Boxes in space

Mobility is key in vision for maker-inspired homeless training program


On a recent weeknight, a group of volunteers met up at a warehouse space in SoMa to hash out plans for The Learning Shelter, a project that has attracted hefty donations and enthusiastic volunteers but lacks a permanent home base. The brainchild of Marc Roth, a maker-movement enthusiast, the idea is to give homeless people a boost toward a brighter future by teaching them how to make things with 3D printers, and other useful skills.

Eight large shipping containers, on loan from supportive organizations, are currently sitting in a gated lot adjacent to the 14,000-square-foot warehouse, which housed a community-based project called [freespace] in June and July.

Roth and his core group of volunteers have plans to retrofit each container to be a "shop in a box" — a mobile classroom, outfitted with whiteboards and enough juice to power the Cubes (a brand name for 3-D printers), CNC routers, laser cutters, and other maker toys. The vision is to use those retrofitted shipping containers to lead three-month intensives in technical skill instruction for up to 30 adult students without homes at a time.

Roth is currently working at a laser company startup, but it wasn't long ago that he was among his project's target population. He moved to San Francisco from Las Vegas in September of 2011 and slept in his car (which was "part of the plan," he explained) while struggling to piece together a new life in the Bay Area.

After one job opportunity fell through, he landed a gig cooking pizzas on Treasure Island. But the long shifts kept him on his feet all day, and aggravated a health condition that causes nerve damage. With few options and a disability sending his health into a downward spiral, it was only a matter of months before he hit rock bottom and checked into a homeless shelter run by the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

It was near 5th and Bryant streets in SoMa. Just a few blocks away, Roth discovered TechShop, a do-it-yourself community workshop that describes itself as being "on a mission to democratize access to the tools of innovation." An atypical member of the homeless population, Roth had worked as a programmer in the past, and had an itch to learn laser cutting. So he shelled out some of his last dollars for a TechShop membership.

At first, he was grateful just to have found a place where he could tinker for about 10 hours a day while sitting down, since his health problems were still sapping his energy. "I'd never heard of any of these machines," Roth said. But soon, he was voraciously teaching himself to use them. "When they showed me what a water jet was and what it could do, the hair on the back of my neck stood up," he said of the device that uses high-pressure water for cutting. "This was Disneyland, multiplied."

Today, Roth is housed (for now, but he's still seeking a permanent place to rent) and teaches multiple workshops at TechShop. Yet he's acutely aware that there are others who were under the roof of St. Vincent with him who still wake up every day to a harsh and destitute life on the streets.

During his time there, he said he befriended several people and got a sense of their innate curiosity and creativity. "I was dragging people with me to the TechShop," Roth recalled. "In my little group of five to six people, we had a couple ideas for inventions." With the skills that could be mastered at the community workshop, "they could actually go out and get a part-time job."



Of course, there are obvious barriers preventing the vast majority of San Francisco's homeless population from following Roth's example of just going out there and doing-it-yourself.