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In November 2011, Marc Roth spent the last of his savings on new work clothes. Two months after moving to San Francisco in search of a sales-engineering job, he had finally secured employment, and a six-figure salary, at a Web development company. But when Roth reported for his first day of work, the company stalled. Two days later, they told him he no longer had a position.

The lost opportunity was just part of a string of bad luck. Roth’s car—his home at the time—was robbed and its windows broken. He had to quit his temporary job, at a pizza restaurant, because nerve damage prohibited him from standing for extended periods of time. Finally, on December 1, Roth found a bed at a city homeless shelter.

Marc Roth
Marc Roth Marc Roth

Roth applied for welfare and began moving between shelters. That’s when he overheard a conversation about TechShop, a workshop whose members receive access to tools, education, and other resources. Roth spent nearly all of his city-assistance cash on a membership.

By then, Roth was staying at the Multi-Service Center South shelter, which kicked out its residents at 8 a.m. Others complained, but Roth loved it. “Every morning I would be smiling outside of TechShop, waiting for the doors to open at 9 a.m.”

He took more than 50 classes, learning to use 3-D printers and laser cutters, and he caught the attention of the TechShop community. Members asked Roth to help with their projects and paid him for his work. Eventually, the management hired him as an instructor. This work, and some help from an angel investor, helped him earn enough money to move out of the shelters.

By June 2013, Roth had opened his own business, San Francisco Laser Cutting Services. He works on a wide variety of projects, including foldable kayaks, motion-control camera devices, and robotic submarines. Although Roth makes a living through his work with SF Laser, his experience with homelessness hasn’t ended.

At the National Day of Civic Hacking in June 2013, Roth shared his story—and his plan to replicate it. With support from social innovation nonprofits like ReAllocate and Institute for the Future, and an IndieGoGo campaign, he founded the Learning Shelter. This organization, which earned accolades from the mayor of San Francisco and President Obama, teaches technical skills to homeless individuals, and then helps them find job and volunteer opportunities.

In August, five students graduated from the Learning Shelter’s first 90-day educational program, which includes TechShop classes and mentorship opportunities. The group explored Google’s collaborative workshop, Google Garage, and traveled behind the exhibits at the Exploratorium, a hands-on science museum in San Francisco.

“The experiences I had are unreal,” says Matthew Walker, a graduate of the program. “If you told me what was going to happen three months ago, I would have told you, ‘You’re crazy.’”

Walker says he believes the Learning Shelter opened up many opportunities. For now, he works as a bike courier. He hopes the job’s flexible work hours will allow him to volunteer elsewhere, gaining more practical experience at places like TechShop and the Exploratorium.

Roth, meanwhile, is working to continue the Learning Shelter’s success. He’s seeking additional funding so the program can provide housing for participants. “If you’re inspired you can do anything,” Roth says, “so I wanted to inspire more people.”

This article was originally published in the December 2014 issue of Popular Science, under the title, “Hacking Out Of Homelessness.” It has been expanded in the web version.

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