Can tech help San Francisco's homeless?

The tech industry is the source of great wealth in San Francisco. Could it also help the city's least fortunate?

Samantha Rhodes CNET Intern
Samantha Rhodes is an editorial intern for CNET. She currently attends Georgetown University, studying English and digital art. Samantha loves all things tech, plus logic puzzles, Lord of the Rings and podcasts of every variety. She is based in New York City.
Samantha Rhodes
4 min read

Del Seymour lived on the streets in San Francisco's Tenderloin district for 18 years, hustling for his next fix. For San Franciscans, this gritty neighborhood is synonymous with homelessness, drugs and destitution.

It's also home to 17 tech companies -- including Twitter, Dolby Laboratories, Spotify and Zendesk -- attracted in part by tax breaks and other incentives from the city. This makes the Tenderloin and its neighboring Mid-Market area a weird study in contrasts, as thousands of young tech professionals step around the area's poor and homeless on their way to work.

"I see all of my brothers and sisters with nothing to do, who want to go to work," says Seymour, who got off the mean streets eight years ago after a "spiritual revival" changed his life. "And then I see the tech cathedrals on the other side of this street. There's something wrong with this picture."

The tech industry has brought great wealth to San Francisco. Tech companies fill its office space. Well-heeled employees pay the country's highest rents and spend more than $100 for dinner without blinking an eye. Almost by itself, the local techniverse has widened the gap between the city's haves and have nots. Only New York has more homeless per 100,000 residents than San Francisco, according to the latest statistics.

Silicon Valley is trying to lend a hand.


A homeless man living in the Tenderloin finds a perch he can sleep on.

James Martin/CNET

Apps like Copia (formerly Feeding Forward), Waste No Food and Food Cowboy match businesses that have surplus food -- such as restaurants, grocery stores and wholesalers -- with nearby soup kitchens and shelters. Others will match volunteers with nonprofits or get corporate sponsors to donate to your favorite charity.

Websites like HandUp and Indiegogo's Generosity will crowdsource donations to individual as well as humanitarian causes. And the nonprofit organization Project Homeless Connect gives out phones and bar codes to the people it serves, part of an innovative method for delivering critical services.

Seymour took a more direct approach: He got those "tech cathedrals" to provide the training and resources for Code Tenderloin, a combination coding boot camp and job-coaching service he founded last year.

The right stuff

Cornell Doss, 49, lost his job as a security guard last year, just before Christmas. Without a paycheck, he'd sometimes skip meals to make sure his 12-year-old daughter had enough to eat.

In February, he signed up for Code Tenderloin's four-week interview course, meeting for three hours, twice a week. Think of it as intensive job coaching taught by people in the tech industry, such as GitHub, LinkedIn, NerdWallet and Dolby, often from their offices.

Doss learned everything from building an effective resume to how to carry himself in an interview (sit straight, make eye contact, don't cross arms) and questions he should ask. He also practiced in mock interviews and even shadowed the trainers during their day jobs.

"They were real, real specific, even to the point of being early for the interview, doing your homework and research on the company, and how to market yourself," says Doss. "I knew some of the resume tricks, but [everything else] was all new to me."

Still, it's one thing to land a job -- another to be qualified for something that pays enough to live on. In San Francisco, that usually means knowing how to program. That's why Code Tenderloin also offers Code Ramp, a five-week, 60-hour course -- again taught by experts from local tech companies -- on website development.

"I took this class to become independent," says Hector Calderon, 54, who previously spent 11 months living on the street with his two boys. "[It's] another item to have when you apply for a job and, hopefully, make good money."

In the land of tech...

Project Homeless Connect quite literally brings together every service a homeless or low-income family could conceivably need. Five times a year, PHC holds all-in-one help days where more than 150 nonprofits and city agencies meet under one roof. It's a one-stop center for haircuts, medical and dental care, eyeglasses, wheelchair repair and employment counseling. There are also daily events for services like vision exams, dentures and clothing.

Enlarge Image

People walk by an ad for upscale apartments in San Francisco's Mid-Market neighborhood, which have been designed to appeal to tech professionals working nearby.

James Martin/CNET

PHC gives each person it serves a bar code on a bracelet, then scans that code whenever someone, say, picks up a week's worth of food or comes in for dental care. The information helps PHC stay ahead of demand.

Everyone who walks through PHC's doors gets a 3G smartphone, provided by donors like Assurance Wireless, a lifeline assistance program from Virgin Mobile USA, or by Google, which provides Nexus phones. Carriers have donated minutes for those phones.

"Not only is technology important for people to learn about services, it's a big piece of how our society connects," says Kara Zordel, PHC's founder and executive director. "You're really isolated if you don't have technology."

One member used his PHC-supplied phone to call his mother for the first time in 20 years. It was her first confirmation he was still alive, says Zordel.


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Mark Mann

First, connect

No one knows for sure how many people are homeless in the United States. The best number we have is 564,000, based on a single night every year in late January when volunteers count people living in shelters and on the streets. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates the real number could be 2 million.

There are so many homeless in San Francisco, people living there see them as just another part of the landscape, like the dozens of buildings that bear the names of tech giants. Tech is the engine driving San Francisco's wealth; now, it could help the city's least fortunate.

"If you can't be seen, technology at least allows you to be heard," says Zordel.

"You'll never be part of the conversation without it."

Samantha Rhodes (@samanthakrhodes) is a Washington, D.C.-based reporter who's covered tech, politics, culture and local news.

This story appears in the winter 2016 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.