In a tiny computer lab tucked away at the top of SF TechShop, eleven mid-20-somethings stare intently at a screen. On the screen, an Indiegogo campaign struggles, with only $5,463 of its $60,000 goal reached.
A fast-talking Australian named Eoin McMillan stands at the front of the room scribbling markings on a white board. “When you talk to journalists, you need to understand the narrative,” he says. “Homeless to hacker. It resonates.” The volunteers nod.
In the back, a burly older bearded man interjects with his input. “The majority of the homeless population is not what you would think of, people in doorways,” Marc Roth says. “It’s people where you wouldn’t necessarily be able to spot that they’re homeless.”
Roth would know. He spent five months living in a homeless shelter in 2012, after moving to San Francisco from Las Vegas.
Roth’s story is one for the books: He fought his way out of poverty using nothing more than a TechShop membership, perseverance, and a little help. Now that he’s sorted out his future, he’s trying to raise money to help other homeless individuals do the same through TechShop training.
He’s the man behind the Indiegogo effort that is striving — and currently failing — to reach its goals. He’s the reason a roomful of young volunteers are spending their Thursday night learning how to pitch media on the campaign, instead of out at a networking Happy Hour or other Silicon Valley-esque event.
Before becoming homeless, Roth had dreamed of building a better life for himself and his family in San Francisco.
Roth had lived in Vegas all his life, with a mother who was a showgirl (“A showgirl who didn’t know how to transition into real life,” Roth says) and an unreliable father (“He came in and out of my life and eventually went to jail for drugs”). When he became a dad, he wanted nothing more than to get himself and his children out of the Vegas culture. “Being in Vegas was toxic,” Roth says, “Sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” He moved himself out to San Francisco, with promises to his children that he’d bring them out too once he had found a job.
But a series of unfortunate events — from someone breaking into his car and stealing all his worldly possessions to a job he was offered that later was revoked — put a halt to that plan.
In December 2011, Roth began living in a homeless shelter, determined to make it work. After only a few weeks there, he heard two fellow shelter residents talking about something called “TechShop.” One brandished a flier, trying in vain to convince the other of TechShop’s worth. The duo eventually chucked the scrap of paper in the trash and left the room. Roth creeped over and pulled it out, examining it with interest.
He visited the workshop, which houses roughly 200 cutting, welding, building, printing, sewing, and other such machines. It quickly became clear that TechShop, with its rows of shiny computers, would be the perfect place for him to spend his daylight hours. “I was thinking this is where I’m going to sit and send out resumes and have coffee and warmth,” Roth says.
Little did he know that TechShop would change the course of his life.
He cashed out his $59 general assistance check for the month, and spent almost the entire thing on a TechShop membership. He didn’t tell anyone he met there that he was homeless, instead pretending to be so fascinated with the 3D printer he had to spend hours and hours watching it work. “Being homeless was a big secret then,” Roth remembers. “I was ashamed.”
He started taking classes in how to use various pieces of equipment, and leaped on the opportunity to help some entrepreneurs scale their operations system after they raised money on Kickstarter for products like lamps and robots.
Around the same time, Blaine Dehmlow, then TechShop SF’s general manager, asked Roth if he would start teaching classes. “I told him, ‘I’m homeless, and I live in a shelter, and I’m going to talk about that. So if that will shame TechShop I shouldn’t do it,'” Roth remembers. “Blaine told me not to worry about it.”
He eventually started telling the founders who had hired him that he was homeless. He still kept a low-profile, but the people who knew him well knew what he was dealing with, and a fellow TechShop member decided to pay a few months rent for Roth to live in a hacker house next door in May 2012. It was Roth’s first big step out of poverty.
In the months following, Roth started his own laser cutting company — SF Laser — with help from a stealth investor. He opened an office in TechShop itself and made enough money to bring his two children and ex-wife out to live in California.
It’s a story of redemption, one that sits at the juxtaposition of the technology world and the socioeconomic class divide. Roth is the epitome of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.” At the same time, he could never have done so without the help of others along the way.
He’s starting a non-profit called The Learning Shelter to do the same for other homeless individuals.
Here’s the idea behind The Learning Shelter: With $60,000, Roth and his board will rent a small apartment and buy a TechShop corporate membership. They’ve developed a training curriculum and hope to accept four homeless people into the program.
Those chosen will live in the apartment, spending 40 hours a week learning the arts of t-shirt making, laser cutting, and 3D printing. “Housing makes a big difference,” Roth explains. “When you have to get up in the morning and not know where you’re sleeping tonight, and show up and work in a learning environment, it’s too traumatic.”
Roth saw that first hand: Before starting The Learning Shelter, he purchased two individual TechShop memberships for fellow homeless individuals. “They took their ID pictures and never came back,” Roth says.
After the first month, The Learning Shelter participants will pick where their passion lies and spend the next two months focusing solely on that skill. At the end of it, Roth hopes to place them in jobs. “If they do laser cutting they’ll be with me,” Roth says.
If the first round of The Learning Shelter is a success — the minimum viable product, so to speak — Roth wants to scale the venture, to try to bring on bigger donors and help more individuals.
The approach is, of course, a bit of a piecemeal solution to homelessness and poverty in San Francisco. One person helped at a time, so to speak. It doesn’t address much larger infrastructure problems and systematic needs.
“I don’t have the delusion that were going to end mental health and addiction problems,” Roth tells the roomful of young, bright-eyed volunteers. “We’re just giving people a hand out of homelessness who can then turn back and help others.”
But at the moment, the Indiegogo campaign that’s meant to fund the effort has yet to gain much traction. It’s not entirely clear why — with Roth’s inspiring life story behind it, it has all the makings for a viral success.
With 12 days left to go until the campaign expires, the clock is ticking.
[Photos by Ben Bateman for Pandodaily]