I brought him several cartons of cigarettes, a half-dozen bagels and a phone charger. He walked up to my car wearing a black mask over a reddish beard and said: “Let’s go to Costco.” He offered to sit in the back seat and, once he got in, he apologized if he smelled of smoke. I looked down the alley to our right and asked him if it was where he was staying. “Yes, right there where that guy is” he replied, pointing to a spot where another man was sitting on a piece of cardboard. “He is sitting where I sleep. I don’t know why he’s there.” I asked him if he needed to shop at Costco. “No,” he said. “I just wanted to get away from that guy.”
We parked in the Costco parking garage, just a block away. As we got out, we headed out of the garage and began walking the streets. “Did you know I was running for President?” I told him I did not. To myself, I said: “Oh no.”
“Well, I want to,” he said. “I ran for Mayor of San Francisco in 2019 and got seven votes.” He paused. “I want to solve the problems all around us,” he said. I said: “Well, why not think about getting yourself off the street and solving your own problems.” He shook his head. That’s not what he was thinking about.
Meet Marc Roth. He’s homeless in SF, like many thousands of others in the city. Marc was a maker before he became homeless, but he said TechShop encouraged him to continue his education while living in a homeless shelter. That education helped him become an entrepreneur, “knowing how to start over and keep going until you get it right.” He and his story became part of the TechShop pitch and a maker movement success story — the turnaround of a homeless man learning new skills and having access to tools and materials, which helped him build a new life for himself. Soon, with his ability to operate a laser cutter and a new outlook, he could be useful and productive. He founded a startup, SF Laser. Author of Zero to Maker, David Lang, a TechShop regular who got to know Marc, wrote in a 2014 Make: article, The Audacity of Making”, called Marc “the de facto source for production laser cutting in San Francisco.”
In 2014, Marc Roth went to the White House for Maker Faire and was recognized by President Obama.
Here’s what President Obama said about Marc at the event:
There’s Marc Roth, from San Francisco. A few years ago, Marc found himself homeless. And at a shelter, Marc heard about a local TechShop that teaches folks how to use new tools like laser cutters and 3D printers, and he signed up. And within 16 months, he had started SF Laser, his own laser-cutting business. He just launched a program called The Learning Shelter to teach tech and manufacturing skills to other folks who are trying to get back on their feet.
I had heard from Marc several times since then. One is when he had a startup called Abricate, which sought to become a network for distributing fabrication jobs to multiple fabricators. I remember him telling me that when the Super Bowl was about to be held in SF, there was a request to make 10,000 signs, which could be produced on a laser cutter but had to be done in a week. No single fabrication shop could do that many in a week but Abricate’s website could break up the job and distribute it to many shops that might produce 500-1000 signs.
Marc had also launched a non-profit called Learning Shelter to help other homeless follow a path similar to his. In 2013, he had raised $20K through an Indiegogo campaign.
At a later date, I heard from Marc when TechShop closed in 2017. He was upset. He blamed a lot of people. It was a very hard thing for him to accept.
Recently I heard from Marc or rather he left a voicemail saying that he was in Walgreens waiting for a prescription and charging his phone. He wouldn’t have enough charge left for me to call him back. I sent him a text and he responded, saying he was “living in a hut” in downtown SF. I asked him how I could help him get into housing. He replied that “it’s a long conversation.” I suggested we meet on the upcoming Saturday. He wanted to meet but replied: “It’s not about me anymore. This has to be fixed at scale from the top.” He added: “Seriously cigarettes are currency just like in prison. A carton of cigarettes would go a long way for us.” I had no idea how expensive a carton of cigarettes is today — over $100 with tax at a convenience store.
On a Saturday morning in summer, Marc and I walked around several city blocks near Folsom Street, where there were plenty of homeless people stirring about. One man was carefully folding up blankets and placing them in a blue recycling bin. Another was putting a chair and other possessions into a small truck with a shattered windshield. Most lived in makeshift structures, which in this time of COVID-19 were spaced out from one another.
In our conversation, I pieced together some details of Marc’s life. In 2018, Marc had a job working at Waymo, a self-driving car company in SF. He was doing well, making over six figures. But he grew disillusioned with the company, which he felt ignored the needs of its lowest paid workers and whose product if successful would eliminate jobs in the future. So he quit that job after a few months.
He wanted to help people and in particular the homeless. He revived the Learning Shelter project and got the attention of SF officials who were interested in funding it. However, Marc had an idea that the officials didn’t like or didn’t like how it would look politically. Marc had visited cities in the Midwest like Flint Michigan and saw that you could own a house for as little as $10K. He knew that SF was spending on average $50K a year to provide services to each person. He suggested that the Learning Shelter help some of the homeless move to Flint Michigan where they could received training in a program and eventually be able to own a home. There was a logic to his plan but Learning Shelter was branded as a program that would export SF’s homeless problem.
Marc has an ex-wife and two boys. I believe he has been in and out of that relationship over the time I have known him. He also said he has five stepchildren from another relationship and that when he was working, he faced high child support costs. He has considerable other debt that has mounted over the past few years.
Marc told me that last year he took a job at a robotics company in San Diego. He was motivated to move from the Bay Area after a falling out with his wife. It was a small company. He was the operations manager and there were several others on the team but they all had shared responsibilities. He liked the work but once again, he became troubled by the idea that robots would replace people. He quit and returned to SF.
He wanted to live among the homeless and learn more how he could help them. He began talking about running for President of the United States. In November 2019, he launched The Integrity Party,” and named himself as Temporary Chairman, according to his LinkedIn page. On December 24th, 2019, Marc said he was hit on the head and ended up in the ICU at a hospital. It could have been a random incident, he said, but it could also have happened because of his work with the homeless and his talking about running for President. He could have been a target.
He was moved to a hospital in Vallejo, which he believes was a mental hospital. He said the doctors tested him and told him he was fine and he was released. They prescribed medication, he said, because they were required to do so if he was to be released. Later, he said, his psychiatrist told him that he didn’t need the drugs.
I asked Marc bluntly: “Do you think you suffer from mental illness?” No, he said, confidently. “I don’t think so. I’ve been examined by doctors and they don’t think so. The only person that thinks so is my ex-wife.”
After he got out of the hospital, he had a plan to drive for Lyft and get a room to live in. He did that until the pandemic hit. Marc said he was on pace to make $100K gross a year from Lyft, driving 70 hours a week. Then COVID-19 took that away. His car was towed away. He returned to living on the street, choosing the street because it’s across from a self-storage facility where he keeps his stuff.
I asked if he had a tent or a shelter of any kind. He had something for a while but it was stolen and he said he really didn’t need one. He liked living on the street. Yesterday, the city offered him a place in a “congregant living facility” but he refused it. “It’s not solving the homeless problem if I get off the street,” he said. I said that I worried about him and his health, especially now during the pandemic. He had to take care of himself. Stubbornly, he refused to see that point. He didn’t care about any risk to himself. “I’m not here to tell you what to do,” I said. “I just wish I could help.” He was hopeful about returning to work, and thought one of the companies he had worked for would hire him back.
Marc is not down and out. Yes, he’s living on the street but that’s his choice, and he affirms that choice. He’s actually quite purposeful and clear that he will figure out how to start over.
We arrived back at my car in the garage. He took the grocery bag with the cigarettes, bagels and cell charger. Now that he could charge his phone, he said, he could call me. He offered me a gift: a new, plastic-wrapped Rubik’s Impossible puzzle. “This one’s much harder than the regular Rubik Cube,” he said.