Fighting Poverty with Code

The Viral Kickstarter to End Homelessness for Good

In 2008 I lost everything. By spring, 2009 I had to sell my house. I was penniless and couch surfing with friends. JavaScript turned that all around. Fast forward to 2010, I had a great job, and I was commuting through downtown San Francisco. One day I literally tripped over a homeless man who was trying to sleep on a cardboard box in the middle of the sidewalk. The conditions that homeless people are forced to endure are shocking. They should be shocking. We should be outraged.

How did we let this happen? How is it that we can send a rover to Mars, but we can’t afford basic dignity and respect for the people who need it the most? How is it that our brilliant solution to this problem is to put spikes in doorways to discourage people from laying down?

Ever since I personally faced the problem of finding shelter with no income, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how we might solve the problem for everybody. That’s what programmers do best: identify a common problem and figure out how to solve the problem more generally.

You might think it’s impossible to solve a problem like homelessness. It’s so overwhelming! But you’d be wrong. In the US, we’re in the middle of a nation-wide initiative to end homelessness for good.

Did you know it costs more money to let somebody sleep on the street than it costs to give them homes for free? The chronically homeless are hyper users of social services. They’re much more likely to require ambulance rides than people with homes, and since a homeless person typically doesn’t have health insurance, and they can’t pay a dime out of pocket, taxpayers foot the bill. In other words, we’re already giving each of them anywhere from $20 thousand to $3 Million every year for being homeless. Why not give them a lot more and spend a lot less money?

That’s right. We, the brilliant taxpayers of America, actually pay potentially millions of dollars per year to keep one person on the street. Seriously! We pay out of our collective pocket to keep people down. That’s the choice we make when we allow our government to make cheap investments in homeless services. It’s neglect. It’s that simple. And we’re all guilty of it.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Photo: Homeless in San Francisco

A few years ago, local governments across the states began to believe that it’s actually possible to end homelessness almost entirely. Some of them are having surprising success. For example, Salt Lake City, Utah had roughly 3,000 chronically homeless residents a few years ago. Now there are about 400.

How did they do that? They give away housing. Good housing that people actually want to live in. There are shelters still, but there’s a high turnover. People stay there just long enough to make arrangements for a new home, and that wait is measured in days or weeks, not months or years.

Salt Lake City gets people off the streets quickly and into assisted living arrangements where they’re assigned caseworkers who help people find the services they need to become self-sufficient. And it’s working. Nationally, taxpayers save about $1.3 Billion by funding assisted housing programs.

But assisted housing is only the first step. To really claim success, we need to help the homeless stand on their own feet. Contrary to the stereotypes, that’s something that most of them genuinely want to do.

The next step is to find a job, and to do that, you need training, which brings me back to JavaScript.

When I first learned and fell in love with JavaScript in the 90's, few people took it very seriously. Nobody guessed it would play the critical role it plays today. In case you’re not aware, most of the software applications we use and take for granted now are built with JavaScript. It powers Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, PayPal, and millions of other services.

Because JavaScript is the only programming language supported by every modern browser, the entire web is dependent on it, making it the most widely used programming language in the world — and it’s still growing faster than any other programming language. There’s just one problem: There aren’t enough JavaScript developers to keep up with demand.

Demand for software developers is so high that most of the top companies have an always hiring policy for developers; they hire as quickly as they can find qualified candidates, and when that’s not fast enough, they actively recruit candidates from other countries or outsource work to India.

So we’re paying money to keep people on the streets and then going out of our way to give some of the best paying jobs in the world to foreign citizens. Insanity.

Why is it national news when one homeless man learns to code? We should have thousands of homeless people training for high paying jobs every day. This situation is intolerable.

I used to say to myself, “you can’t help everybody” a dozen times a day as I used San Francisco’s subway system that swarms with people pleading for help.

I was wrong. You can help everybody. Any of us can. In cities across the country there are programs supplying free housing to the homeless. Find the one nearest to you and donate some money there, instead. Quality housing first programs are our best chance of ending this for good.

Video: Cody McCarthy

I’m donating in a different way. A few years ago I started getting tasked with vetting candidates for job openings. That’s when I realized the magnitude of the skills gap problem and decided to do something about it. I wrote a book to teach developers how to use JavaScript for application development.

The book is available online, free of charge, but the book isn’t enough. It requires too much prior knowledge to be useful to the homeless community.

With that in mind, I’m building a series of online courses called “Learn JavaScript with Eric Elliott”. They will target beginners and experts alike and give students a big leg up. Our Kickstarter campaign raised 250% of our goal. We’re in the process of producing the courses and fulfilling orders right now.

As with the book, the courses will be available at no cost to the homeless. Of course, that doesn’t do any good if nobody knows about it, so we’re reaching out proactively and partnering with the heroes and champions of the end homelessness movement.

We’re going to make sure that job training programs know that this option is available to their users. My goal is to enroll hundreds of students per year in the program for free.

If you want to help, you can purchase a course bundle (you can give them as gifts or use them yourself. If you’re not sure who to give it to, we can refer you to a school or training program).

Another great way to help is to share this article with your friends.

Learn JavaScript with Eric Elliott and fight poverty with code!

Update: We did it! 250% Funded on Kickstarter!

…But the work is far from complete. We raised $25,000 including sponsorship in July 2014 to pay for course content creation.

Our first round of funding covered the cost of course content creation, and since we exceeded our goal, we expanded the plan to create two additional courses.

Now we’re moving into the second phase: Course deployment, and student recruitment for the first course pilot program.

The Game Plan

1. July 2014: Plan course outlines and raise $7.5k to pay for the course production costs. This covers the costs of course materials, video recording, editing, and graphic design. Thanks to your help, we raised $25,000 and expanded our goal to create two additional courses.

2. Early 2015: Launch the first course, and begin website and raise awareness. We’re rolling out lessons now, and we’ve begun work on the JSHomes website. If you’re a designer, developer or educator, you can help us build the best free job training resource available anywhere.

We’re raising funds to help with the JSHomes outreach effort, and to create an online platform that works better for our course materials than currently available e-learning platforms.

3. When it’s ready: Multiple course deployments & .org accounts. We plan to deploy more courses and expand website capabilities. This is when we’ll launch the pilot job training program to serve the homeless communities. In the meantime, we’re already laying the groundwork (working with leaders in the housing first community) by identifying organizations and communities where our pilot program can provide the most value.

You Can Help!

  1. Purchase a Bundle — All course packages are transferable scholarships anybody can use to learn JavaScript. You can use it yourself, gift the scholarship to schools in your local community, or we can donate the scholarships to a training program for you.
  2. Spread the word. We need your help. Post a link to this page on social media with the hashtag #jshomes. Tell your friends why you believe in it, and what helping means to you. Tweet this page!
  3. Read The Cure for Homelessness and find out how you can make a big difference in your own community and organizations.
  4. We maintain a list of JSHomes Volunteer Opportunities. Many volunteers have already made a big difference. Join us.

You can help by sharing these tweet worthy facts:

Save this image and share on social media

I’m a Compassionate Entrepreneur on a mission to end homelessness. On July 8th, our Kickstarter campaign took off after I posted an article to Medium called, “Fighting Poverty with Code”:

Now we’re wrangling a small army of volunteers. Recently we met with some of those who have been on the forefront of Utah’s 72% reduction in chronic homelessness. There is interest in further exploration of this idea for increasing income for those homeless individuals who are now housed.

Together we can change the world.


Eric Elliott

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