October 23, 2019 / 5:02 PM / a month ago

From code to cleanliness: social entrepreneurs support San Francisco's homeless

SAN FRANCISCO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Like many San Francisco residents, freshly minted coder David Brooks aspires to join the city’s famed technology workforce as an engineer.

What gives him an edge, he believes, is his empathy and ability to problem solve – life skills honed from being homeless for the past four years.

Brooks learned his trade through local non-profit group Code Tenderloin, which, beyond providing coding courses, helps homeless people and other marginalized groups find jobs with local tech companies such as LinkedIn or Survey Monkey.

Brooks lives in a motorhome in a relatively safe area of the city, but will soon be displaced from his parking spot by a new property.

“It’s kind of scary ... I saw this happening and that is why I studied engineering, so I can be part of society,” Brooks told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at a drop-in tutoring session for Code Tenderloin students at LinkedIn’s plush downtown offices.

HOT PROPERTY

Space comes at a premium in San Francisco, which has perpetuated the homelessness crisis in the city.

“Up and down the West Coast - and San Francisco’s kind of hit the hardest - we’ve had massive, massive rising rents and massive housing crises,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the advocacy group Coalition on Homelessness.

“Thousands of poor people have been displaced and ended up homeless.”

In January 2019 there were more than 8,000 homeless people living in San Francisco, up 17% from 2017, according to official data. Friedenbach said the true figure was likely in the tens of thousands when the hidden homeless were included.

In recent years, tensions over the homelessness problem have risen. Tents line the streets and parks of a city that covers less than 50 square miles (130 sq km) and is home to 900,000 people.

The city has the highest median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the United States at about $3,700 a month, according to rental site Zumper, almost $1,000 more than New York City.

The new wave of residents moving to the city to work for tech companies and start-ups tend to be more transient, said Doniece Sandoval, founder of Lava Mae, a local non-profit group that runs mobile bathrooms for homeless people.

“The city seems to be spending all this money and things are not only not getting better, they’re getting worse,” she said.

TENDERLOIN

After about 18 years living on the streets, Del Seymour decided to host free walking tours of the Tenderloin, a seedy neighborhood marked by residential hotels that is a hub for the homeless.

Homeless people huddle alongside trolleys piled with belongings in makeshift shelters that nestle alongside the headquarters of major tech companies including Twitter that won tax breaks for moving there.

Vietnam veteran Seymour, who moved into his own home after kicking his drug addiction about 12 years ago, founded Code Tenderloin in 2013 from his car to provide “economic empowerment” to homeless people.

“We have no affordable housing. We’re full, at capacity – we don’t have room to build like other cities,” said Seymour.

Abetted by funding from major tech companies, the organization has helped 1,500 people, but Seymour recognizes its limitations.

“Our biggest challenge is getting students into homes – you can’t work when you are living outside.”

“No one can ever end homelessness,” he said. “We’re just trying to manage it better.”

GETTING CLEAN

With its mobile washroom and toilet facilities stationed across the city several times a week, Lava Mae similarly aims to help people help themselves.

“If you cannot get clean and stay clean, not only do you lose your sense of dignity and self-worth, you’re not able to access opportunities like jobs and housing,” said founder Sandoval.

Lava Mae has provided 75,000 showers since launching in 2014 and has now expanded beyond San Francisco to the East Bay area and to Los Angeles, which also struggles with homelessness.

Sandoval believes larger, systemic change and collaboration is needed rather than relying on social enterprises alone, including greater synergy between the public and private sectors.

“Social entrepreneurs lead innovation, bringing new ideas, new solutions that are more flexible and address different angles that are not being addressed,” she said.

“It will take all of us at the table, working together truly collaboratively and open to new ideas and putting our own separate agendas aside, to meet the greater good.”

Reporting by Sarah Shearman @Shearmans. Editing by Chris Michaud and Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and slavery, property rights, social innovation, resilience and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories

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