From homeless in San Francisco to a job in the tech industry

From homeless in SF to a job in tech

Del Seymour grew up on the streets of San Francisco, where he spent 12 years of his life homeless yet determined to do something about it. He was tired of "all talk and no action," so Seymour took it upon himself to create a solution to a problem that plagued his youth.

Seymour's idea of a solution to homelessness isn't centered around finding immediate housing or a source of food, contradicting the "housing first" mentality that many people in the city believe is the answer, he said. Seymour's solution is employment.

"A lot of people want to stick it on mental illness, which is a part of it," Seymour said in an interview. "They stick it on social issues, and that's a part of it. They stick it on criminal background, and that's a part of it. But the real deal is employment. ... You cannot go and rent a decent house without employment. You have to pay for that house."

Last September Seymour formed Code Tenderloin, an incubator that takes participants through either a job readiness program, where students build a resume and prepare for job interviews, or a coding bootcamp, where students are taught front-end web development.

Since its launch, Code Tenderloin has sent more than 60 people back to work by way of partnerships with tech companies such as Zendesk, Airbnb, Dolby and Uber. Instead of viewing the tech companies as the "bad guys," Seymour said he was thinking of ways to work with them — ways to form relationships that would benefit everyone in San Francisco — as they flocked to the city around 2012.

The gap between the rich and the poor intensified quickly as the offices of Spotify, Square, Twitter and Yammer flooded San Francisco's Tenderloin and South of Market neighborhoods, some of the city's poorest and most underdeveloped areas at the time. Seymour saw an opportunity to bridge the divide and has worked ever since to bring the two parties together.

Code Tenderloin’s mission: “Crossing Market”

A poster at Code Tenderloin’s headquarters in San Francisco
Lauren Thomas | CNBC

"Most people don't know the tech campuses — only 70 percent of the jobs in the tech campuses are tech-centered," Seymour explained. "The rest are front office, facilities maintenance, culinary, security, customer service, shipping and receiving. ... So we're trying to fill some of those jobs immediately when they open up to us."

Code Tenderloin calls its mission "Crossing Market," after Market Street, since most of the tech community is situated south of Market St., and most of San Francisco's unemployed men and women reside north of Market.

"We went viral in the Tenderloin," Neil Shah, a lead volunteer at Code Tenderloin, said in an interview. "Our job is to now scale this to other neighborhoods, to go into the hardest-hit areas and be a disruptor."

Today, Code Tenderloin has placed its students at companies such as Dolby, Lending Club, WeWork, Google, Macy's, Target and Dropbox.

Retention is also important for Seymour, who said "my job begins the day they start theirs." More than 85 percent of Code Tenderloin participants have kept their jobs, Seymour said, and he continues to visit graduates after they leave his program, ensuring they have the resources they need to go to work every day.

Without more programs like Code Tenderloin, Seymour doesn't see the city being able to reduce homelessness in the future. "I have not seen an aggressive enough plan to deal with [homelessness]," Seymour said. "There are too many silos. People are working in silos and not coming together on the issues."

Homelessness: A growing problem in San Francisco

In January 2015, 564,708 people across the U.S. were homeless on any given night, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD. Homelessness declined nationwide by 2 percent between 2014 and 2015, and by 11 percent since 2007, the report said.

California accounted for 21 percent of the nation's homeless population in 2015, or 115,738 people. Between 2014 and 2015, 17 states experienced increases in homelessness. New York had the largest increase, followed by California, HUD said.

In conjunction with the nationwide count, the city of San Francisco conducts its own Homeless Count & Survey. The number of homeless in San Francisco's streets and shelters in 2015 was 6,686, an increase of 250 individuals compared with 2013, the latest report found. A 10-year analysis found a 7 percent increase in the number of people living without a home in San Francisco between 2005 and 2015.

Based on 2015 data, 57 percent of the unsheltered homeless population was located in District 6, which includes the Tenderloin and South of Market neighborhoods, and 25 percent of respondents reported job loss as the primary cause of their homelessness.

Many individuals surveyed by the city said that employment and income were not enough to meet their basic needs. The unemployment rate for homeless respondents in San Francisco was 89 percent, up from 62 percent in 2013. Of those who were unemployed, the primary barriers to employment included a lack of a permanent address, clothing and showers. Twenty percent of respondents in San Francisco cited a dependence on drug or alcohol as an obstacle, the report said.

Seymour said he's studied the stats, and he sees unemployment as the biggest the problem, so that's where he's targeting his efforts today — toward creating jobs.

Twitter, other tech companies show support

Code Tenderloin’s coding classes
Source: Code Tenderloin

"After joining Twitter, Del was one of the first coffees I had," Caroline Barlerin, Twitter's head of community outreach and philanthropy, said in an interview. "I went on a walking tour with the unofficial 'Mayor of the Tenderloin' to hear from him what's working and what's not. He's an expert, and he's bridging the world of tech and the Tenderloin in a meaningful way."

Twitter hosted Code Tenderloin's first graduating class and is heavily involved with the nonprofit's fundraising campaign today, Barlerin said. Twitter employees volunteer to talk with Code Tenderloin participants about careers in tech and coding, and its engineers have been mentors to those who hope to pursue a job in the industry.

"Del gives people hope and a pathway, and he's helping people take the first step to the future," Barlerin said. "Del is changing the trajectory for the homeless. … He's getting them housed."

Code Tenderloin has received an influx of donations as of late, including $5,000 from Twitter in 2015, followed by $5,000 in 2016, Code Tenderloin volunteer Shah said. Dolby gave $30,000 to Code Tenderloin this year, after a $10,000 donation in 2015. The nonprofit has received additional investments from Zendesk, Benchmark Capital, Yammer and the Mid-Market Business Association, Shah said.

Zendesk has been another one of Code Tenderloin's biggest supporters, by hosting events in its office's communal space and sending Zendesk employees on Seymour's guided walking tours of the Tenderloin. In the future, Zendesk will be a "feeder" employee for students who graduate from Code Tenderloin's job-readiness program, Tiffany Apczynski, vice president of public policy and social impact at Zendesk, said in an interview.

"There are plenty of roles in our organizations," Apczynski said. "We're tech companies, but we're not all engineers. So you just have to open yourself up to hiring employees coming from a nontraditional pathway, then everybody is going to grow and benefit from that."

Many who know Seymour say he's pioneering a movement in bringing the tech community and the city's homeless together, something he believes will get people off the streets faster than any other solutions being proposed in San Francisco.