Atlantic Cities

Why Teaching a Homeless Man to Code Isn't That Bad a Place to Start

You may recall that a few weeks back, 23-year-old Patrick McConlogue, a programmer and entrepreneur, told the Internet that he planned to offer a homeless man the choice between a one-time gift of $100 or regular coding lessons from McConlogue for two months (plus a laptop and programming books to get started). However crassly conceived, the underlying idea was a fairly simple one: teach a man to fish, etc.

McConlogue returned a day later to update the story: the homeless man he sees everyday on the way to work is named Leo, and Leo chose the coding lessons.


Leo (left) and Patrick (right) 

The Internet was quick to pounce on McConlogue—for objectifying the homeless man, for employing icky language like "unjustly homeless," for the presumptuousness of seeing coding as some kind of universal cure. If we can set aside for a moment McConlogue's awkward prose and seeming pompousness, however, what he's also done is raise an important question: in an age when tech ingenuity is fueling so much productive change, does it have a responsibility to help solve decidedly less flashy societal ills as well? 

The past year we've seen a parade of coverage of how poverty persists in the shadow of Silicon Valley, such as Business Insider’s recent "Homeless in Silicon Valley" photo essay, which highlights stories from San Jose’s "The Jungle," the largest homeless camp in the U.S. That same article also mentions how tech companies have been trying to help, for example, through volunteering at homeless shelters, shelter beautification projects, and donations. Compared to those efforts, McConlogue's approach is certainly a more intimate and time-intensive investment. 

McConlogue set up "Journeyman," a Facebook page to document the process. Two days after announcing his plan in late August, McConlogue dropped off overnight shipments of a 3G-equipped Samsung Chromebook and a Javascript for Beginners book with Leo. In that first week, the pair covered functions and variables in Javascript, Leo wrote his first function and shared on Facebook his goal of creating a website or mobile application for environmental change. Now, Leo has opened two accounts on GitHub to store his code, one of which will be dedicated to his upcoming app. McConlogue writes via email that last week, Leo started a project that covers "Terminal commands, objects, classes, and variables." 


Shipments of the Chromebook and Javascript book 

In a phone interview, McConlogue says that he knows what he's doing is not a solution to homelessness, but it does tackle a simple but important goal of teaching someone something they really want, but would otherwise not be able, to learn. And coding skills—if Leo really picks them up—will certainly give McConlogue's a better chance at a job with a decent average starting salary (let's say $40,000 on the low-end). In other words, true self-sufficiency.

Ryan Carson, whose online web developer training program Treehouse takes users from "zero-experience to job-ready," says he's seen plenty of people use their coding skills to move from factory line or administrative jobs to developer jobs. Of course, knowing how to code doesn't guarantee a job. "There’s a lot of nuanced behavior that will be important like, how do you conduct yourself around other people, how do you work in groups, how do you build a portfolio to showcase your work," he says. Nevertheless, Carson is optimistic that McConlogue, working with Leo one-on-one, will open up opportunities to impart those nuanced details as well.

Even those already equipped with programming knowledge are not immune to homelessness. KALW, a local radio station in San Francisco, recently reported a story on Noisebridge, a "hackerspace" in the city where dozens of programmers gather daily, some of whom are homeless and try to crash there for days or weeks. Danny O’Brien, a member of Noisebridge, told KALW that one of the most shocking things about San Francisco and Silicon Valley is that "a huge chunk of the technologists that you imagine caused this problem -- a lot of them don't have homes." KALW's Holly McDede writes, "The hackers of Noisebridge may know how to build robots, print whistles from 3-D printers, and read brain waves, but homelessness remains a problem they haven’t solved."

McConlogue is aware of Noisebridge. "There is no golden key to anybody’s success," he says. "But someone who’s fluent in computers and software has a much better shot than someone who doesn’t." That's hard to argue with. 

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Although McConlogue reiterates that he is 100 percent focused on helping Leo, there are plans to scale up. McConlogue is busy planning a Meetup event, where he hopes to "crowd-think" the construction of a "coder kit" — a box that might, for example, contain the minimum and necessary tools and equipment for anyone who wants to learn coding. This might mean books, 3G connection, and a cheap laptop. 

Treehouse is also trying to extend its coding tutorial service to the poor. It's working on partnering with New York City's Robin Hood Foundation, whose sole mission is to end poverty. Carson says since the foundation has a better grasp of the problem locally, it could be responsible for deploying large amounts of Treehouse accounts at low costs. 

McConlogue says engineers are a "collaborative community at heart."

"To any of the really impactful software engineers, the more people you have working on a problem, the more it’s worth solving," he says. Plus, many engineers have already sent him emails, with messages like, if you find someone who wants to learn something, let me know.

All images via the Journeyman Facebook page

Jenny Xie is a fellow at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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