NYC Homeless Man Learns To Code And Builds App In Four Weeks

Tech entrepreneur Patrick McConlogue's idea to train the homeless was widely derided.

Business Insider
When I first read Patrick McConlogue's post on Medium about a month ago - titled "Finding The Unjustly Homeless and Teaching Them to Code" - I'll admit I was skeptical.

McConlogue wrote about the homeless man he sees on his way to work each day. He has drive, McConlogue assures the reader. So the 23-year-old Manhattan-based programmer comes up with this:

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.
Who is this guy? I thought to myself, scanning the rest of the article. It would make more sense to give them food, or housing options, right? Than code?

Sure enough, I wasn't the only person who felt that way. The masses were quick to scoff at McConlogue's idea. "Homelessness Solved" was Valleywag's headline.

I called McConlogue on the phone.

"Do you know everyone is snarking on this?" I asked him.

He did.

"I regret the words I used in the title," he confessed.

Teach a Man to Fish
It's an old adage: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. McConlogue told me he wanted to test the theory, not for his own personal gain or notoriety, but because he, for whatever reason, believed this particular homeless man would want to take the challenge.

He told me he was going to approach the man the next day, and I told him to keep me posted.

"The homeless man (Leo) is going to learn to code," McConlogue announced the next day on Medium. I called him again, and told him to contact me in a few weeks if this was still going on. I wanted to see this experiment in action.

Sure enough, with Leo's permission, McConlogue invited me and a film crew to come to a coding class this past Monday, which marked the halfway point of the eight-week period McConlogue allotted himself to teach Leo how to program.

I showed up at a rogue park on the West Side on what NY1 later announced was the coldest September morning since 2000. McConlogue and Leo approached me shortly after and while the video crew prepped for the interview, I sat with Leo for 20 minutes and told him about the kind of questions I'd be asking him. I wanted to know the basics, I explained, but of course, if anything made him uncomfortable, he didn't have to answer.

We shot the breeze for a little while. He told me about losing his job at MetLife back in 2011 and being priced out of his neighborhood when a high-rise full of luxury condominiums was built a few blocks from his apartment. He told me something I already knew: New York City is expensive. Whether his story of homelessness goes beyond that brief explanation he offered or not, it's an indisputable fact.

He told me what it was like when McConlogue approached him with the two options. I asked if he hesitated at all, or if McConlogue pushed him to choose to learn to code to help him prove a point to his critics.

"I can go through $100 in a few days. In a week," Leo said. "But he told me I could have a laptop and learn how to do something and I figured it could turn into something more." He gestured to the city surrounding us. "It's not like I don't have the time to learn to do it."

Leo told me how each weekday, McConlogue comes to Leo's regular spot for an hour, usually around 8 a.m., and they dive right in. He started telling me about JavaScript and a site called Nitrous.io and how he can write 50 functions and maybe only two of them could be error-free. Leo spoke so confidently that I kept stopping him to make sure that he had only learned about coding - in any respect - just a mere four weeks earlier.

"Yeah! I mean, I thought coding was something that went over like, a dessert," he told me.

He meant "coating."

App in the making
In four weeks, the two men had worked together to start building an app; one that is projected to be completed at the end of the eight-week run. Like any good entrepreneur, Leo wouldn't let me talk about the app here, but I assure you, it's a great idea, and focuses on Leo's big interest in global warming and climate change.

When McConlogue leaves to go to work, Leo spends 3-4 hours on his own, practicing writing code and reading one of the three javascript books McConlogue gave him alongside a Samsung Chromebook. He charges his laptop at what he told me was a "fancy building where everyone was happy to let him get power" and he also has a WiFi hotspot gifted to him by McConlogue.

As we were shooting the interview, we had to stop a few times. Honking trucks, construction, the sun in our eyes. While we became easily frustrated by the soundtrack of the city, Leo remained unfazed. After all, these conditions are the mainstays of his environment. Imagine learning something new. Now imagine having to learn it in the middle of a construction zone.

Once I learned all about the business side of things, the pair (who, by the way, have inside jokes and act like old friends), told me they were going to Google the next day to do a live Hangout video chat with the tech blog Mashable.

"What's the Google office like?" Leo asked me earnestly. I told him I had never been there and he was shocked. The idea that he was deemed important and interesting enough to be invited to Google's offices - and it wasn't something that everyone does on the regular - was unfathomable to him.

But really, I needed to know how Leo really felt about all of this. Did he feel like a pawn in someone's game? Did he feel like he was being treated like a stepping stone for McConlogue to get his 15 minutes in the spotlight? Did he even like coding? Did he know what Mashable was?

"I'm learning something, right?"
Leo just laughed. "I don't really care about all that, what do I care? I'm learning something, right? I know I'm learning something and that's what I care about. Patrick's my man," he told me.

Most importantly, Leo wanted me to know that he wasn't miserable before McConlogue came along. Patrick, to him, was not a knight in shining armor, but rather a person who looked beyond the stereotype of homelessness and offered him a chance. He had never thought about coding, he admitted; he didn't even know what it was until a month ago, but "it's really hard to convince people that you are not a bad person, or a drug addict or a crazy. How are you gonna do that when you are homeless, and that's how the homeless are depicted? It's not always a negative thing but people don't know that."

"My life had good moments before this whole thing," Leo told me. "And all I think is now maybe learning how to do something new will give me more opportunities to have more good moments."

