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Produced by Robert Libetti & Kamelia Angelova, Additional Camera Daniel Goodman
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 sceptical.
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:
- I will come back tomorrow and give you $US100 in cash.
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.
"I regret the words I used in the title," he confessed.
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 neighbourhood 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 $US100 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."
"Yeah! I mean, I thought coding was something that went over like, a dessert," he told me.
He meant "coating."
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.
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?
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 armour, 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."