Leo and Patrick (Photo courtesy Patrick McConlogue)

Arresting the Unjustly Homeless While They Learn to Code

Entrepreneur Patrick McConlogue wants to save a homeless man by teaching him to code. The problem is: fairy tales don’t scale

Leo has been arrested.

Leo is the 36-year-old homeless man that New York tech entrepreneur Patrick McConlogue chose as the beneficiary of his time and wisdom. Last August, McConlogue presented Leo with a choice:

Option #1: I will give you $100 in cash.
Option #2: I will return tomorrow with a basic laptop and three books to learn to code. I will then come an hour early before work and teach you to become a software engineer.

On August 22, Leo chose the lessons. On October 14, Leo was arrested for trespassing in the park where he was sleeping.

McConlogue’s post announcing the project — Finding the unjustly homeless and teaching them to code — was met not without controversy. Valleywag’s Sam Biddle described it as a “startup guy’s insane vanity project.” Betabeat’s Jessica Roy wrote, “We’re not sure if the piece is satire, but it certainly reads like it.”

McConlogue’s offer wasn’t satire, but it is suffused in fairy tale logic for the silicon set. A person in poverty meets a mysterious benefactor who poses a question. The question is a kind of test. McConlogue himself calls it a puzzle. Can the poor person choose the virtuous path over immediate resources? If they do, surely even greater riches and Series A funding shall await them.

To McConlogue’s credit, he has followed through on the bargain. He bought Leo a Chromebook and some books. He’s been meeting with Leo regularly to help with lessons and is documenting the process on Facebook. At the same time, he’s been working to turn Leo into a micro-celebrity, setting up appearances in outlets like NPR, Business Insider, and TechCrunch.

Why not? Everyone loves a Cinderella story and as McConlogue acts out the part of the Fairy Godfather, it is difficult to begrudge Leo taking advantage of the opportunity as he prepares to make and sell an app to address global warming.

On October 14, McConlogue learned that Leo had been arrested for trespassing by the NYPD. Leo’s laptop was confiscated and he was sent to Central Booking. According to Facebook posts, McConlogue is frantically trying to get him released. “This not how I wanted to let you all know this but he is supposed to go on NBC’s The Today Show this Wednesday so we need to get him out. And…we didn’t get to have a class this morning.”

Were we composing a morality tale, we could not have asked for a better twist. The NYPD take their place as cartoon villains, unjustly intervening and knocking Leo down, just as he’s climbing up.

It’s a tragic but telling illustration of the myth of meritocracy. As it turns out, there are other barriers to the success of people in precarious situations than knowing any particular set of employable skills. The machinery of order does not operate on all of us in the same manner.

“In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread.” ~Anatole France

“The worst part of this is even though I can show the receipt they are confiscating his laptop,” writes McConlogue, “I just don’t understand.” Were he more familiar with the conditions of homelessness, McConlogue would be aware that this is a common occurrence; a routine injustice of arrest. It is difficult to accumulate resources when they are constantly being taken away.

It sucks that Leo was arrested and I hope he gets out OK. It seems likely that he will, as McConlogue is determined to work through backchannels to get Leo released. “We don’t need the Mayor, we just need someone higher up to realize what has happened and help,” he writes. “If anyone knows a member high up in the NYC police department or mayor’s office and would like to help please send me an email.”

But justice for those with well-known and well-connected patrons isn’t real justice. It’s a pantomime of it, a performance of indulgences to appease the well-meaning masses. It’s unlikely that Leo was the only homeless person arrested in the early hours of October 14th. None of those others are booked for the Today Show, so they will have to muddle on without the support of a global network of well-wishers.

The challenges that face Leo and these nameless others are systemic. They are part of large trends around growing poverty in the face of a wrecked economy and the criminalization of being poor.

Even as he flounders around for extra-judicial solutions to Leo’s problems, McConlogue seems unable to grasp this. “NYPD did nothing wrong. Remember these are the same men who — without question — laid down their lives in service during 9/11,” he writes. “They deserve the highest respect from us and are acting in response to an imperfect system, most times it works, in this case it did not.”

What if the system isn’t working?

What if, as more and more of the most vulnerable people in society are left behind by a jobless recovery, the rules set to keep order have become increasingly unforgiving? What if the National Coalition for the Homeless is right when it says that enforcement of the law is getting harsher and more selective? What if things are not basically OK?

In Central Booking, Leo is likely in a cell with twenty men. They’re sharing a toilet that none of them will want to use because it is so filthy, with no soap to clean their hands if they do. If he is kept overnight, he’ll sleep on a slippery metal bench or a concrete floor with no bedding.

Most of his cellmates will be black and latino men, there thanks to the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk tactics, which overwhelmingly target black and latino communities. The NYC mayoral primaries and election are being fought over these practices. If ever there was a system that doesn’t work most of the time, it’s one that routinely targets certain racial groups, takes their stuff, and tries to crush its whistleblowers.

Announcing his project, McConlogue writes:

Every day walking to work in New York City you will see the homeless. Some mentally gone, some drunk, some just making a wage begging.
However, I like to think I can see the few times when it’s a wayward puzzle piece. It’s that feeling you get when you know the waiter, the cashier, the janitor is in the wrong place—they are smart, brilliant even. This is my attempt to fix one of those lost pieces.

What if it’s not just a ‘few times’ that they are wayward puzzle pieces, but thousands of times? What if every one of those people you pass are lost pieces — that is to say humans — deserving of dignity and support?

Heartwarming though it may be, the practice of plucking individuals from a life of poverty does not scale. When Cinderella ascended to the throne, she did not bring the rest of the servants with her.

The Cinderella story has two morals. The light moral is that when you have grace and beauty, it will shine through and elevate you to your proper station. The dark moral is that this only happens if you are lucky enough have a Fairy Godparent.

That’s no way to run a society.