In only the latest cultural altercation between San Francisco’s tech workers and the city’s impoverished population, one tech worker has declared the homeless are “riff raff” whose “pain, struggle and despair” shouldn’t have to be endured by “wealthy” people commuting to work.
It’s a familiar story. A male entrepreneur (some might even call him a “tech bro”) – flush with the sense of self-worth and self-satisfaction that comes from living and working in a city and industry that treats him and his friends as the most important and intelligent human beings ever to grace a metropolitan area with their presence – takes a moment to think about homelessness. Not content to wrinkle his nose and move on with his day, he types those thoughts out. He publishes them on the internet.
And, there, with the click of a button, he enters the pantheon of infamous San Francisco tech bros.
Justin Keller, an entrepreneur, developer and the founder of startup Commando.io, joined those exalted ranks on 15 February when he published an open letter to San Francisco mayor Ed Lee and police chief Greg Suhr:
I am writing today, to voice my concern and outrage over the increasing homeless and drug problem that the city is faced with. I’ve been living in SF for over three years, and without a doubt it is the worst it has ever been. Every day, on my way to, and from work, I see people sprawled across the sidewalk, tent cities, human feces, and the faces of addiction. The city is becoming a shanty town … Worst of all, it is unsafe.
Keller explained that he had been moved to action by his experience over the holiday weekend, when his parents and relatives came to visit. Three encounters with “a homeless drunken man” in the street, a “distraught, and high person” outside a restaurant, and a man who “took his shirt off and laid down” in a movie theater left him angry and frustrated with the city’s homelessness “problem”.
While Keller is not alone in his frustration that there are nearly 7,000 people living in San Francisco without homes, his letter is distinctive for its total lack of sympathy for the plight of those in difficult circumstances, focusing instead on the discomfort the “wealthy”:
The residents of this amazing city no longer feel safe. I know people are frustrated about gentrification happening in the city, but the reality is, we live in a free market society. The 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. I want my parents when they come visit to have a great experience, and enjoy this special place.
Keller does not propose a solution to San Francisco’s complex and intractable civic conundrum, though he does seem to cite approvingly the controversial “sweeps” of the homeless during the recent Super Bowl festivities:
I don’t have a magic solution … It is a very difficult and complex situation, but somehow during Super Bowl, almost all of the homeless and riff raff seem to up and vanish. I’m willing to bet that was not a coincidence. Money and political pressure can make change. So it is time to start making progress, or we as citizens will make a change in leadership and elect new officials who can.
After facing significant backlash against the post on Twitter, Keller appended an apology for his use of the term “riff-raff”, writing that the word choice was “insensitive and counterproductive”.
As of publication, however, he has not reached the next stage of the tech bro homeless rant cycle. First comes the deletion of the post. In 2013, startup founder Peter Shih deleted his 10 Things I Hate About You: San Francisco Edition rant from Medium after the backlash reached such a fevered pitch that posters featuring his photograph were posted on telephone poles around the city.
Next comes the apology tour. In 2015, startup CEO Greg Gopman attempted to make amend for his own anti-homeless screed (he described the homeless as “the lower part of society” and “degenerates [who] gather like hyenas” and bemoaned the “burden and liability [of] having them so close to us) by launching a program of his own to “solve” homelessness.
(Gopman’s plan never went anywhere. One city hall official told the Guardian in 2015 that the entrepreneur’s plan to house homeless people in domes “remind me of a dog house”.)
In an email to the Guardian, Keller said that he was writing an additional blog post about the issue.
“The thesis of the post was that inaction by the city and officials is not working. We all as citizens of San Francisco need to figure out how we can improve the city and address the homeless and drug addiction problem straight on,” he said.
“I in no way meant to vilify homeless or drug users, my frustration was that we as citizens don’t feel safe. The amount of violent crime is increasing, and it affects everybody. What specific measures is the city taking to proactively help the homeless and drug addicted?
“Instead of crucifying me, we all as citizens should be crucifying the city and elected government officials for ineptness. The status quo is not working.”
Of course, Keller will likely only be the pariah of the internet for the next few days, while San Francisco’s homeless people are made to feel like the pariahs of the city every day.
“Being homeless is like being the germ of the city. That’s how they treat you,” said Bercé Perry, a homeless resident of San Francisco. Perry was standing outside his tent in an encampment underneath the Highway 101 overpass. The 42-year-old said he had been homeless for about one year, and he has little patience for the distaste some people have for his presence in the city.
“They don’t care about nobody but themselves,” Perry said about the wealthy tech workers who’ve moved into San Francisco. “If you got money, you just want to grab anything you can get.”
A few blocks away, Michael Jones, who has been homeless for about three years, was frustrated that people are homeless and hungry in a city with so much wealth.
“I see all the food that they throw away,” Jones said. Still, asked about how he feels about wealthy tech workers, he would only say, “I don’t judge anyone.”
Madeleine McCann, 27, had some more pointed words for tech bros who disapprove of her. McCann has been living in a tent under the highway for about a month, ever since her van was towed, leaving her without a roof.
“They need to be a little more tolerant”, she said. “It’s not like they’re going to let us come shower at their house.”