As part of an undergraduate class on homelessness and health, Marina Marmolejo spent four days on the streets of Skid Row in Los Angeles. Even though she had the privilege of knowing that she would soon return to her own bed and social circle, the experience of street-based homelessness was something she would never forget. Marina soon after decided to dedicate her academic and professional career to fighting systemic factors of chronic homelessness.
This brief attempt to experience street-based living and adapt to the survival mentality opened Marina’s eyes to the compounding stressors of homelessness. Every decision was faced with competing factors— from eating foods at drop in centers that could exasperate pre-existing health conditions to being exposed to violence and triggering behaviors while waiting for a shelter bed. Marina’s most vivid memory was on the last night when she was awoken abruptly at 3 a.m. and forced to leave the shelter due to safety concerns — another reminder of the stark difference in privilege and power compared to her homeless peers, who were still sleeping in the dangerous environment.
The entire experience ignited a deep sense of curiosity within Marina – why were people of color disproportionately experiencing homelessness at higher rates, how do individuals cope with chronic stressors while also making active steps to escape homelessness, and how can the greater community be engaged in creative solutions to end homelessness? Marina noticed that the individuals who move through the system are introduced to resources one at a time; for example individuals will go to a case management meeting, then apply for food stamps, and then wait in line for shelter, but none of these agencies were interconnected the way Marina had hoped – an issue she hopes to tackle with her existing venture.
Marina recently graduated with her Master in Public Health degree in Social and Behavioral Sciences, and now brings systems thinking to the issue of homelessness and health. In particular, she has used her internship and entrepreneurial vision to focus on homeless youth, ages 15-28. “Youth are at a fork in the road,” explains Marina. “They are not yet entrenched in chronic homelessness and the associated health problems. There is still potential to shift young people back and capitalize on their resilience and create an opportunity for them to understand and utilize their skillsets.”
Marina has taken full advantage of Yale’s culture in social entrepreneurship, specifically through her venture, DreamKit, which is a web-based app that creates partnerships among youth experiencing homelessness and their local businesses, service providers, community residents and local stakeholders to end youth homelessness in urban cities, starting with New Haven. Youth earn points on the app by utilizing resources at existing homeless agencies (i.e. case management, education and employment classes, etc). Those points can be redeemed for immediate needs, such as food, a haircut or even clothes for an interview. Additionally, community residents can use the app to act as mentors and provide encouragement and advice either in person or digitally. Potential employers will also be able to see youth’s longitudinal successes, thus reducing their own stigma towards homelessness and acknowledging the tenacity each youth exhibits while utilizing homeless agency services. These employers can use the data to make informed decisions by looking at youth’s “DreamKit resumes” in order to more intentionally hire youth experiencing homelessness.
“Homelessness is a fulltime job,” says Marina, “and DreamKit rewards healthy behaviors and encourages people to invest in their futures by engaging with social services.”
No public health intervention can succeed without deep community involvement, so Marina has pursued and implemented the advice of dozens of New Haven homeless service agencies. Additionally, Marina emphasizes the value of human centered design when it comes to social innovation, so she regularly meets with a youth with lived experience, Pedro, to help her iterate the app to ensure it’s future usability among young people. Pedro’s experience and input is one of the most valuable parts of DreamKit’s business model because it puts the power back into the hands of the community and seeks to dismantle the pre-existing power dynamics between academia and service agencies, says Marina.
Marina has also consulted case managers, folks who work for the city and various social services, experts in business, web-developers, lawyers, accountants, and she works closely with Yusuf Ransome, a Yale School of Public Health assistant professor.
Together, they will continur to adapt and scale DreamKit during this summer’s Tsai City 8-week fellowship. They previously participated with New Haven’s Collab Spring Accelerator. Marina has made DreamKit her fulltime job for next year and hopes to pilot a beta version in New Haven, and later expand to other urban cities facing a homeless youth crisis.
“Current systems serving homeless youth are so antiquated,” says Marina. “There’s a huge opportunity to use technology to advance how we think and treat the issue of mass homelessness.” Marina brings the lens of prevention and technology to this project with the goal of helping youth experiencing homelessness build the self-confidence and personal independence needed to secure self-supporting lives.