Tech Is a Citadel. Del Seymour Built a Drawbridge.
SAN FRANCISCO — On his walking tours of the Tenderloin, a historically seamy neighborhood named for a cut of beef, Del Seymour passes Boeddeker Park, now a verdant jewel of urbanity. Eleven years ago, it was a notorious hellhole where Mr. Seymour, then a crack addict, dealer and pimp, shooed away do-gooders from the local church because, as he put it, “I’m selling dope here and you’re disturbing my business.”
Mr. Seymour’s transformation from disheveled drug user to community leader and informal adviser to Dolby, Zendesk, Twitter and other tech companies began at the park. A church deacon noticed his sartorial flair and brought Mr. Seymour a Pierre Cardin suit.
Seeing himself in natty new attire helped shift Mr. Seymour’s perception of his self-worth, eventually leading him back to the church.
All those years of sleeping in doorways and beneath freeways gave Mr. Seymour a profound understanding of San Francisco’s most vulnerable residents: Tenderloin denizens whose lives stand in stark relief to the young tech employees who get signing bonuses and dine in airy cafeterias with private roof gardens on the neighborhood’s periphery.
“You go to Vegas, you do Vegas,” said Mr. Seymour, 74, who leads tours in his signature fedora. “I went to the Tenderloin and did the Tenderloin.”
The brigade of tech companies now along Market Street, including recipients of the 2011 so-called Twitter tax break, which expired last year, brought thousands of well-paid jobs to the mid-Market area and cemented the city’s reputation as the vertiginous epicenter of income inequality.
Where protesters saw raw greed, Mr. Seymoursaw opportunity. The compelling need to bring jobs to the Tenderloin, a 31-block area of dense poverty and unsheltered drug use, was brought home when he encountered a woman he used to sell drugs with on one of his tours. “‘What are you telling these white folks about us?’” she asked. “‘Tell them we’re no different than them. We have to buy Pampers to put on our babies’ butts just like they do.’”
In 2015, Mr. Seymour founded (from his car) Code Tenderloin, a nonprofit that offers free-of-charge job-readiness training and coding boot camps for the hard-to-employ, be they formerly incarcerated, recovering addicts, homeless or people simply needing a fresh start.
The concept, named for the hospital term “Code Blue,” is to teach the skills necessary to land a job in the tech industry and other fields. “Most have never had a job before,” Mr. Seymour said. “They have no idea what a boss is.”
The coronavirus pandemic has put Code Tenderloin on the front lines, with staff and volunteers organizing testing, distributing food, hand sanitizers, clothes, space blankets, wipes, tampons, soap and water in a part of town with some sidewalks reeking of human waste and littered with heroin needles.
With life at a standstill, day gigs and restaurants hiring under the table are toast. “Everyone down here is not selling dope or breaking into your car,” Mr. Seymour said recently in a Facebook Live message. “All the hustlers are gone.”
‘Mayor of the Tenderloin’
Not long ago, Code Tenderloin’s job-readiness classes took place at Piano Fight, a local nightclub with a running comedy show called “So You Think You Can Lap Dance?” The classes are online now, focused on Zoom interviewing skills, virtual résumés and how to create an on-screen background: an important skill if you are living in a shelter or a single room with multiple family members.
“Remote jobs are perfect for some of our people who don’t present well,” said Donna Hilliard, the executive director of Code Tenderloin. She and her staff have been calling alumni to check in, coaching them on pandemic unemployment benefits for gig and freelance workers and helping them through the paperwork. Alumni regularly show up for food. “People need to know they’re not forgotten,” Ms. Hilliard said.
Known informally as “the Mayor of the Tenderloin,” Mr. Seymour has long entranced directors of corporate philanthropy and community engagement who would frequently show up on his tours. Such executive positions flourished in the period of intense competition for talent in which “giving back” could lure millennials, boost a company’s brand and spread “impacts on housing and transportation that were seen as extractive,” said Alexa Corte’s Culwell, a founder of Open Impact, a philanthropy advisory firm in Silicon Valley.
Code Tenderloin helps students reduce or expunge criminal records and connect those with mental health or substance abuse issues with case managers. It also may step in with emergency child care assistance, co-signing a lease, moving expenses, getting a car out of the pound or even a pair of dry socks.
For the glass tower set, Mr. Seymour is a bridge to empathy. “Del humanizes the experience of those who are different,” said Karl Robillard, the head of philanthropy and community outreach at Twitter. “I’ve seen him give tours to C.E.O.s and Tenderloin residents, and they’re the same. He challenges people to think about their assumptions.”
At first, the human resources specialists Mr. Seymour consulted when he started his organization insisted there was nobody from the neighborhood qualified to walk through the door.
Today, Code Tenderloin has a $710,000 annual budget, including $100,000 from Uber and $50,000 from Zendesk. Dolby gave Code Tenderloin its first corporate grant and has since hosted graduations, monthly board meetings and job-readiness trips to its campus.
About 2,000 people, not solely from the Tenderloin, have graduated from the job-readiness and computer literacy program, which lasts six and a half weeks. Nearly two-thirds have continued on to beginning and advanced coding classes, taught by some 40 volunteer software engineers.
