The Cure for Homelessness

How Tech can Bridge the Income Gap

In 2008, the housing market collapsed, adding pressure to the already shrinking publishing market. Creative professionals were feeling the squeeze. Magazines were dying so fast that magazine death watch blogs popped up to cover the blood bath.

I was among the many creative professionals hit hard.

So hard, I was paying the bills out of my retirement account, and when that wasn’t enough, I had to sell my home at a huge loss. With no income and no home of my own, I started couch surfing with friends.

Programming turned that around for me. I found a job writing JavaScript for Zumba Fitness. I was their first JavaScript developer hire, and I was in charge of cleaning up legacy code, mentoring other developers, and establishing code quality guidelines for the rest of the team.

Eventually, all tech careers seem to lead to the San Francisco bay area. As soon as I moved there, I was hit hard by the homeless problem. Having personal experience looking for shelter with no income, I could really feel the pain and the sense of helplessness. There’s a serious problem in Miami, but San Francisco’s problem is impossible to ignore.

Every day I passed hundreds of homeless people on my commute to work. Every day I wished I could do more to help. But San Francisco’s homeless problem can’t be taken on by giving strangers cash.

Photo: Aaron Anderer (CC BY-ND 2.0)

San Francisco’s homeless problem runs much deeper than that, and it’s much bigger than anybody seems to realize. The forces that caused it are still a strong presence in the bay area. San Francisco is basically the epicenter of the tech world in the US. People flock to it from every part of the globe to launch their tech startups in an environment where two city blocks in SOMA have more invested venture capital than entire states and countries, elsewhere.

With such a powerful draw, its no wonder that the bay area has exploded with tech business and tech talent. The opportunity is tremendous. There’s just one problem: This global tech magnet is situated on a peninsula with very limited land mass governed by people more concerned about trying to conserve what San Francisco used to be than by dealing with what San Francisco is now, and trying to control the skyrocketing rent prices.

It’s not tech that has hurt San Francisco. San Francisco’s blind resistance to change is the primary reason so many of its residents live on the streets.

San Francisco needs to face the fact that the only way to keep rents affordable in a city that draws so many residents is to build up. Lift the building height restrictions and stop forcing once middle-class residents into abject poverty.

The reality today is that San Francisco’s rent prices are 3 times the national average. Workers earning less than $100k / year struggle to afford moderate housing inside the city, and every area reachable by public transportation near San Francisco also suffers from elevated rent prices.

The home buyer’s market is dominated by investors who have priced middle class families out of home ownership, so even those who could afford to buy in another city can’t buy in San Francisco.

In my conversations with some of San Francisco’s homeless, I met young, able-bodied people who worked sometimes 2 jobs, but still couldn’t afford rent. I met a man with a limp who sold street papers for $1 each every day. He worked longer hours than me for pennies per hour. He was trying to save money to marry his girlfriend, who lived with him in a shelter.

Probably the most heartbreaking thing I saw was a family with very hungry young kids begging for food. My wife and I gave them a pizza. 2,200 public school students are homeless in San Francisco. Nationwide, 1.5 million children will be homeless each year.

The former middle class in San Francisco are no longer living above the poverty line. In 2008, tent cities sprang up around San Francisco and Silicon Valley. They got outrageously large. When the occupy movements broke out, some of those communities moved into the city’s public spaces. Occupy was still going strong when I arrived in San Francisco.

Many people don’t realize how many of the Occupy protesters in the bay area didn’t go home because they have no home. For many, those tents were their homes, and when the police forces chased them off with tear gas, they had nowhere better to go, so they stood their ground or returned in force, day after day.

The police clashes have since died down, but you can still find tent communities scattered throughout the East Bay and South Bay areas today, even though authorities frequently try to clean them up and disband them, they just keep coming back.

They keep coming back because rents keep rising. Because San Francisco has a limited land mass and completely unrealistic building height restrictions. Because many of the disenfranchised blame the tech community for what has happened to San Francisco, instead of looking at tech as an opportunity to improve their own situation.

Perhaps most of all, because almost all of the supposedly forward-looking tech companies in the bay area still require employees to live nearby and physically commute to an office every day.

For me, that last factor is the most frustrating, because if we could change it, a lot of pressure on San Francisco’s middle class would quickly vanish. It would provide immediate relief to thousands. It would ease the grueling commutes in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. And the companies who changed their policies would see immediate and dramatic benefits, as well.

We don’t all have to live in the San Francisco bay area.

A couple years back I was hired by Adobe. Initially, I went to work every day in the San Francisco office, but since most of my team at Adobe was in Seattle and I was in SF, all of my meetings were video conferences anyway. I started to telecommute.

Once I got a taste of remote work, I never looked back.

In the office, a developer has a million distractions. Constant questions from coworkers and managers. Interesting conversations overheard. Interesting guests stopping by. Interesting smells coming out of the kitchen (many bay area companies have dedicated kitchens and chefs).

