Looking Back at the Big Winners From SXSW 2012: The 'Homeless Hotspots'

SXSW 2012's 'Homeless Hotspots' program immediately created a minor firestorm: was it genius and empowering or dehumanizing and exploitative? Were those who participated in the program any better off?
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It's sometimes best to wait a while before declaring winners from the South by Southwest conference; a year seems prudent. With that kind of hindsight, it's easy to see that the 2012 confab was a great boon for a couple of specific people: Jay-Z and Clarence Jones.

You probably know Jay-Z's story last year: big SXSW concert, a role in President Obama's re-election campaign, a new baby, collaboration with Justin Timberlake.

Clarence Jones' story isn't quite as well-known. He achieved minor celebrity at SXSW 2012 as one of 13 "Homeless Hotspots" -- individuals who were wired with 4G hotspots and would give out the passcode for donations. (Underwritten by a marketing firm, BBH Labs.) Clarence was a hit at the show, giving dozens of interviews.

The program immediately created a minor firestorm: was the program genius and empowering or dehumanizing and exploitative? It was covered everywhere from Wired to the New York Times. But when SXSW wrapped up, the Homeless Hotspots disappeared from the national consciousness. Though SXSW, I could find no evidence any follow-up. Were those who participated in the program any better off? Or was this a one-off stunt that left the status quo unchanged? Depressingly, no one seemed interested in asking that question.

So I called Front Steps, the shelter that collaborated with BBH, who told me they issued a press release this week detailing the after-effects of last year's program. It spells out good news: 11 of the 13 participants have their own housing now as a result of the money they earned during the Homeless Hotspots program (another has moved with family out of state). That's especially impressive in Austin, a town where high growth has also meant limited housing stock.

One of the 11 who secured housing: Clarence Jones. So while my hat is off to Jay-Z and the great year he's had, nothing makes me happier than knowing that Clarence was able to use SXSW as a springboard to a more secure life.

Still, I don't want to over-celebrate 11 people helped by SXSW. According to the conference some 300,000 people attended the conference last year, with a direct impact north of $125 million. There is clearly a gulf between the economic boom experienced by Austin for those three weeks in March and the continuing needs of the community. (Front Steps said that while website traffic spiked during SXSW 2012, there wasn't an obvious increase in donations or volunteers.)

It doesn't take much to make an impact. Front Steps is always in need of hotel-sized toiletries, and a call for donations earlier this week netted them a decent haul of soap and shampoo. (If you still want to drop off travel-sized items, stop by ARCH at 7th & Neches.) But our sights should be a good deal higher.

So it's clear what my goal for SXSW 2014 is: help pay forward the SXSW experience with a meaningful contribution to the community that so generously plays such a wonderful host to so many. I hope you'll join me.

Since the post was drafted, the good news is starting to get out: ABC News has posted a piece, as has KVUE news.