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Homeless hackers head to Noisebridge for shelter

Chris Zapata shows a guest around Noisebridge


Every day, more than two dozen people pass through a hackerspace in San Francisco’s Mission district called Noisebridge. At its broadest, “hackerspace” means a place where people can create and make things better. In practice, that often means computer programming. 

Because of this, Noisebridge occupies a unique place in the city’s landscape. The tech boom has pushed rents 53% higher than than they were a decade ago. And that’s pricing out some of the people most likely to participate in that new economy. “One of the most shocking things about San Francisco and Silicon Valley for someone coming here from somewhere else,” says Danny O’Brien, a member of Noisebridge. “is discovering that a huge chunk of the technologists that you imagine caused this problem -- a lot of them don't have homes.”

But Noisebridge isn’t a homeless shelter. Living there is actually forbidden by the lease. Still, every night, at least a few people crash at Noisebridge. Some have managed to live there for weeks. The space is run by an anarchist-leaning group of core members, who see hacking as a path toward social justice. And now they’re asking themselves a hard question: how do you hack San Francisco's homelessness problem?

Open 24 hours

The Noisebridge hackerspace, located on Mission and 18th Street, looks like a garage workshop scaled up to 5,200 square feet. Inside, wires and toothpick chandeliers hang from the ceiling like disco balls for techno-geeks. There are sewing kits, a laser printer, a dark room, a kitchen, and a woodshop. And off in the corner, by the 3-D printers and electroencephalogram, there’s Kris Zapata’s sort-of bed. “The hacker stacker is like three, basic pods with a yoga mat and stairs for the top two levels,” Zapata explains while showing me around at 1am or so on a Monday morning. Hacker stackers -- there are just three of them -- are where he sleeps when he can.

Zapata is attracted to the hacker ethos. But he's got more pressing reasons to stay at Noisebridge: he’s homeless, and the Mission is dangerous at night. “In my sense, in my case, it’s partially a choice, I guess, to squat here, or to nap here sometimes,” he says.

We pass a frequency generator, a logic analyzer, and more wires than anyone could ever ask for. Zapata explains that anyone can grab whatever they want from the huge bin of cords. Then he pauses. “Can I put in a disclaimer? Disclaimer: I am not a member, nor have I ever been a member of the hackerspace Noisebridge.”

This is a crucial distinction. Members make the rules at Noisebridge. They pay dues to cover the building’s rent, and they decide who can use the space. Zapata’s still learning how it all works. “Rule number 1 is, I guess, be excellent,” he says. “Rule number 2 is, I guess, if you don’t know anything, ask someone. Rule number 3 is, I don’t know Rule Number 3 actually. I think there’s just two rules. I have to read the manual.”

Since Noisebridge moved to this location in 2008, there’s been constant debate about people like Zapata -- whether they’re hackers -- or just crashers. “What we say to people is, ‘You come here to hack.’ said Danny O’Brien. “But what does hack mean?”

O’Brien is one of about a hundred people who are members of the collective; about 900 others use the space each month. O’Brien says those people do a lot of things that technically qualify as hacking. “You know, trying to break into computers recreationally,” he says. “But it also means doing stuff in the wood shop. It also means playing pranks on people. And you can always just sort of defend yourself by saying, ‘No, I'm just hacking this sandwich.’ Or ‘I'm just hacking my sleep patterns.’”

In this way, O’Brien says Noisebridge has a lot in common with the Occupy Movement. Both seek to build communities where everyone’s welcome and no one’s in charge. And both have had to confront the challenges that come with that openness. “One of the struggles Occupy had was that you set up something, which is for everyone,” O’Brien says. “but that sort of means suddenly you have to solve, not just one problem but all the world's problems.”

Drawing the line

Mark O’Neil was sleeping at Noisebridge until he was banned, about a month ago. The charge was lack of hacking -- or more specifically, repeated drunken behavior, including spreading cheesecake over his face and taking his pants off in what he called an art experiment. Yet O’Neil insists that he’s contributed. For instance, he said he taught Industrial Design at Noisebridge.  “I live here. I'm always working. I don't need much sleep,” he says. “I'm a bit scattered, sorry. I haven't slept in a while. I'm working on the new machine shop.”