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visitinghi

This is definitely a good thing. I got one problem, the man was arrested for sleeping in the park and the POLICE KEPT his laptop because he doesn't know the serial number. WOW, I MEAN WWOOWW!! I am not homeless, I own three cars and I don't know the tag number to any of them, It doesn't matter to me. I own two laptops and two desk tops, I don't know the serial number, nor do I know of a way to find it or provide it (I am typing now on a desk top I brought 8 years ago, I don't even remember where I brought it). In fact, I am getting ready to give one of my laptops to a kid I befriended while working, he needs it more than I do. I don't know the serial number to either of the two cell phones I carry everyday, I don't know the serial number to the cash in my pocket, I don't know the serial number to anything I own, to include the condom in my pocket. I am blessed to have what I have, worked hard for it, but I be damned if I want it taken away because I don't know the serial number. What happened to possession is 9/10's of the law? If it were stolen the police should have to prove it was stolen. So If I were walking thru NY and fell asleep on the bench (which I have done) and I was arrested for sleeping on the bench (I understand it is the law) the police will take everything I don't know the serial number to? How ridiculous is that? I am writing this in the hopes that someone with authority in NY could fix the law and stop stealing from the homeless. WOW

November 26 2013 at 4:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Damian Downfall

This just clarifies one of my fears. Apparently, when you have no options like I do, you must rely on a GIFT? Yeah, people would never see me for me and gift me with something as valuable as this. I'm basically screwed then.

October 04 2013 at 8:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
iFiMailYouItsHak

since when did homeless mean retarded? I know some really smart and educated people who have been homeless, this is nothing special.

October 03 2013 at 3:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
msmelo75

People helping people...in this case a person helping a person. So often circumstances cause situations that cannot be solved by one person. I commend both of these people - the one who offered the help, and the one who accepted the help. Helping is a simple process; so much so that it is too often neglected or not even thought of.

October 02 2013 at 11:59 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Mr Vebsajt

Hi, I am homeless also (I get internet at libraries and university) and this is great, somebody finally help instead to make philosophy (are we junkies or crazy, etc), Patrick didn't try to find reason to avoid to help than he helped. I don't say every person in this world could be programmer and save himself from homelessness but every person can do something else and save himself from such situation. other people can follow Patrick example and try to help to homeless in some other way. without solidarity, society will disappear. remember your grand grandfather in America, when they came first time, they gathered like group and went into wild nature and helped each others to build houses. that was good example of solidarity. but the point is, homeless are not all junkies and mentally ill than somebody represent us in that way to avoid responsibility and solidarity. in the time of crisis, it is necessary to build bigger solidarity or many individuals will die or become criminals, etc. that's not interest of society. you know that last several years homeless villages pop up in Seattle and other cities. there will be more and more, you can personally help to some of them. if many people help, there will be no more homeless. all people who criticize this man, they are selfish egoists and they try to find reason to clean their consciousness because they don't care for other people but they don't want to see themselves as bad people. they find excuses. they got their place in system and they are happy, they are not interested to care about other people. Patrick is good man and I am happy that his project got popularity, it will have positive influence on some people and consequently some people will get help, and at other side, it will make resistance at selfish egoists who got help but they don't care to help.
as for me, if anyone can help, I am interested to become linux server admin. to achieve it, I would need laptop, earphones with mic, and Linux admin server course for free from somebody or paid to some school that make distance studying but I don't have money for fee, one school offer 2 semesters course but it cost 1400 euro. in any case, I don't drink, I don't smoke, etc, I studied law when I was young, but didn't finish it... when my parents died I became homeless, fee for university was 100 euro per year but they changed to 1000 euro and salary was 150 euro, today is 300 euro and to get job you must pay 2000 euro, 55000 people work in my country without to get any salary and 550 people per day loose job. I am from Serbia. my email is alanford(at)berlin.com

September 30 2013 at 4:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
LewTag

That may be one...but what about the thousands of others...

September 30 2013 at 10:47 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to LewTag's comment
Aissa2

Thought you would handle them. Maybe, each one support one, instead of looking at one and then asking what about the others, why not help one, or one hundred, or perhaps more than simply asking a rhetorical question? What about you?

October 03 2013 at 9:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
anthony.pue

See what we can do went we as a people come together, black white it don't matter. We as a people can solve most if not all of the problems of the world only if we can come together and stop looking at everything from a black and white point of view.

September 30 2013 at 8:25 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
elaineratrat

This is true altruism. Patrick cared enough to help Leo to change his circumstances by learning something new. What a difference we could make if each of us shared our knowledge/talents with just one person. This is the best helping hand I've read about in a very long time. Way to go Patrick. God bless you for helping and God bless Leo for allowing you to help him to help himself!

September 29 2013 at 12:01 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Diann

I absolutely LOVE the concept of taking the idea of helping an individual become self-sufficient by not focusing on material (money) but taking the time - taking precious, personal time - to provide mentorship and training to homeless, motivated and otherwise capable individuals. What kind of long-term effects could such an approach yield if more people decided to adapt this approach to dealing with issues of long term unemployment, homelessness, poverty and hunger? As John Lennon said in the iconic song, "Imagine" the implications and possibilities. Kudos to both Patrick McConlogue and Leo. The best is yet to come for both of you. God bless you both!

September 28 2013 at 12:47 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Kelly Taylor

These article was written horribly. Is it possible for this person to try any harder to put a negative spin on what should be a positive story? What a shame.

September 28 2013 at 11:09 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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