The vast majority of these have pursued higher education or have found work, the organization said, including newbie software engineers making six figures — marquee talking points for Mr. Seymour— $25,000-a-year security guard positions and $17.75-an-hour jobs cleaning streets and picking up syringes.
“If you get to Code Tenderloin and you’re no longer smoking meth, that’s a success,” Mr. Seymour said.
The most promising graduates have landed full-time positions or internships with SurveyMonkey, Google, Microsoft, LinkedIn, Ask.com, Salesforce and Airbnb. The background check company Checkr, which champions what it calls “fair chance hiring” of those with criminal records, works with Code Tenderloin and has hired alumni.
“It’s a missed opportunity for the U.S. economy and society in general,” Daniel Yanisse, the company’s C.E.O. and co-founder, said of the automatic blocking of candidates with criminal histories.
‘A Thousand Eyes’
Shelley Winner, 42, grew up in drug houses: Both her father and stepfather were addicts who were in and out of prison. At one particularly low moment, a desperate drug user stole her prom dress (tea length, black velvet).
Ms. Winner had just been released from prison after serving two years of a four-year federal sentence for drug trafficking when she heard a television news report about Code Tenderloin. She made her first professional contacts on one of its job-readiness class trip to a tech campus.
She eventually landed an interview with a major multinational technology corporation. She got an offer — and then her background check was flagged. Shortly thereafter the company rescinded the offer via FedEx.
Ms. Winner decided to appeal after learning about a city ordinance requiring companies to consider qualified applicants with arrest and conviction records. With the help of a human rights advocate, she was eventually reinterviewed and hired as a sales specialist. She is now a top performer and does frequent public speaking about hiring the formerly incarcerated.
David Brooks, 32, once taught art to people with disabilities in New Zealand. He spent five years sleeping in the back of a 1978 Toyota Chinook camper with tires so flat that they looked pummeled by a semiautomatic; he showered at a local gym. He was prone to depression, exacerbated by a herniated disc he had sustained while hoisting inventory onto a conveyor belt at a logistics factory.
Mr. Brooks hurtled through classes at Code Tenderloin, held at the campuses of Uber and LinkedIn, skipping ahead and helping out his classmates because he had read that the fastest way to learn was by teaching. Code Tenderloin helped him navigate a state grant for an additional $17,980 boot camp.
Mr. Brooks eventually landed his fantasy gig:a six-month apprenticeship at Airbnb, to which he was scootering from his new apartment in the Tenderloin, where he grows bonsais in the kitchen window and makes homemade ginger beer and sourdough bread.
He was beginning to feel “like a person again,” he said, until coronavirus uncertainty stepped in. Now his future is on hold as he anxiously awaits the beleaguered company’s fate.
Lionel Vital, 30, a former Twitter engineer working on a start-up, teaches advanced coding classes and mentors students like Daaimah Tibrey, 27, a single mother. Ms. Tibrey lived in her car and then in a shelter with her newborn and 5-year-old, holding down two jobs.
She was offered a scholarship to a high-end boot camp, but they “weren’t set up for my kids,” she said, so she moved on to a nighttime class with Mr. Vital, hauling her stroller and diaper bag. He helped her prepare for technical interviews and inquire about company support for African-American women. Ms. Tibrey is now a software engineer for SurveyMonkey, a company she was drawn to for its family-friendly policies, she said.
The experience has been equally powerful for Mr. Vital, a Stanford management science and engineering graduate and the son of Filipino immigrants. “Sitting in front of a computer screen for a decade can get you a little bit jaded and out of the loop,” he said. “Seeing how hard people like Daaimah worked has inspired me to work harder and not take anything for granted.”
Mr. Seymour, who serves as a chair of the city’s Local Homeless Coordinating Board, believes that there are few hardships that a decent job can’t cure. “Giving someone a job doesn’t just help that one person,” he said. “You’re helping their mamas, their daddies, their brothers, their aunts and their so-called no-good boyfriends.”
Before the “stupid” choices he made, Mr. Seymour had worked as an electrician, a plumber, a fire department paramedic and a Lincoln Mercury salesman; he was also an owner of a construction company with a forte in foreclosures.
During the Vietnam War he was a helicopter medic rescuing wounded soldiers. His PTSD is such that he bolts his windows and doors to prevent him from falling into the canyon outside his home during nighttime “terror walking.”
And now there is the coronavirus pandemic, meaning that along with so many other worries, formerly incarcerated students will have to compete for work with unemployed college graduates while trying to master the dos and don’ts of Google Hangouts.
If and when Mr. Seymour’s walking tours are revived, he will show outsiders “the Tenderloin’s most sacred spot”: the Gubbio Project at St. Boniface Church, where 150 or so homeless people are invited to sleep in the pews during the day, the sound of snoring filling the sanctuary. He will walk past a nondescript door behind which lies a storage outlet where “unhoused folks can store their belongings and keep stuff from being wet or stolen.” He was one.
He will urge his guests to say “good morning” to the down-and-out, perhaps pausing to ask them their story or hand them a $5 “(a dollar ain’t nothin’ to someone outside”). In the Tenderloin, he will tell them, people on the streets know each other’s names and take care of each other. “It’s, ‘I need a buck, man,’ or, ‘you got two cigarettes, can I have one?’ We get down.”
He added: “This is safer than Orinda,” referring to an affluent suburb. “We’ve got a thousand eyes down here.”