services isn't the main topic of concern, it's about paying a homeless temp worker for a service.)

When I first heard about the project, before I heard all of the criticism, I thought it was innovative and exciting. It was different from Denver in 2008, when the Democratic Convention rolled into town, and the city tried to move their homeless community out of view. Different than almost any other tourist location, which also desperately tries to hide the homeless from those in a city to enjoy experiences like SXSW.

Maybe my response was formed in part because I once was homeless, so I know how often it is that society would rather not see you at all. I fully know that, were it not for this project, pretty much no one at SXSW would be talking about homelessness, let alone having actual conversations with the homeless in town.

Here is Clarence, one of the workers employed through this project:

The outrage and expanse of media coverage on this topic is well intended, I believe. But all this outrage is also coming from folks who were out at SXSW to enjoy the experience of being surrounded by several of the best and brightest minds creating new things in our world today. It costs from between $400-$1400 to attended SXSW, plus the costs of travel and accommodation in fully sold-out Austin. Most of the people taking time out to criticize this program have spent their days trading ideas with some of the smartest folks around, and their nights jumping between endless free and fancy parties that all try to outdo one another. Suddenly, in this situation, those very people are asked to confront homeless individuals providing them with a service. A part of what I think is so fascinating about this project is that it thus -- inevitably -- causes one to reflect upon the divide between how we like to think of ourselves in relation to those who have less than us, and how those relations actually take place.

SXSW is a place of privilege. It is also a place where many people try to innovate new ways to do good in the world. But that doesn't change the dynamic of how hard it can be to come face to face with your own privilege. To realize that you're walking around with a couple of expensive, high-speed pieces of technology, and that you're also cursing the slow connection caused by so many also trying to Tweet, check email, upload videos and blog at the same time.

Homeless Hotspots creates short-term jobs for people who need them -- and people who applied to get them and are proud to have them. It also puts front and center the reality of homelessness and takes away the barrier that traditionally exists between tourists and the homeless of the town they're visiting.

As glad as I am that this situation has increased the conversation about homelessness -- I wish that conversation were taking a different form. Rather than SXSW attendees using their blogs and media platforms to complain about the Homeless Hotspots program, those social leaders could put their skills to better use. As much time as has been spent talking about whether or not this short-term program is something that SXSW attendees feel comfortable about, any additional time spent criticizing should be spent innovating. If all the thought and technology leaders gathered in Austin want to pause to talk about homelessness -- imagine the great potential of good if they put their smarts, their abilities and their passions into creating new solutions.

In my ideal world, at the next SXSW, there will be enough social entrepreneurs who have taken this opportunity to create something that addresses the challenge of homelessness that a panel session could be devoted to the good that came out of this year's conversation on the topic. That instead of the conversation being about how many people are not comfortable with a short term job program created to help the homeless, the conversation will be about how many of those people decided to create their own solutions to the problem.

The power of SXSW is the power of ideas and the ability to turn them into creative outputs. This seems like a perfect time to turn some of that focus into serving the homeless by more than payment for 4G service. Maybe I'm an optimist on this front, but then, SXSW is a gathering of optimists who believe that good ideas can make for a better world. If the Homeless Hotspots project leads to a few people generating income during a time their entire city is doing the same, it will be worth it. If it can also lead to some of the most powerful thought leaders in the country making homelessness an issue they work on, the experiment can have more value than any of us alone could imagine.

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