The Joy of Programming (while Homeless)

Google Starbucks Wifi

Programming while homeless is a feat. Software development these days is heavily dependent on an active internet connection. Need documentation? Well, it’s online. Need to grab a library to accomplish a specific task? Your package managers won’t cache those libraries from previous uses, and they’re going to attempt an HTTP GET to find them. While it’s not to say a temporary internet connection at a Starbucks can’t help you bootstrap a project with all the pieces you might need, but Starbucks tends to look down on the homeless and other undesirables who can’t make a purchase before “borrowing” their WiFi. And when you’re adrift, that $4.35 for a drink seems almost too steep for an hour or two of internet access.

This is the problem I’ve been presented, since I became homeless again. I have a bed at a shelter, but despite the presence of a WiFi network named “GuestWireless,” the wireless is not for guests. No amount of negotiating will get them to bend their policies, not even for a person seeking self-improvement through entrepreneurial endeavor.

Starbucks and computers

By the kindness of another resident of the shelter who happens to have a car, I’ve found myself up at a Starbucks, today, and between sentences I am hammering the NPM servers to download whatever pieces I can for the purpose of creating a development environment. Why? Well, it all started with a request from the staff of the shelter — a request to host a group session discussing budgeting and saving money.

I’m not quite like most other homeless people. I mean not to say this arrogantly; just like them, I find myself on the underside of the barrel of society, staring up at the stars with scarcely a dollar to my name. But what I do have is a skill and a mindset for entrepreneurship — and together, with the right amount of discipline and patience, this could be what takes me from the streets to something more. But for the time being, it makes me one the staff will turn to when they need help, despite being one of the people which they themselves are tasked to help.

Now, these are people with next to nothing. Some might receive disability dispensation, others food stamps, but all in all they are on a fixed income or no income, have no bank accounts, and are driven more by the incentive of instant gratification than the benefits which come from wise budgeting and savings. Why would they save? They already know they’re going to run short by the middle of the month anyway. Why would they budget? It only serves to remind them they don’t have enough as it is.

A homeless shelter common bedroom

This got my mind going, as any problem would. Everyone who tries to teach the homeless how to budget teaches them as though they’re in a position and mindset to accept such teachings, and it amounts to very little; the lesson itself is ignored because, how could this possibly help me? So I started thinking about the incentive structures around them. Instant gratification holds a higher position in their mind than frugal management of money, because frugal management doesn’t give them what they think they need. It doesn’t positively reinforce them.

But what if frugality were positively-reinforcing, in a timeframe similar to instant gratification choices? What if making the right choices were rewarded in small amounts?

So I started planning out a different kind of group session to discuss these incentives. Instead of trying to tell them what they need to do, I’m preparing to ask them what their greatest immediate and long-term needs are, and show them how different apps for the Android phones, which they all have thanks to the free-phones-for-the-homeless programs started under President Obama, could make their budgeting lives easier.

A piggybank.

But I’m taking it one step further. Using the information I gather from this group session, I’m going to develop my own budgeting and savings app — one which has no dependency on a linked bank account, and serves to suggest savings ideas. Beyond that, I think such an app could also offer incentives, whether those be in the form of cryptocurrency micropayments, or coupons for free small items from national/international chains, or otherwise — creating incentives which can supercede the need for instant gratification.

These ideas aren’t without their problems. Exchanging cryptocurrency for the kinds of currency they want, whether it be to a bank or PayPal, obviously requires a bank or PayPal account. Coupons requires deals with said business chains, and possibly interoperability with their own apps. Even the most direct idea — having the app act as a tiny cryptocurrency miner — would be a drain on phone batteries and require a data connection.

But this doesn’t make it a bad idea. It makes it an idea in need of creativity. Such creativity I could provide.

It’s a start. And it could be so much more. These are people who need more than the same story, the same lessons; they need something which helps reinforce their needs specifically. I want to provide this; and if I get it right, it could be beneficial far beyond the major cities of the United States.

Postscript: Do you like this idea? Do you like the pieces I publish? Please consider contributing, whether by Patreon, PayPal, or cryptocurrency. My livelihood, humble as it may be, is maintained by these means and your support is necessary to keep what I do going. Thank you again.