The problem with that is the dreaded context switch. Developers need to concentrate deeply on their problems. When you interrupt a developer for three minutes, that interruption can actually cost the developer 20 minutes of lost productivity because they have to sink back into the problem and regain all of the context surrounding it.

A developer interrupted just ten times per day loses up to 3 hours of productivity — that’s nearly half the work day! When I started working from home I noticed something magical… I started getting a lot more work done!

As it turns out, I’m at least twice as productive working from home as I am working from an office. I still have daily meetings with my coworkers — via video chat.

I still get face time when it’s really needed. We use Slack and the awesome /hangout command to launch Google hangouts whenever we need to sync up face-to-face. My coworkers are all just a few keystrokes away from video communication, and it turns out, that’s plenty.

The benefits for workers are just as powerful. With the commute gone, I spend a lot more time with my wife. I spend a lot less money on transportation. Without a commute, it turns out I don’t even need to own a car. When we need to get around, the bay area’s public transportation suits us fine, and when that’s not an option, Uber is.

No car payment. No gas. No daily train rides. More time with the people who matter most, and on top of all that, we don’t have to compete with people in need for housing inside San Francisco like we once did.

About a month ago I got to hang out in person with coworkers and enjoy a celebration together. Those face-to-face meetings are still important, but another company taught me that those meetings can be transformed from daily drudgery into electrifying magic.

A few months ago, my wife and I attended one of the annual retreats enjoyed by the Automattic team (makers of WordPress. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It powers a huge percent of sites on the internet). WordPress started life as an open source project that attracted collaborators from all over the world. From day one, Automattic has been a 100% remote work organization. Once a year, they all get together at a different amazing location for team bonding, training, and lots of fun.

Here’s how one Automattic employee puts it:

“There’s no real way to describe what it’s like walking into a room full of people that you’ve never met in person, but feel like you know intimately already. When you only interact online, personalities seem to take on a much bigger form than they do with everyday interactions.” — Stephen McLeod

When the team is all remote, an in-person meeting feels like a family reunion. Instead of just another dull day at the office, it’s cause for celebration. In short, it’s magical in a way that I’ve never experienced in any office, anywhere before. We were honored to meet Matt Mullenweg face to face for the first time at such a special occasion. It’s a meeting we won’t forget.

I really enjoyed the rare get-togethers at Adobe. Rarity makes things special, and shared special experiences are amazing tonics for team morale.

Any company could reproduce Automattic’s amazing remote work success. From now on, every team I lead will have a strong remote work DNA. Remote teams are more productive, and counterintuitively, also tend to be better at efficient communication, frequently relying on asynchronous messaging, and only demanding interruption time in rare situations.

Another major advantage of remote work culture is that you can hire people who live literally anywhere in the world — dramatically expanding the pool of potential talent, and reducing the cost at the same time. With our severe talent shortage in the tech community, having more potential employees to chose from is a huge advantage.

A startup on a limited runway should seriously consider the benefits of delaying the cost of an office for as long as possible — and as Automattic proves, as long as possible could turn out to be a really long time. If you’re starting a new company, I encourage you to take a very serious look at how remote culture could extend your runway.

If you’re a programmer, the next time you look for a job, don’t take a position that fails to offer remote work. There are so many programming jobs out there, we have our pick of opportunities. If we band together for social responsibility, we have the power to create real change.

If we can get half of the tech companies in the San Francisco bay area to adopt remote work culture, that would really take a lot of pressure off of the strained housing market. We’d cut the total housing demand dramatically, and that will let the prices dip, maybe low enough that a non-techie can afford to rent in San Francisco again.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

Half as many pleading souls in the subways.

Half as many hungry kids on the streets.

That’s not the only way tech can help solve the homeless problem, though. About a year ago, I decided to offer my new JavaScript courses free to the homeless services community, primarily through housing-first programs.

Housing-first is a global movement to give homes to the homeless rent free, or at subsidized rates. They give homes to the homeless people, and then they’re not homeless anymore. And it costs less than letting them live on the street.

Utah has had remarkable success with their housing first programs. Salt Lake City managed to reduce their chronic homeless situation from 3,000 to about 400 in just a few years.

Phoenix and New Orleans have also reduced their chronic homeless populations to almost zero. All told, assisted housing programs save US taxpayers about $1.3 Billion per year.

If we double down, they could save a lot more than that.

We kicked off production of our training programs with a Kickstarter campaign that raised about $25k including sponsorship. We’ve since poured much more than that into the course production, and we’re gearing up to launch the first course this month.

Why teach the homeless to code?

In the next 2–3 decades, half of the jobs we have today will be replaced by code and robots. Driving is the most common profession in nearly every US state. By 2025, a human driving a car will look like a horse pulling a buggy. And that’s just one industry.

