March 13, 2013 -- A controversial marketing stunt at last year's South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, has had lasting and positive results for some participants who had little to do with the actual technology conference.
Eleven homeless individuals who were recruited by a New York advertising agency to walk around the festival offering access to wireless Internet hot spots used the money they earned to secure long-term housing, according to one of the event's organizers.
Festival participants paid the hotspot-equipped individuals a small fee in order to log onto their wireless network and use the Internet.
The organizers, New York-based BBH Labs, said the experiment would help bring attention to homelessness, offer valuable work experience to participants, and encourage conversation among the hot spot providers and users.
But the stunt faced criticism. Technology magazine Wired wrote that the homeless were "turned not just into walking, talking hotspots, but walking talking billboards for a program that doesn't care anything at all about them or their future."
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The experiment, though, seems to have been a net gain for those individuals who participated.
According to Front Steps, the Austin homeless shelter that helped BBH Labs run "Homeless Hotspots" last year, 11 of the 13 participants in the event used the money, sometimes more than $600, to put security deposits down on apartments in Austin.
All of them now have housing, Jennifer Denton of Front Steps said today. She said that though there had been controversy during the 2012 festival, the outcome was worth it.
"There was a lot of discussion at the outset, when the program began, about whether it was taking advantage of the individuals. But the individuals participating were really grateful for the opportunity to be productive and earn a wage, and it had this sustainable result," Denton said.
The people who participated were paid $20 a day, plus a small fee each time a festival-goer logged onto their network. At the end of four days, they had made enough money for their security deposits, Denton said.
The one-time stunt, Denton said, was not replicated at this year's festival.