Monday 12 November 2018

Adrian Weckler: The shame of San Francisco

San Francisco features a permanent population of utterly destitute people
San Francisco features a permanent population of utterly destitute people
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Tent cities. Long lines for food. People in rags. The mentally ill cast adrift on streets.

No, this is isn't the plot for a Cormac McCarthy novel: it's what you see in San Francisco. Or that's what it was like last month. And every time I've been there in the last five years.

I'm not describing a 'bad' part of the city, but most of the downtown area.

It's dystopian. Bright-eyed young coders and marketers scooter past unfortunate souls who defecate in the street. Star engineers and millionaire venture capitalists live alongside a permanent population of utterly destitute people.

Everybody admits to it being a problem but nobody seems to have an answer.

Until now.

Last week saw a very public spat on the question between some of San Francisco's most prolific tech entrepreneurs.

The biggest face-off was between the billionaire chief executives of Salesforce and Twitter, Marc Benioff and Jack Dorsey.

"Which homeless programmes in our city are you supporting?" Benioff goaded Dorsey on Twitter. "Can you tell me what Twitter and Square and you are in for and at what financial levels?"

Dorsey wasn't having it.

"Marc, you're distracting," he publicly retorted. "This is about me supporting Mayor @LondonBreed for *the* reason she was elected. The Mayor doesn't support Prop C, and we should listen to her. I support the Mayor, and I'm committed to helping her execute her plan."

'Prop C' is a legislative proposal for San Francisco that would add a 0.5pc tax on revenue above $50m (€43m) for companies in the city. The intent is to channel that directly into homelessness relief.

It seems most companies are against the measure. This appeared to include Salesforce until Benioff changed his mind. Now he's out all guns blazing, challenging other tech leaders on why they won't support it.

After the initial exchange between Benioff and Dorsey, our own adoptive San Franciscan, Stripe founder Patrick Collison, entered the online debate.

"Am with Jack," he said, quote-tweeting one of Dorsey's tweets. "Marc [Benioff] is well-intentioned, but I trust Mayor Breed's expertise on homelessness over his."

Benioff generally doesn't take perceived challenges lying down. Asked about Collison's position in a subsequent interview with the Guardian's Sam Levin, he said: "Even though they've [Stripe] made $20bn dollars in San Francisco, they're not willing to give back at scale. Isn't that amazing?"

Benioff is one of the smartest entrepreneurs around, but he will know that while Stripe is indeed valued at $20bn, that's quite different to it having realised $20bn in any sort of expendable way. (It's not even clear that Stripe has made a profit yet.) But Benioff was on a roll. He continued his tirade in the interview, putting the boot into Dorsey most of all.

"He just doesn't want to give, that's all," he told Levin, referring to the Twitter founder. "And he hasn't given anything of consequence in the city. That's not a surprise to me. There's lots of CEOs and companies and billionaires in that category."

He rounded off his broadside with an observation that there are two types of wealthy San Franciscans; "people who are willing to give and people who are not willing to give… When it comes to this [new law], you're either for the homeless or you're for yourself". Ouch.

Predictably, those in Twitter and Stripe don't see it that way, arguing that simply throwing more cash at the problem won't solve the structural problems behind San Francisco's homelessness. They also claim that there's no actual plan on what to do with the money.

Oddly, San Francisco's Democratic Party mayor, London Breed, agrees.

However, part of her opposition to the tax is that it might make the inner city less attractive to companies like Twitter and Stripe (both are in tough neighbourhoods; Twitter's headquarters is on a part of Market Street opposite dozens of homeless and mentally ill people).

By vocally opposing the measure, Twitter, Stripe and others may well be giving sustenance to that fear.

To outsiders, San Francisco's homelessness is baffling. How can a city so wealthy, with so many innovative companies and citizens, have what may be the first world's worst homelessness problem?

Some blame other US cities. For decades, east coast towns have given homeless people one-way tickets to the west coast. New York is the biggest culprit, with a reported annual budget of $500,000 for shifting the homeless away.

A Guardian investigation last year estimated that half of all homeless evacuations come from New York, with many people ending up in relatively kinder Californian climates.

Others point a finger at factors, such as San Francisco's tolerance to homelessness on streets (compared to colder, harsher police in the east and mid-west).

But there are also the tech companies themselves. They have created extraordinary wealth in San Francisco and now attract a flood of ambitious high-earners, ensuring a two-bed apartment rarely dips below $5,000 to $6,000 per month.

Tech firms haven't set out to cause social problems such as homelessness. But they are clearly a factor in an inability for poorer or mentally ill people to keep a foothold in affordable accommodation.

So should they step up and give more to help solve the problem?

Companies like Stripe say they are genuinely engaged in seeking solutions, through initiatives such as Yimby ('Yes, In My Back Yard'), a lobby group trying to increase the number of low-cost, high-density homes in California. Stripe donated $1m to Yimby earlier this year.

But the spat between Benioff and Dorsey may signify a breaking point for tolerance of homelessness in one of the world's richest cities. And this has to be a good thing. It shouldn't be an acceptable part of your day to routinely walk by people lying face down on a pavement.

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