Wealthy San Francisco Residents Fight Against Homeless Shelter

It’s normal for San Franciscans to become so jaded to rampant homelessness that they walk past the most heartbreaking scenes of people lying on the ground without batting an eyelash. But it takes a special level of jaded to whip out your credit card and make a $10,000 donation to prevent a homeless shelter from being built.

That is what someone in San Francisco did two weeks ago. A particularly cruel GoFundMe campaign opposing a homeless shelter just hit its $100,000 goal, powered partly by a single anonymous donation of $10,000. So much good could be done with the $100,000 the residents of an affluent waterfront neighborhood have raised. But these high-rise condo owners bitterly oppose a shelter in their neighborhood, claiming that “a third of the homeless are drug users and some are sex offenders.”

The shelter in question has a mere 225 beds in a city with 7,500 people experiencing homelessness. Before you swear off Dungeness crab and Mission burritos over the San Francisco nouveau riche techies’ anti-philanthropy, note that homeless advocates launched a rival GoFundMe supporting the shelter which has also reached its more ambitious $175,000 goal. That campaign has received high-profile donations from major tech figures including Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey ($25,000) and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff ($10,000) — even GoFundMe itself kicked down a $5,000 contribution.

The money from the counter-fundraiser would not be used on the shelter itself, as the city of San Francisco would pay for the center. Instead, funds will become a general donation to local advocacy group Coalition on Homelessness. The neighborhood where this shelter is proposed is a unique specimen of extreme income inequality, even for San Francisco. The site is currently a city-owned parking lot about two blocks south of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, and a half-mile south of the widely recognized Embarcadero clock tower. This particular district — recently renamed the East Cut by realtors eager to ditch the neighborhood’s historical reputation — has sidewalk tent encampments dotted alongside SoulCycles and CorePower Yogas, and in between high-end waterfront condominiums The Watermark and The Infinity.

What San Francisco Mayor London Breed has proposed is technically not a homeless shelter, but instead Navigation Centers. These centers have more humane conditions with dorm-style rooms, on-site storage units, pets, and 24/7 security.

There are six Navigation Centers throughout San Francisco, most housing between 100-150 residents. They are only intended as an interim solution until the city develops a broader homelessness strategy — something it has failed to do for several decades.

Class tensions have recently boiled over at a number of meetings about this particular shelter. This led to a deeply uncomfortable scene where affluent homeowners shouted down the African American mayor as she explained her plans to build more supportive housing.

Heckled with repeated boos, interruptions, and shouts of “Go home!” Breed shot back, “Either you let me speak, or you leave.” And that is exactly what many of them did.

The mayor still could not contain the harassment and chaos, and was forced to cut her speech short. “I can’t continue, but I will stay and listen to the comments. The least we could do is show respect for one another,” she said. These waterfront condo owners have had plenty to say at a recent City Hall meeting on the proposed low-income housing. “This is just the wrong place,” homeowner Bob Spence told the S.F. Port Commission when they considered the proposal. “You put 250 people or whatever that are wandering during the day panhandling, it just doesn’t make sense.”

“Our tax dollars, our efforts, our houses, everything we’ve done over our lifetime to find a place to live to that we love, you are destroying,” he said to a commission that was trying to advance a homeless shelter facility.

It is telling that the very attorney who started the anti-shelter crowdfunding campaign will get the whole $100,000 to himself. The bottom of the campaign’s description reads, “The monies will be sent to retained legal counsel — directly from this account if possible. Legal counsel will be Andrew Zacks.” Andrew Zacks is a partner at Zacks, Freedman & Patterson, a firm that calls itself “the voice of Bay Area property owners” in the current Bay Area real estate boom. Zacks recently defended a 300 percent rent increase that could dramatically weaken California rent control law.

And he’s back at bat for these wealthy condo owners. “The value of this land is substantial, as you know,” he told the Port Commission earlier this month. Zacks’ plan to stall or cancel construction of the homeless center involves endless appeals through the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), a well-intended set of environmental regulations that have become notorious for their ability to hold up development projects over ticky-tack impact concerns. Mayor Breed recognized that his appeals could delay the Navigation Center for quite some time. “It’s incredibly frustrating and disappointing that as soon as we put forward a solution to build a new shelter, people begin to threaten legal action,” she said in a statement.

The fate of this homeless Navigation Center is still undetermined. The Port Commission will hold another meeting April 23, which was originally scheduled to be their final vote on the matter, but is now relegated to another “informational presentation” as the project faces uncertainty. Further, Mayor Breed has indicated a willingness to scale back the number of beds at the facility in the face of community opposition.

It has long been a question how San Francisco can have so much wealth, but so much visible and chronic homelessness. We may now have our answer to this. As tech millions pour into this town, San Franciscans are willing to accept pervasive homelessness, but they’re not willing to put up with homeless shelters around them.

About the Author

Joe Kukura is a San Francisco freelance writer covering the intersection of cannabis policy and social justice for The North Star and SF Weekly. His work has previously appeared in Thrillist and the Daily Dot, and you can follow him on Twitter @ExercisingDrunk.