Last December, a man named Leo Grand created a ride-sharing app that ended up earning him a modest sum of money.
This, in and of itself, is nothing unique. However, Grand was homeless, and had learned to code only four months prior to the launch of his app. A few weeks after the launch, he had made about $10,000.
But today, Leo the Homeless Coder is still homeless. He has yet to touch a penny of his money.
When his app launched, he was center of national attention. No one has followed up on Grand. Grand and his teacher Patrick, the 23-year-old programmer who taught Leo how to code, haven’t really wanted media attention.
But the second half of their story is as important as the first. It provides deeper insights into the mindset of a homeless person, and the challenges with trying to find quick, easy solutions for people.
It’s a much more complicated story than anyone would have expected.
When Patrick Met Leo
Last summer, as Patrick McConlogue walked to work every morning, he would notice a homeless man on his commute to work, lifting chains diligently in hopes of getting some exercise.
That man was Leo Grand, and for nearly three years he had made a home for himself on the streets of Manhattan’s West side. McConlogue, a programmer for an educational startup, saw in Grand a certain drive that he thought, with help, could be applied elsewhere.
An Opportunity To Learn And Teach
It was then that McConlogue took to Medium with a blog post titled “Finding the unjustly homeless and teaching them how to code.”
McConlogue’s plan was simple. Offer Grand $100, no strings attached, or the opportunity to learn a skill: coding.
If Grand wanted to learn how to code, McConlogue would provide a few books on the subject, a cheap but durable laptop computer and charging accessories, and, most important, daily lessons every morning before McConlogue was due at his office.
It would be a real test of the old adage “give a man to fish.”
The Medium post was widely criticized.
Sam Biddle of Valleywag said “surely Patrick will realize this is degrading and horrible.” Time’s Jessica Roy (formally of The New York Observer’s Betabeat blog) wrote that the “homeless are not bit players in your imaginary entrepreneurial novella.”
Regardless, Grand took the opportunity to learn, Patrick followed through on his promise, and a friendship was born.
Leo Learns To Code
Business Insider followed the two men as they began their journey. We attended a coding lesson in an NYC public park on chilly September morning. We wrote about their setbacks; Grand had been arrested for trespassing, sleeping on a bench after that particular area had closed to the public for the night. McConlogue set up a Facebook group for Grand; there are nearly 70,000 fans.
Yes, after a few months of rigorously learning how to code, defying the critics that tore apart McConlogue’s first Medium piece, the two men in December 2013 released Trees For Cars, a ride-share app that Leo coded all by himself.
The premise for the app was this: For $.99, download Trees For Cars (available for iPhone and Android). As a driver, simply pick a meeting address and the app will suggest nearby riders. Then, each rider and driver are connected only if they choose to mutually accept the invitations. The app tracks how much CO2 was saved by the passengers who got rides with others.
Money And The Success Of Leo’s App, Trees For Cars
Trees For Cars saw about 15,000 downloads across both Apple and Android stores, bringing in about $14,000 dollars. Various cuts to the stores and platforms themselves add up to about 30%, leaving Grand with a little under $10,000.
The money is in McConlogue’s name.
“We set it up in my name because I have a bank account. The deal was, at the end of the day all the money was Leo’s. Not mine,” McConlogue told Business Insider.
But the homeless coder doesn’t have a bank account, and for the time being and, for whatever reason, doesn’t want one. Which means the money is sitting in limbo, unclaimed and unused. And it means that Grand, every night, even in the brutal cold of this past winter, curls up on a park bench or underneath scaffolding, and sleeps on the streets of Manhattan.
A few times, McConlogue encouraged Grand to go to the bank and see what they could do to help him set up an account. They never made it more than a few blocks before Grand insisted on turning around.
McConlogue could, of course, withdraw Grand’s money and hand the cash over. But both Grand and Patrick agree that that’s not a good idea.
McConlogue gave Grand a deadline.
“He has a year to find a way, be it with a bank account or proxy, to claim his money, every penny, from my account. If he doesn’t want to do that, I told him to pick a homeless shelter and we’ll donate it.”
Grand isn’t ready to open a bank account, claim the money, and start the process of rejoining society. After all, a life on the streets is the life he’s lived now for several years. Claiming money, ownership of an apartment, of valuables, thinking about insurance and jobs is far too stressful. Humans are creatures of habit and routine, and though homeless, Leo Grand is most certainly human.
Mitchell Netburn, the president and CEO of Project Renewal, an organization that helps the homeless access resources to help them rejoin society, spoke to Business Insider about why Grand may be resistant to claiming his rightfully earned money.
Netburn doesn’t know Grand or his situation, but says it’s not uncommon for homeless people to be paranoid about joining “the system.”
“They don’t always understand how banks work. Who has access to them. Who can track them. It’s overwhelming,” Netburn told us.
“It’s also about pride. Banks often need proof of address, or copies of Social Security cards and birth certificates. Homeless people don’t necessarily want to walk into a bank and declare out loud that they live on the street,” he adds.
McConlogue once asked Grand what the worst part of being homeless was. The answer?
“It’s lonely,” he said.
Back To School
There are things Grand does want to do, like continue to learn how to code and develop, because, as Grand says, he “actually really likes coding.”
And so, a few days a week, he walks to 5th Avenue to attend coding class at TurnToTech.
TurnToTech offers 12-week programs in various coding languages, and they gave Grand a scholarship to attend.
He started his second program earlier this month. He’s also taking writing courses and tells Business Insider he enjoys writing about politics.
‘We’re Still A Team’
Many people assumed McConlogue, young and maybe a little naive, wouldn’t go through with his plans to help Grand. Many criticized him for thinking he could save the homeless en masse by teaching them how to code.
But McConlogue says he and Grand are working with various organizations that provide help and counseling. He even tried to get Grand set up with room and board, though it was a deal that unfortunately fell through.
If it sounds like a saccharine fairy tale or a Lifetime Movie producer’s dream, that’s because it practically is. Check out the Facebook page where strangers from all over the world send their encouragement, advice, prayers, and wishes.
One man even created Trees For Cars-themed T-shirts and hoodies, all proceeds going to Grand. They sold out.
The whole point of the experience, or at least the goal when the two started out, was to teach Grand a skill that would help him make money to sustain a life off of the streets.
But if you want to get technical, the original goal has yet to be reached: Patrick taught Grand how to code and, though successful, the man is still sleeping on park benches and on flimsy cardboard boxes.
Patrick McConlogue, for all intents and purposes, did not “solve homelessness.”
The result seems to echo the statements made by the project’s biggest critics — not everyone wants to be saved. Fixing homelessness is a lot more complicated than everyone thinks.
For everyone who has declined a homeless person a dollar or two because they should just “get a job” — it’s not that simple. Does it mean you should empty your pockets on every corner? Of course not. But empathy comes free. And in the case of Leo Grand and Patrick McConlogue, teaching a man to fish won’t feed him for life, unless the man is willing to pick up the fork.
It’s a political Rorschach test — you can see in it any conclusion you want to see: The homeless want to be homeless; the homeless want to be productive members of society; coding skills really do help homeless people; coding will not cure homelessness.
“Is it difficult? Yes. Do I want it to be different? Yes. Am I walking away? No. We’re still a team. He’s a friend now,” McConlogue tells us.
And Grand, who holds McConlogue in the same regard, says he’s happy.
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