Above, Sylmar Biotech teacher Edna Losa mentored students, from left, Jonathan Peña, Brian Hernandez and Joel Yahutentzi in designing an award-winning project to support the homeless.

The Safe-Way project earned a silver medal in the SkillsUSA regional competition.

Government officials and civic leaders have found a trio of unlikely allies in their campaign to find solutions to the homeless crisis that has swept up some 58,000 of Los Angeles County’s most vulnerable residents.

Three aspiring engineers from Sylmar Biotech Health Academy – each just 16 years old – have made it their mission to improve the lives of those living in temporary quarters or on the street. Armed with passion, imagination and budding engineering skills, the students designed a digital network that could someday allow homeless agencies and advocates to track homeless residents and match them with appropriate resources.

“I live to serve humanity and to be a good person who helps people every day,” said sophomore Jonathan Peña. “It’s the job of engineers to help fix things in society, and I love that this project lets me do that.”

Enrolled in an engineering course at Sylmar Biotech, Peña was partnered with juniors Brian Hernandez and Joel Yahutentzi by their teacher, Edna Losa. She wanted to put together a team to compete in SkillsUSA, which encourages students to apply classroom lessons to real-world challenges. The three had similar goals and temperaments, she said, and she thought they would mesh.

Her intuition paid off, as the students quickly bonded over their love of engineering and their desire to have a positive impact on the world. Once the new team was formed, the classmates began filling up notebooks with ideas and sketching out plans.

Their project, called Safe-Way, includes a barcode-embedded photo identification card and a wireframe website to connect homeless residents with government services and community resources. The ultimate goal is to provide long-term solutions – like health care, employment and housing – to help homeless residents stabilize their lives and reintegrate into society.

“It’s a sad reality, but the food banks and temporary housing currently available to the homeless are just a Band-Aid – they don’t solve the problem,” Hernandez said. “The SkillsUSA project brought awareness that there are things we can do to fix it.”

Sylmar Biotech sophomore Jonathan Peña explains the Safe-Way network, which includes a high-tech ID card to help homeless residents access services.

The three-member team competed in SkillsUSA’s engineering contest and brought home a silver medal. Losa said her students’ project differed dramatically from the robotic vehicles and popsicle-stick bridges that other teams devised.

“The projects are the same from year to year, and the judges didn’t know what to make of ours,” said Losa, a former engineering professor at the Technological University of the Philippines who came to L.A. Unified a decade ago. “But that was the point. I challenged our students to do something that would make a difference – and they did.”

The Sylmar Biotech team met with Silvana Caruana, the regional coordinator for the Los Angeles Housing Services Authority (LAHSA), discussing how their project could support local efforts to support and serve the homeless.

“We are impressed and encouraged that the youth are interested in the issue of homelessness and are coming up with solutions to help their homeless neighbors,” said Caruana, who previously worked as a counselor for L.A. Unified. “We encourage them to take this opportunity to really investigate how it can happen to different people and educate others about who people experiencing homelessness are, and how they can help dispel myths about people who are homeless.”

The Sylmar students also received an invitation to apply to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam program, which awards $10,000 grants to high school students who invent technological solutions to problems of their communities. Losa was notified April 17 that her team made it to the finals of the 2018-19 competition, and will be visiting the prestigious campus this summer.

While the Safe-Way project allowed the students to identify and advocate for a cause that is important to them, it also propelled them on a path to future careers.

“My dad is a carpenter and a designer, so I grew up in that environment and always wanted to work with him,” Yahutentzi said. “By delving into the field of engineering, I can follow in his footsteps.”