Innovators team with service providers to address challenges facing the homeless

By Kellie Chudzinski

USC Annenberg professor of communication François Bar (second from left) shows a Skid Row Power cart to community members
Photo by Damon Casarez for USC Annenberg Magazine

Nearly 200 tech entrepreneurs, investors and nonprofit leaders gathered in November in the Expert Dojo startup incubator at Santa Monica Place to explore entrepreneurial solutions addressing the homelessness crisis.

The second annual Tech + Homelessness event showcased programs and innovations that connect people experiencing homelessness to resources or services by local and national organizations.

Sharon Plunkett, director of social innovation for Venice-based social services nonprofit the St. Joseph Center, discussed the organization’s Code Talk program, initially funded by Snapchat. The free 16-week intensive for homeless and low-income women aims to break cycles of poverty by teaching students front-end web development.

“The city is outpacing the people who live here,” Plunkett said of a rapidly gentrifying Los Angeles. “The world is not kind to people who trip and fall, and it’s hard to get back up.”

Erika Odom, who began as a student of the program and now works in web design for Playa Vista-based ethical consumer goods brand The Honest Company, said the program teaches people “how to code while their lives are falling apart,” adding: “Somebody had taken a chance on me … that’s what I really needed.”

Skid Row Power — a joint effort of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, LA Community Action Network (LACAN) and community members — intends to empower people experiencing homelessness by providing access to solar-powered bicycle carts.

Because most people who are homeless are believed to have access to a cell phone, LACAN Executive Director Pete White pitched a funding and materials request for Skid Row Power’s Charge N’ Chill cart, which runs on solar and battery power to provide a wireless hotspot and can charge up to 14 devices at one time.

Both CG Chen of Ample Labs and Mel Tillekeratne of Showers of Hope discussed technology that aims to connect homeless individuals to resources. For Chen that means anything from free meals to crisis hotlines, while Tillekeratne is focused specifically on shower facilities.

Four other leaders from the nonprofit and tech sectors pitched the audience for resources. Some needed an app to make their particular program more accessible, while others asked for funding and resources to expand their geographic reach.

Tech + Homelessness was the brainchild of angel investor Nancy Hammerman, senior vice president of research and marketing at Sutton Capital Partners. She developed the concept after noticing a gap in the tech ecosystem. As homelessness continues to grow, she thought: “Shouldn’t we be doing something?”