It's time to get real about San Francisco's homeless problem

Homelessness is a big issue in San Francisco right now. As the tech community grows, people are moving from everywhere into the city, and that's driving up rents. People with good jobs, who make in the neighborhood of $150K in salary, tell me that it's getting so bad that they are spending 50 percent of their income on rent.

The backbone of the city's workforce — teachers, nonprofit folks, police, firefighters — can no longer afford to live in San Francisco at all, and even Oakland's getting too pricey. Meanwhile, according to San Francisco's last homeless count, there were about 6,700 people living on the streets, in tents, and city shelters. These numbers are up about 4 percent since 2013, and growing. And because San Francisco is geographically a relatively small city, the situation is particularly bad. In fact, there are more homeless people per square mile here than in any other city in the country except New York, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.


It's an overwhelming issue. Lots of good people want to do something about this to turn things around. And there are plenty of ideas out there. More emergency shelters with beds and nurses and counselors for those with medical and psychological issues. More mobile restrooms. Even giving people homes or the funding and support to find one on their own, which has seen some real success.

Can we invent our way out of the problem? I don't think so. In tech, we forget that fancy gadgets and apps don't put food on the table, or put a roof over that table. Me, I'm an old-school nerd, and 20 years ago was focused on new, shiny tech. However, I made a commitment to use tech to help people with everyday needs. More specifically, I started craigslist, where people helped each other find a job or a place to live. People helping each other out was a way to make a real impact on lives, and I still see that up close and personal every day in my customer service work.

Realizing that most folks need to keep their cash, maybe relying on low-speed internet access, that's why the site is mostly free, and very fast. As a means of civic engagement, it's been very effective and successful.

However, that leaves out people who need help in the here-and-now, maybe lacking the funds or connections to get a place to live affordably, or a job. For over a decade, people have approached me, mostly in San Francisco, who remind me that the downside of a successful tech industry includes housing scarcity and hunger.

The best thing I can do, from my perspective, is to find and support grassroots organizations that are getting the job done, now, and also for the longer-term. We're talking about getting behind groups in SF that excel at helping people out, while also acting as a support system and providing resources for people to help themselves. We can make a conscious effort to help these groups help the people who need it in SF most by donating money and volunteering our time.

There are plenty out there that are really effective. For instance St. Anthony's, which does a great job feeding and housing people. And the Tenderloin Technology Lab, which helps people put together resumes and conduct job searches. And the Women's Building, Salvation Army Harbor Light, the San Francisco Marin Food Bank, and Swords to Plowshares, which provides housing to veterans. I try to help all of them with funds, and fundraising, and general outreach, much of which is via social media.

Like Kevin Spacey says, if you're lucky enough to do well, send the elevator back down.

Commentary by Craig Newmark, the founder of craigslist and craigconnects, his online initiative to promote philanthropy and civic engagement. Follow him on Twitter @craignewmark.

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