DALLAS — When you take a good look at downtown Dallas, what do you see:
We can assume people living on the streets don’t want to work.
But if we listen, we could learn that they do.
When Cody Merrill was a software designer living in California, he started listening.
“Every time I walked down the street, I’d be struck by the inadequate ways society was addressing homelessness,” he said.
“Something just said to me – build up the courage and talk to them. Interact with people in very different life circumstances.”
So, he did.
The conversations were predictable.
He says he repeatedly heard, “If you look like me, if you smell like me…nobody wants to hire you if you’re homeless.”
Empathy began to fuel Merrill’s entrepreneurial spirit, and an idea for a software solution - a way to turn problems into possibilities - was born.
The SMU grad moved back to Dallas to begin finding partners and funders.
Merrill knew it would be tough to convince a private business to hire someone straight off the streets or right out of prison.
And in his conversations with men and women on the street, he knew they wanted and needed an immediate paycheck.
Service jobs came to mind.
“Community gardens need to be tended. Parks need to be cleaned. Trees need to be planted,” he said.
So, Merrill designed and launched Socialwyze, an app that connects work that needs to be done with people who need work.
Caseworkers at local homeless shelters, sober living facilities and prison re-entry programs are now helping clients use the app to find jobs.
“They know exactly who is ready to walk into a work opportunity, who can appreciate it and who wants to responsibility,” Merrill said.
Restorative Farms, an urban community garden beside a DART station in southern Dallas, is one of the locations finding labor through Socialwyze.
“Socialwyze can bridge the gap between the unwanted and the wanted,” said Tyrone Day, manager of Restorative Farms.
Charles Spencer is a reliable Restorative Farms employee – he’s there at least six days a week and often opens or closes the farm.
It’s a lot of responsibility, but Spencer values the opportunity after doing time in prison for selling drugs.
“It feels good to be around a whole lot of people instead of being locked up,” Spencer said. “Work keeps me free.”
Spencer’s past could be viewed as a problem, but longtime Dallas developer and philanthropist Trammel Crow sees possibility.
His Earth X fund chose Socialwyze for its inaugural entrepreneur in residence program.
Donations to the Earth X fund pay the wages of the people who find work through Socialwyze.
“Taking these people and giving them the occupation, and then pride they have and digity they gain is palpable,” Crow said.
Day knows the value of offering people a first step toward a second chance.
“I was one of the guys who got wrongfully convicted in Dallas. I did 26 years in prison as well,” he said.
He’ll always choose to see possibilities instead of problems.
Merrill hopes other cities in America will, too.
“We want to be able to scale this in every community. We want to be able to help [communities] save money while solving crucial problems related to employment, nutrition, housing, environment, and other things,” he said.