Millions of jobs will be gone, almost overnight.

Luckily, most of the jobs that are going away will be replaced by higher paying jobs — many of them programming jobs. In fact, the demand for programmers is rising twice as fast as the average job growth rate: About 20% year over year. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that by 2020 there will be more than 1 million unfilled computer programming jobs.

Computer programmers earn about twice as much as those who don’t code, on average. In other words, programming provides long-term job stability, strong growth prospects, very strong wages, and the best part is, you can learn to code well enough to get a job in as little as 5 months.

Compare this to current offerings in homeless job training programs: Janitors. Building contract workers. Landscaping. Retail. There’s really no contest.

I can’t think of a better

job training program

for the homeless.

Since we announced our homeless training program, many formerly homeless programmers have contacted us to tell us that programming turned their lives around the same way it turned mine around. They’re living proof that it works.

I’ll be sharing some of their stories with you in a new film called “Programming Literacy”, an inspirational feature-length documentary about the talent shortage, the changing job market, and America’s desperate need to teach programming as part of the core curriculum in k-12 public schools.

The film is being produced and directed by @JS_Cheerleader, a talented producer who has worked on many national TV shows and interviewed the brightest stars at the Sundance Film Festival.

We brought the “Programming Literacy” production launch to Sundance 2015, where we interviewed some tech and entertainment stars including Bill Scott (VP, Business Engineering, Product Development at PayPal), Rus Yusupov (Co-Founder, Creative Director at Vine), Hayes Metzger (CEO at Brandcast), Dan Lynch (CTO at Brandcast), Jonny Polonsky (world-famous Singer, Songwriter, Guitar Player), and others.

The Recipe to Cure Homelessness

All this information is a lot to digest. Let me break it down for you in a simple recipe:

  • Recovery: Double down on housing first. It’s a proven program that’s already decimated the chronic homeless problem in forward-looking cities around the world. We need to keep doing more of it, and expand our efforts to improve support to help individuals find and maintain their footing on their own after they’ve been housed, with…
  • Support and Mentorship: Train those newly housed people to code to give them a stable, high-paying career so they can stay off the streets, permanently.
  • Countermeasures: Expand remote work policy adoption to take pressure off of housing-taxed cities like San Francisco, New York, Seattle, and Los Angeles. Offering remote work also provides opportunities to people living in isolated areas, or places hit hard by economic forces (like Detroit). No matter where remote work is implemented, it helps people everywhere.
  • Prevention: Expand tech education in k-12 schools to prepare children for the shifting job market. In just a few years we’ll need millions more programmers to fill the US demand, and nearly every job will require a deeper understanding of how computers work. Nearly half of today’s jobs will no longer exist by the time the youngest generation reaches adulthood. We need to prepare them for that future.

You can help cure homelessness, right now.

  1. Support the housing-first movement. Write your local representatives. Point out success stories like Salt Lake City, Phoenix, and New Orleans. Let them know that helping the homeless helps everybody, and that cities who have made housing first a priority are seeing big net gains in quality of life for everybody, that investment in housing-first saves the government money.
  2. Volunteer to help with job training programs. Reach out to housing assistance and workforce service programs and ask them if they’d consider a software development training program. Let them know that software developers get paid 2x the national average, and people can learn enough about programming to get a job in as little as 5 months. Put them in touch with JSHomes.org for more information and support. We have great training resources for anybody who wants to help teach.
  3. Advocate for remote work policies where you work. If you’re on a team where remote work is possible (almost any job where you spend most of your time at a computer), share information about the business benefits of remote work with management. If you’re in a decision making position to set workforce policy, push for remote work. More remote work positions anywhere in the world can help take the pressure off of cities like San Francisco.
  4. Contact political representatives and members of your local school boards. Tell them about programming literacy and why it’s vital that we invest more in it. Share the link to the “Programming Literacy” announcement article on Medium. With your help, maybe we can avert the looming disaster that awaits our kids currently in k-12 schools.
  5. Spread the word. Share this article. Let journalists (especially tech journalists) know what’s going on, and that you want them to write more about it. San Francisco residents should read about The Homeless Town Hall and sign up.

Learn more about the documentary film,

“Programming Literacy”

Eric Elliott is the author of “Programming JavaScript Applications” (O’Reilly). He has contributed to software experiences for Adobe Systems, Zumba Fitness, The Wall Street Journal, ESPN, BBC, and top recording artists including Usher, Frank Ocean, Metallica, and many more.

@JS_Cheerleader is author, producer, and director of “Programming Literacy”. She has interviewed the brightest stars at Sundance, worked on many national television shows, and recently won the hearts of tech scene insiders as a JavaScript evangelist, connector, and opportunity creator.

Make some magic. #JavaScript

Make some magic. #JavaScript