Teaching Homeless People to Code Might Not Fix Homelessness

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In 2013, a 23-year-old programmer made a 37-year-old homeless man an offer: let me teach you how to code.

The homeless man, Leo Grand, created an app called Trees for Cars. The programmer, Patrick McConlogue, chronicled the story on Medium in a regularly-updated piece titled “Finding the Unjustly Homeless and Teaching Them to Code.”

You learn from McConlogue’s writing that his offer was not a spur-of-the-moment idea. He decided to see if he could, shall we say, disrupt homelessness by teaching homeless people how to code. McConlogue identified Grand as a man with “drive,” then explained his plan to the Medium audience:

The idea is simple. Without disrespecting him, I will offer two options:

1. I will come back tomorrow and give you $100 in cash.
2. I will come back tomorrow and give you three JavaScript books, (beginner-advanced-expert) and a super cheap basic laptop. I will then come an hour early from work each day—when he feels prepared—and teach him to code.

What do you think he will take?

Grand took the coding lessons, learned to code, made an app, and in 2015, is still homeless. In 2014, Business Insider wrote about why Grand had not elected to claim the $10,000 he had earned from Trees for Cars (which McConlogue kept in his bank account, since Grand had no bank account of his own):

Grand isn’t ready to open a bank account, claim the money, and start the process of rejoining society. After all, a life on the streets is the life he’s lived now for several years. Claiming money, ownership of an apartment, of valuables, thinking about insurance and jobs is far too stressful. Humans are creatures of habit and routine, and though homeless, Leo Grand is most certainly human.

The Business Insider story describes how McConlogue and Grand would begin the process of walking to the bank, to open up an account in Grand’s name and transfer the money, and how Grand would stop partway down the block and turn around.

Now, Mashable has another update:

But a year-and-a-half later, Grand still lives on the same back alleys where he and McConlogue first met. Although he rents a storage unit, Grand occasionally keeps a shopping cart full of his possessions by a pile of sandbags near the Chelsea Piers in New York City. He no longer codes every day; Trees for Cars has long since disappeared from app stores, since he does not want to pay for server space for its upkeep. He occasionally takes on odd jobs as a welder, and whiles away time by walking around the High Line public park.

I’ve been thinking about this story for a few days and I’m finding it hard to articulate all of the complicated feelings and thoughts I have about “Leo the Homeless Coder,” whom I admit I am treating as an idea or a metaphor rather than a person. The Mashable piece quotes an early statement by Grand, for example:

“I can work at Google, I can work at SpaceX,” he said minutes after successfully launching the app. “This will change my life in a magnificent way.”

And I think no you can’t, Google won’t hire you just because you created one app. Did Grand mistakenly believe he would be a serious contender for skilled tech jobs, and was the disappointment too hard to handle?

I’m also thinking about the 2008 This American Life episode “Social Engineering,” which tells the story of two men who prefer the simultaneous freedom and structure of homelessness to their former workaday lives. To quote one of the subjects, Gregory Deloatch:

But I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t genuinely happy. I was going through the motions of working a job, and I didn’t feel fulfilled. I’m homeless, I’m in the circuit. I’m writing poetry. This is a different life. But, to me, it’s a far better life than going back to working in computers and networking and all that. I mean, I wouldn’t like to go back to that lifestyle.

Big life transitions are hard, and if you are familiar with and accustomed to a certain type of life, it might be difficult to make the decision to leave it. $10,000 is a huge step up from $0, but it isn’t going to get you that far, especially not in NYC. Someone like Grand is right to wonder if he might end up homeless again, and whether putting that money into an apartment for a few months is the best way to solve his problem. He is right to ask himself if he can handle the adjustment to a non-homeless life, especially if the transition might only be temporary. He is even right to ask himself if the workaday life, with rent and bank accounts and job responsibilities and the rest of it, is what he wants—as hard as it is for many of us to grasp that idea.

I am the sort of person who does think “wouldn’t it be great if we found jobs and homes for everyone who was homeless!” even though I know that there are people who either prefer or value their homeless life for any number of valid reasons. (On the other hand, there are plenty of homeless people who want, more than anything, to get that job and that home.) I am also the sort of person who thinks that McConlogue’s idea of teaching the homeless to code has its merits, but we also need job placement, transition assistance, counseling, and a number of other resources to help people who want to use their coding skills to find work and start new lives.

To me, Grand’s story proves that job training alone is not enough—and that assuming that people who are homeless need to be “fixed” or “solved” shows only a limited understanding of people as individuals and their own needs, stresses, and goals.

Photo credit: JeanbaptisteM

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