What We Can Learn From the ‘Homeless Coder’
Acton Institute Powerblog

What We Can Learn From the ‘Homeless Coder’

homeless-coderOn his way to work in 2013, tech entrepreneur Patrick McConlogue walked past a homeless man, Leo Grand, who was exercising with a heavy chain. McConlogue took this as a sign of Grand’s internal drive and motivation and decided to try an experiment:

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.

Leo turned down the money and took the opportunity to learn how to code. McConlogue saw this a portending great things: “It turns out Leo is a genius particularly concerned with environment issues.”

McConlogue initially gave Grand a laptop and some books and met with him an hour a day for tutoring. Later he would take off work for five weeks to work with Grand full-time on a smartphone app, “Trees for Cars.” Even before the app launched, McConlogue was dreaming about how to scale up the process into a program to help other “people in need”:

It would be a two month coding and life course in a group home. Mixed in with coding are sessions on financial management, individual counseling, and placement programs. The goal would be to share transparently all of the problems that are needed to be solved as a one stop guide to changing anyone’s life.

After the launch of the app McConlogue and Grand received a lot of media attention (and a fair share of criticism), but as usually happens the public forgot about the story. Mashable recently followed up to find out what happened to Grand:

[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.

Once in a while, people who recognize him stop to ask why he still lives on the streets. Grand is cagey about answering the question; he insists he simply enjoys living outdoors as an “eco-friendly” man, although he says that once he creates a second, more lucrative app, he plans to move to a luxury apartment complex.

As many critics of the “experiment” have pointed out, it’s unlikely Grand actually knows how to code well enough to get a job or even create another app. Almost anyone can create a simple app if you have a software engineer working with you for 10 hours a day, seven days a week, for five weeks.

But what is often overlooked when people talk about this story is that Grand already had a marketable skill that can be even better than coding: he knows how to weld. I’ve done just enough coding and just enough welding to know that both are complicated skills. Neither are easy to master, which is why they are often in demand. If Grand is a modestly competent welder he could likely find a job that would allow him to support himself financially.

The fact that Grand already possessed a valuable skill should have been a hint that his homelessness was not going to be “cured” by learning to code. As McConlogue later acknowledges, “Homelessness is not a feature of someone, or a condition.” If homelessness was a “feature or condition” it’d likely make the problem easier to solve. Unfortunately, though, the reasons people are homeless are complex and often rooted in the specific context of the individual.

What then should we take away from this failed experiment? I think there are two things we can learn.

First, this example should make us more humble about thinking that we can solve the problem, even the problem of a single individual’s homelessness, by our own efforts. Sometimes we can, and when we can, we should do what is possible to help the homeless find safety and shelter. But we shouldn’t think that we are going to make much of a difference unless we are able to address the real problems (like mental illness) that often lead to homelessness.

Second, as Christians there is something we can do to help people in this condition: share the gospel with them. While this may seem obvious, it seems we too often think that sharing the good news about Jesus is something that should be done only after we solve their “temporary” problem of chronic homelessness. But as in the case of Leo Grand, we see that the problem isn’t something we can fix and isn’t likely to end anytime soon. If we tarry in proclaiming to them the good news until they have an earthly shelter, they may miss out on finding an eternal home in God’s Kingdom.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).