Help Homeless People by Giving Them a Place to Live

This guy’s JavaScript code is a mess.

Photo by Mike Simons/Getty Images

There’s a much-mocked piece on Medium by a guy who wants to teach a homeless man to code. Or, rather, he wants to give a homeless person a choice between $100 and a tutoring scenario in which “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.”

It turns out that one of the George W. Bush administration’s adventures in compassionate conservatism was to pioneer a much better approach to homelessness than this. Under the stewardship of Philip Mangano, the administration pushed a policy approach called Housing First, which aimed to help homeless people by giving them a place to live. This does not solve all of a homeless person’s problems in life. Typically one does not become homeless without some other misfortune befalling you first (perhaps including a lack of JavaScript skills), so Housing First is no panacea. But having no home turns out to be a really significant life challenge. It’s not just unpleasant on its own terms (though it is that); it’s also a substantial barrier to improving your life in other ways. You might, for example, find that it’s difficult to keep your JavaScript books and laptop safe from theft without a home in which to store them.

Of course along with giving housing to the homeless, you also have to act on the supply side. Obviously I’m a big fan of upzonings and increased density. But Alan Durning has pointed out that along with encouraging more construction, we need to think about relegalizing flophouses and boarding houses and other forms of ultrasmall, ultracheap housing that can serve vulnerable populations.

At any rate, that’s how you fix homelessness. You build more housing, including more units designed to be cheap. Then where necessary you step in and give people housing. Once people have a place to live, you have a solid foundation to work with people on other problems they may be having in their life.