O’Neil disagrees with the ban, but he doesn’t get a say. Only members are allowed to block votes. Member Paul Monand says banning people is the only way to maintain an inclusive environment.  “A lot of regular people won't come here – a lot of women, a lot of kids,” he says. “because they see they do not have access to a safe environment.”

Monand says someone like O’Neil is a nuisance, but they’ve had to confront more serious problems: things like thievery, assaults, drug abuse, and property damage. So they try to enforce the rules consistently. And that sometimes means kicking people out.

“For instance, this morning, I happened to come to Noisebridge at 5am, just to drop off something, and I found eight people sleeping here. Maybe three of them were some of the usual hackers,” Monand says. “The rest of them looked like street people who had just kind of dropped in. I just go over and tell them there’s no sleeping here.”

Danny O’Brien acknowledges that the line between napping and sleeping can be blurry -- and that it can stand in for that bigger question, of who’s a hacker at all.

“With 1000 people it’s really possible to walk in and not know anyone else,” O’Brien said. “if someone is laid out on the sofa, do you go and wake them up and say, ‘No, you must be hacking!’ It's awkward.”

Hacking for social change

During the day, Noisebridge is a nerd haven. You can’t walk in without someone asking what you hack. There are circuit hacking classes, Python classes, a Dream Team neuro-hackery class, and a 3-D game development group. That’s just on an average day.

At night, people still work intently. Every sound seems to echo, as though Noisebridge were a cave. The night I met Kris Zapata, I tried sleeping at Noisebridge. Over in the kitchen, one hacker was making a smoothie, nodding distractedly as Mark O’Neil blissfully reported his day’s adventures. Zapata searched through the refrigerator and grabbed some cherries. I didn’t see a Noisebridge member anywhere. And every soft surface was occupied. Around 5am, I scored a hacker stacker. There was a dog above me that wouldn’t stop growling. The man sleeping above him was snoring. And by that time, Mark O’Neil was drunk and loud. There was no way I was getting to sleep.

Danny O’Brien says most members don’t think Noisebridge should have to deal with these kinds of problems -- and adds that they already offer a lot to help the homeless. Anyone can subscribe to the Noisebridge Jobs page. You can take a class on programming. You can use a computer. And The Noisebridge Wiki page offers links to sources of food, shelter, storage, and showers.

“If anyone could come up with a solution for homelessness that involves writing some programs in C or an iPod App,” he says. “then by all means email us and let us know because we'd be right on it.”

Kris Zapata knows his days at Noisebridge might be numbered. “If it comes down to that, then I wouldn't mind presenting myself to the community,” he says. “I feel that the way I've used here, and the way I've napped here, I try to be the least offensive. I don't think I snore. I try not to smell so much.”

Zapata’s slept in shelters before, but he was only able to get a bed twice. The other times he had to sleep on a chair, clinging tightly to his belongings. Plus, at shelters he’s always had to be out by 5am. So he says he’s grateful for Noisebridge, and tries to respect the rules.

“Even if you can't exactly utilize the space as it was meant to be, there's always still that possibility of somehow...it'll rub off on you eventually,” he says. “The people and the skills and the minds and the openness will rub off on you and you'll learn something to work with your hands and your mind.”

By around 6am, Zapata’s tired. But the hacker stackers are full again. “I might take a nap anywhere between twenty and forty minutes on the couch -- an upright nap. And wake up on my clock alarm on my cell phone,” he says. “and after that see if I can continue my nap if someone left.”

He hopes to get that nap in by 8am -- before the early birds arrive. The hackers of Noisebridge may know how to build robots, print whistles from 3-D printers, and read brain waves, but homelessness remains a problem they haven’t solved.

This piece first aired on August 26th, 2013.