Future Tense

Homeless Man Chooses Computer Coding Lessons Over $100

Patrick McConlogue and Leo
Patrick McConlogue, right, poses with a homeless man named Leo in a picture he took after Leo accepted his offer of computer coding lessons.

Photo by Patrick McConlogue / Used with permission

On Wednesday, a New York software engineer published a blog post explaining his plan to offer a local homeless man a choice: $100 with no strings attached, or a free basic laptop and daily computer-coding lessons. As I wrote on Wednesday evening, pretty much everyone immediately blasted the idea as insulting, demeaning, and emblematic of the fundamental arrogance and inhumanity of tech-startup culture. But one guy apparently missed that memo: the homeless man in question.

In a follow-up post today, the software engineer—named Patrick McConlogue—reports that he went ahead with his idea despite the backlash. And the homeless man, who turned out to be named Leo, chose the coding lessons over the cash.

Now, assuming this is true and not some kind of elaborate Jimmy McNulty-style fabrication, it does not entirely vindicate McConlogue on the charges of naivete and condescension. If his only goal was to help Leo, there are ways he could have done that without framing it as a social experiment or publicly congratulating himself on his ability to pick out the “unjustly homeless” man from all the others. For starters, he could have asked Leo how he could be of help, rather than presenting him with only two options, neither of which is likely to address the most pressing need that most homeless people face—i.e., a home. And only time will tell whether the coding lessons actually end up being of use to Leo.

That said, Leo’s choice does highlight the hypocrisy of a lot of the people who publicly mocked McConlogue for thinking he knows what’s best for a random homeless man. In dismissing out-of-hand the idea that a laptop and coding skills could be of any value to Leo, those critics made the very same mistake.

It may be true that, as my colleague Chase Felker recently argued, not everyone should learn to code. And it is self-evident that most homeless people have more pressing priorities than brushing up on their Javascript. Studies have found that the majority of chronically homeless people struggle with substance abuse and/or mental health problems. But not all homeless people are alike, and neither are their life circumstances. For the recently or temporarily homeless, marketable job skills may well be a high priority. Moreover, a lot of people who are or appear to be chronically homeless actually do have access to shelter when they need it. Just because someone spends his days out on the street doesn’t mean he would have no use for a laptop.

Those bent on deriding McConlogue will find more fodder for mockery in his follow-up post. As Valleywag’s Sam Biddle points out, he seems a little overly impressed by Leo’s ability to hold a basic conversation, deeming him not only “smart, logical, and articulate” but “a genius.” And McConlogue seems disconcertingly set on immediately generalizing from Leo’s case, already setting up a Facebook page about him and convening a public “meetup” to see what can be done about the issue of homelessness in New York. (News flash, Patrick: You’re not the first person ever to notice and try to address this problem.)

But let’s step back a second. McConlogue is 23 years old. He’s clearly an idealist. He’s soliciting advice from his readers on how best to ensure that Leo can take advantage of the lessons he plans to provide. For all his missteps, it should now be pretty clear that he’s earnestly trying to help a person who seems to actually want said help. And yet tech-media pundits continue to draw what I’m convinced is exactly the wrong conclusion from this episode: as a Vice Motherboard headline puts it, “Perhaps Silicon Valley Should Just Leave Homeless People Alone.”

By that logic, perhaps everyone should just leave homeless people alone. That may not do homeless people any good, but hey, at least we’ll all avoid coming across as naive or condescending.