A photo of a man sleeping on San Francisco's Embarcadero
A plan to construct a center for homeless services in San Francisco's Embarcadero has inspired dueling crowdfunding campaigns from foes and supporters. Robert Galbraith/Reuters

A group called Safe Embarcadero turned to crowdfunding to help bankroll a legal fight against Mayor London Breed's planned navigation center for homeless residents. Then came the counterattack.

Last month, San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced a plan to build a “navigation center” for homeless residents in a wealthy waterfront neighborhood parking lot. A vocal group of locals objected to the new facility, a 24-hour hub that will offer a range of social services.

Residents and business owners from along the Embarcadero — a swath of communities that includes South Beach, Rincon Hill, Bayside Village, and Mission Bay — first aired their concerns over the center in public meetings. The usual issues emerged: worries about crime and property values; fears that kids would soon be toddling down syringe-littered sidewalks. But then the neighborhood did something a little more unusual for Bay Area NIMBYs. They went online to crowdfund an opposition campaign.

A GoFundMe page called “Safe Embarcadero For All” was launched on March 20 by Neel Lilani, a lawyer who, according to Gizmodo, has long worked in Silicon Valley. Besides their quest for public safety, the coalition argues that Breed did not give the community enough notice about the plan to build in their residential strip. They’re aiming to raise $100,000 to hire Andrew Zacks, an attorney for Zacks, Freedman & Patterson, to lead what they anticipate will be a fierce legal battle with the city to stop it.

“While no one wants to pursue legal avenues, the city has left us little choice,” the page reads. The Embarcadero group is “fully supportive of efforts to end homelessness,” it continues—just different ones, in different places.

A Stanford professor and a lawyer each donated $1,000. “Save the Children of South Beach” chipped in $30. One anonymous supporter put down $10,000.

But, in a very San Francisco twist, the foes of the navigation center have since been out-raised by a rival crowdfunding appeal supporting the project. Aided by a wave of news coverage and social media attention, a counter-campaign called “SAFER Embarcadero For All” took just four days to solicit more than $150,000, with contributions from more than 1,500 donors. Among them were the city’s wealthiest citizens, moved to call out the hypocrisy of its merely well-to-do: Twitter founder Jack Dorsey gave $25,000, and Mark Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce and a longtime homelessness advocate in the city, who gave $10,000. GoFundMe itself gave $5,000.

At a public meeting scheduled for Wednesday, the two camps will have a chance to argue their cases again, face to face. They’ll debate an issue—homelessness—that’s become the most vivid symbol of the inequities within this ostensibly progressive urban enclave. But by transplanting the kind of neighbor-on-neighbor vitriol once reserved for community forums onto digital ones, the conflict over the Embarcadero navigation center has already succeeded in turning a local dispute into a national spectacle.

***

Wallace Lee is a retired lawyer and stay-at-home dad (he’s in his mid-30s) who lives two blocks from the proposed project site. He describes himself as the organizer of Safe Embarcadero’s “grassroots” movement.

“San Francisco has had a problem with homelessness for some time, but it’s not everywhere, and it doesn’t make sense, to me at least, to bring those problems in the middle of a densely populated area,” Lee told CityLab. “The city is moving so quickly. We really feel like the community is being steamrolled.”

The coalition also has a website, which calls on residents to “Stop Breed’s #Megashelter” and links to another online petition, signed by almost 1,800 people. (The site, confusingly, is called San Francisco Residents, not Safe Embarcadero, but it’s all part of the same campaign, says Lee. “The branding is all off.”)

In a statement to the San Francisco Chronicle, Breed condemned the community resistance. “[I]t’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. Breed took office with a promise to tackle homelessness in the city, and in January committed to creating 1,000 new beds for unhoused people by 2020.

Navigation centers are a twist on traditional shelters, with 24-hour services often including job training and substance abuse counseling. Two of them operate in San Francisco already, according to the Chronicle, each with at least 125 beds. The new one at the center of the current controversy would be built on Seawall Lot 330, an Embarcadero parking lot in the heart of District 6, which has the largest population of San Franciscans living in homelessness. It would add 225 beds, and bolster the five other shelters and navigation centers that already operate in the area.

After expediting the city’s navigation center approval process using a pair of ordinances passed unanimously by the Board of Supervisors in March, Breed hoped to open the facility as early as this summer. She’s just waiting on the port commissioner’s green light, which could come by the end of April after a series of community meetings.

“I get that people have questions about the site, and we are happy to demonstrate how these sites work and the positive impacts they have had in other neighborhoods,” Breed continued. “But we all need to be willing to be part of the solution.”

Judging by online comments from area residents, though, many seem less than eager to take part. “We will not give ‘hope,’ (that is, drug addicts) a chance in our neighborhood,” one resident wrote on the local social networking service Nextdoor. “Does a doctor routinely put cancer in a healthy body? No. Then why put this magnet for all things bad in the middle of a residential, tourist, beautiful neighborhood?”

That kind of rhetoric troubled William Fitzgerald, a 33-year-old who lives near Golden Gate Park. “Everyone wants to fix it, but if the fix includes me being impacted, that fix doesn’t work,” he said of many San Franciscans’ attitudes towards the Bay Area homelessness crisis.

