Homeless Tech Education Program Eyes Official Launch

The Learning Shelter homeless program unveils plans to assist struggling San Francisco residents with industrial trade skills in technology.

by / September 24, 2014
Learning Shelter Founder Marc Roth stands next to his laser printer that serves his new business SFLaser. Roth went from being homeless to bootstrapping his own laser cutting startup that he says will be expanding due to high demand. Jason Shueh

The Learning Shelter began as an idea -- to provide those in need with tech tools, mentors and coaching. And it turned into a “what if?” -- a conjecture that asked, "If the homeless had hireable industrial tech skills, would they still be homeless?"

For Founder Marc Roth, personal experience tells him no, and he’s putting this to the test with the official launch of the Learning Shelter, a 90-day live-in tech education program for the homeless with classes that will start in the first half of 2015.

Roth, who’s been recognized by the White House for his path from homelessness to a tech entrepreneur, said the launch will represent the shelter’s first full-fledged program, complete with housing for 10 students and private workspace to learn industrial tech trade skills such as laser printing, 3-D printing, CNC machining, woodworking and other skills.

The shelter’s 2014 pilot program, headquartered at San Francisco’s TechShop, a community-run studio that offers classes and industrial tech equipment, included five students who attended 15 classes each. Roth said three out of the five were able to find jobs during and after the program -- some related to their study and others not. But he saw all of them as benefiting from the structure and still able apply the skills.

“There's something to getting up and going somewhere everyday that motivates” Roth said, noting that to be effective in the next iteration, the Learning Shelter will require dedicated housing and a working area to ensure sustainability. The concept is to fashion eight large shipping containers into a workspace with electric power and bathroom access. Location is still to be determined; however, based on pricing, Roth said he anticipates constructing the site on San Francisco’s southeastern edge with housing nearby.

“If you look on Craigslist for housing prices around the area, there's some better prices as you get out toward Bay Shore [neighborhoods] -- it's not all ridiculous,” Roth said.

Consultation with the city’s Housing & Homeless Service is already under way to meet specific homeless shelter requirements for living arrangements. Eventually the ambition is to scale the program so it assists about 30 people. As growth continues, space needs are expected to be a primary concern for the shelter.

“Using TechShop for a prototype was fine, but we definitely need our own space, and we definitely need to have the live-in [housing] component.” Roth said. “It may be expensive, but we have to do it.”

Such costs are to be supported by program sponsors, and Roth now seeks a new executive director to coordinate funding efforts, as well as a revised applicant outreach and screening process under development with voluntary support from Google. Through volunteer hours, Google staff have committed to help create criteria for interviews and plan strategies for a review of shelter candidates.

The shelter is also seeking local partnership with manufacturing companies that may act as potential employers for graduates and the San Francisco startup Akimbo, a new social media career site designed to connect blue collar and trade skill workers with employers.

“We need to cast a broader net and talk to more people this time," Roth said, "we just want to enhance the recruitment process."

Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.