October 12, 2016; TechCrunch
Those techies are at it again. But this time, they’re not just creating apps to help you breathe or pay your bills for you. They are moving beyond the development of algorithms to enable AI robots to outrun Usain Bolt and fine-tuning bionic limbs to outfit disabled veterans (many of whom are homeless) to help them reclaim their lives. Instead, mirroring the people-challenged students for whom courses like “Poetry for Engineers” were created, the high-tech gentry in San Francisco want the homeless in San Francisco gone—they want the city’s more than 7,000 homeless residents to become invisible. On this subject, the techies have been clueless for quite a while.
In 2013, two San Francisco tech entrepreneurs set the tone for their industry by complaining. “In other cities, people keep to themselves, [but] in downtown SF the degenerates gather like hyenas, spit, urinate, taunt you. There’s something different and worse about SF’s homelessness problem.” In 2014, in time for the Super Bowl, county officials heard the rising complaint and forced the closing of what was called “The Jungle,” large tent cities along the Guadalupe River, Los Gatos Creek, and Coyote Creek in San Jose and Los Gatos. This closing forced the homeless into freeway off-ramps and some suburbs and added to the homeless population in downtown San Francisco. In February of this year, Commando.io CEO Justin Keller complained of having to see “homeless riff raff,” adding, “Wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city. They went out, got an education, work hard, and earned it. I shouldn’t have to worry about being accosted. I shouldn’t have to see the pain, struggle, and despair of homeless people to and from my way to work every day.” San Francisco’s homeless residents’ penchant to create tent cities under bridges, along the sidewalk, and within seeing and walking distance of tech-driven corporate offices has the city on edge. Moreover, these tent-lined streets are disrupting techies’ expectations. Walking out of a San Francisco–priced condo and being subjected to homeless people panhandling on the way to work, and then having to side-step makeshift tents on the return walk home is not the quality of life for which they are paying.
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Their disgust boiled over last week when billionaires Ron Conway, Michael Moritz, and William Oberndorf each donated $49,999 to support Proposition Q. Proposition Q is a city referendum designed to rid the streets of San Francisco of homeless tents or residential structures. It would give city officials, specifically police, the authority to shut down such with 24-hours’ notification. Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer’s husband, venture capitalist Zach Bogue, donated $2,500, making tech investor involvement the majority of Proposition Q’s $270,000 raised to date. These donations don’t fund initiatives to decrease homelessness. Similar to a PAC, they fund the support, publicity, and lobbying efforts for the passage of Proposition Q.
Proposition Q is not without political intrigue. Critics insist the measure is a political strategy by Michael Farrell, City Supervisor and referendum sponsor, to test the waters for a mayoral run. They believe his community will never be affected by a tent city relocation and his high-profile creation of the initiative will garner favor with the deep-pocketed tech community should he launch the bid. What is even more confusing is Farrell’s insistence that if there are no beds available, Proposition Q will not go into effect. Proposition Q promises a bed for those removed from the tents, but the beds are not available. As a Supervisor, Farrell should be well aware that San Francisco’s social service agencies responding to the issue of homelessness are cash-strapped, with a little over a thousand shelter beds and a waiting list of close to a thousand people. With no other options, these residents have nowhere to go but back on the streets—and this time without a tent.
When asked to respond to the criticism of their involvement, Conway, Bogue, and Moritz cited their philanthropic support of initiatives to help the homeless, stating this was simply another show of their support and belief that the tents are unsafe and inhumane.—Mary Frances Mitchner