So on March 28, Fitzgerald launched the rival GoFundMe petition, this time in support of the navigation center’s construction. The money it’s raising will go to San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness, a local homelessness advocacy organization.

The group did not have anything to do with the petition initially, says its executive director, Jenny Friedenbach. But she’s in contact with Fitzgerald now, and the Coalition supports the campaign. “The optics around very wealthy condo owners opposing a place for the very poorest most destitute people to sleep at night — and using a fundraising site for that — was pretty disgusting,” Friedenbach said.

Friedenbach is no stranger to seeing low-income housing and homelessness initiatives face community resistance in San Francisco neighborhoods. But the scale and tone of the Safe Embarcadero campaign still shocked her. “They’re saying quite venomous things about unhoused people, and then actively and publicly raising money.”

“I know they go to community meetings and say these kind of things,” added Fitzgerald. “I just couldn’t believe that somebody would send in $1,000 to stop somebody from having shelter.”

Safe Embarcadero’s Lee resists that characterization. While he’s never donated to a homeless shelter, he says he’s given money to the Delancey Street Foundation, which helps homeless people and those recovering from substance abuse. He just doesn’t think installing navigation centers (especially near his house), is the solution to the problem. He worried that the center will “bring problems of drug use” and prefers a more “holistic” approach, though he was light on policy details.

“To be honest, I’m not normally very active in politics, so I don’t normally vote,” Lee said.

***

Using GoFundMe to finance a lawsuit to expel the city’s most vulnerable may seem like a particularly pungent expression of the Bay Area’s New Gilded Age disparities, but it’s not a strategy unique to San Francisco. Last May, two women launched a campaign against a nonprofit hospice for homeless patients called the INN Between in an effort to keep it from moving to their Salt Lake City neighborhood. Their GoFundMe, “Hilside [sic] Homeless Shelter Opposition,” included an annotated list of concerns. “During their stay, homeless individuals are free to come and go. When they are finished at the facility many are released back to the street,” reads one. “(This could be your street),” they added, in bold.

The fund surpassed its $5,000 goal, with contributions from 41 donors; almost a year later, the hospice remains, but the battle goes on. “Our group has made a promise, a pact to each other, that we will not quit until The INN Between is out of our neighborhood, and they can never move into anyone else’s neighborhood,” fund organizer Sophia Anderson told the Salt Lake Tribune in December.

On Change.org, which hosts online petitions advocating for social change, you can find any number of similar appeals against low-income housing and homelessness programs, albeit without donations attached to them. In San Jose, a push to build affordable housing for local public school teachers got 6,641 parents and community members worried enough to sign their name to a document opposing the plan. Out in L.A.,“Stop Proposed Homeless Housing in Sherman Oaks” now has 2,500 signatures; “Stop the Men’s Homeless Shelter Coming to College Point,” addressed to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, has 4,700 (and counting).

Is a NIMBY campaign waged in the digital realm any more effective—or nasty—than one limited to the real world? As the Coalition on Homelessness’ Friedenbach says, public meetings may get fierce, but the internet also adds a cloak of anonymity, which most of the large Safe Embarcadero donors took advantage of. “They want to stop it, but they’re kind of ashamed of what they’re doing at the same time,” she said.

That’s wasn’t a problem for the SAFER Embarcadero counter-campaign, which became a platform for performative civic virtue among rival tech moguls. Benioff and Dorsey had most recently sparred publicly over the passage of Proposition C, a San Francisco ballot measure that taxes the city’s largest businesses—including theirs—to fund homelessness initiatives. Dorsey contributed $75,000 to the “No On Prop C” campaign, joined by Lyft and Stripe; Benioff gave $1 million to support the measure, which ultimately passed with almost 60 percent of the vote in November.

That these two tech leaders are now united in opposition to the Safe Embarcadero crowd may signal a shift in how the wealthiest Bay Area residents frame their own culpability in creating the region’s homelessness crisis, and their responsibilities for solving it. “You are either for the homeless or you are for yourself,” Benioff wrote on Twitter, calling on more businesses to join him in donating. “It’s a binary decision.”

Or perhaps, says Safe Embarcadero’s Lee, the power of SAFER Embarcadero’s petition simply emphasizes how much easier it is to condemn those openly opposing a homeless shelter than it is to reflect on the quieter methods even wealthier neighborhoods use to keep others out. “[Those billionaires] don’t live in our district. In fact, they live in places with almost zero homeless services,” Lee said. “And for them to say that we’re NIMBYs—for the billionaires to call us wealthy entitled people that aren’t doing our part? That kind of sets off a little bit of anger.” (Benioff, who has a net worth of about $6.7 billion, just committed more than $6 million to building a halfway house for homeless in the city.)

As SAFER Embarcadero inches closer to its $175,000 goal—which the Coalition on Homelessness says it will use to encourage supporters to come out on Wednesday and push “back against class-based stereotypes and hatefulness”—the people behind Safe Embarcadero are still planning on using the $86,000-plus they’ve raised to fund legal action if the city doesn’t back down.

Whatever happens, Fitzgerald says, his counter-campaign’s success has already sent a resounding message, which could translate into a political victory more potent than a legal one. “Symbolically, this was an example of the community coming together,” he said, “and showing that San Francisco isn’t the worst thing in the world.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misspelled Jenny Friedenbach’s name.

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