Alumna Launches App to Help Homeless Youth

Loyola Marymount University alumna Marina Marmolejo has launched a web-based app called DreamKit that’s designed to create individualized pathways out of homelessness for young adults ages 18 to 24.

Marmolejo, who earned a bachelor’s degree in Health and Human Sciences in 2017, began work on the project while earning her Masters in Public Health in the spring of 2019 from Yale University.

Using the app, homeless young adults earn points by participating in positive events, such as case management, clinical appointments, and workforce development programs. They’re able to use the points for food, clothing and hygiene products, taking care of basic needs so they’re able to move forward in life.

DreamKit also gathers information about skillsets these young adults are acquiring, for example time management, problem solving, and communication skills. The program shares it with community members, such as potential employers or landlords, to create a positive narrative about each participant on DreamKit. The goal is to create an objective truth about each member’s progress that will lead to employment and housing opportunities.

“We often assume people experience homelessness because of their poor decision-making skills,” said Marmolejo. “But the causes are much more complex: aging out of foster-care, being rejected because they identify as LGBTQ+, or needing to escape violence or substance abuse in the home.”

Marmolejo credits LMU’s commitment to social justice and a specific class she took on the health effects of homelessness for catalyzing her interest in homeless advocacy. The course offered a multidisciplinary approach to the problem, including a four-night experience living on the streets and in shelters in downtown Los Angeles.

“That class was the most mind-shattering ‘ah-ha’ moment I’ve had in academia, because I realized there were so many factors that need to be investigated to create a well-intentioned solution,” says Marmolejo, who had previously planned a career as a physical therapist.

“Marina really embraced the premise of the class that you must form a partnership with those you’re trying to support,” said Heather Tarleton, associate professor of Health and Human Sciences, who taught the course and mentored Marmolejo at LMU. “She’s focused on returning agency to homeless young adults.”

A team of 26 Yale students, faculty, New Haven community activists, and youth with homeless lived experience developed DreamKit. It’s a 501(c)3 nonprofit funded by grants and individuals. The recent launch of DreamKit in New Haven, Connecticut, is a proof-of-concept pilot that will run for six months.

Research shows that some 65 percent of homeless young adults have cell phones, and Marmolejo’s team is working with volunteers from AT&T and Assurance Wireless to connect the remaining 35 percent.

Marmolejo sees herself working on DreamKit in some capacity for the rest of her life because it’s “the perfect blend of public health, entrepreneurship, and innovation.” She wants to work at the cutting-edge of solving the homelessness problem, and believes DreamKit can accomplish that.

“I can’t see my life going in any other direction than that of constantly innovating, testing, failing, and repeating,” said Marmolejo. “They say that you can’t fail if you don’t quit, and I’m not quitting DreamKit.”

To learn more and support DreamKit, please visit their GoFundMe page here.