When CNN announced that former Bay Area reporter Sara Sidner would be coming to delve into San Francisco’s lethal cocktail of fentanyl and homelessness, I knew what to expect.
For the May 2023 special, Sidner asked people living on the streets why they came to San Francisco to be homeless and got the same answers I’ve gotten for years: It’s easy. Easy to get drugs, do drugs, put up a tent, steal to support your habit — and San Francisco will pay you more than $600 a month for the pleasure.
It may not come as a surprise, but cities that offer general assistance payments have more than twice the rate of homelessness as cities that don’t. For example, San Francisco and New York City have the highest rates at 10.4 and 10.9 per 10,000 people respectively, while Las Vegas has the lowest (2.3), with Columbus, Ohio, and Indianapolis tied for second lowest.
Still, San Francisco’s homeless advocates believe money is the answer, with organizations coaching new arrivals to say they’re “from San Francisco” while helping them navigate the system. The “nonprofits” themselves complete what has become a billion-dollar industry chasing its own tail, with 59 providers receiving $240.6 million in fiscal year 2019–20, according to the latest audit by the city’s budget and legislative analyst.
When Sidner sat down with former mayor Willie Brown to ask why he believed San Francisco couldn’t make a dent in its catastrophic homeless problem, Brown was succinct: “It is not designed to be solved. It is designed to be perpetuated. It is to treat the problem, not solve it.”
Whether Sidner edited the piece purposefully or not, it was apropos that Brown’s comments followed an interview with Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness (COH), where she’s spent the last 25 years presenting herself as an expert on the subject.
What are Friedenbach’s qualifications? She doesn’t really have any. Her vague résumé includes a lot of fundraising and, prior to COH, serving as director of the Hunger and Homeless Action Coalition of San Mateo County. Her skill set, as thin as her résumé, touts “a long history of community organizing, working on a range of poverty-related issues including welfare rights, housing, homeless prevention, health care, disability, and human and civil rights.”
COH is also opaque in their 990 filing, required by the IRS to verify that nonprofits should keep their tax-exempt status. It’s no secret the IRS rarely audits these forms, particularly for smaller organizations, but 990s should provide an overview of nonprofit revenue, expenses, assets, and liabilities, as well as sum up the group’s mission, indicate who sits on its board of directors, and state the highest-paid employees’ pay. The COH mission statement tells you what the rest of the 990 will look like (and that they need to hire a copy editor). “Our vision of our city is where housing is a human right where homelessness is only ever temporary and dignified and where those are forced to remain on dignified and where those are forced to remain on…” it rambles and repeats. (And yes, those are the exact words.)
For 2021, COH lists salaries, other compensation, and employee benefits as $487,511 with 10 people receiving the title “Individual Trustee or Director,” but the only salary goes to Friedenbach (a paltry 50,340 for the listed 40-hour workweek). So, where did the other $437,171 go? Your guess is as good as mine.
I’ve referred to Friedenbach as “CEO of the city’s de facto homeless marketing agency,” spending their money on Sharpies and cardboard to make the handwritten signs they hold up at City Hall protests, but her crowning achievement actually goes back to fundraising: “crafting Prop C Our City Our Home, a tax on corporations that pays for homeless housing and will double San Francisco’s efforts to address homelessness.”
IT STARTED WITH A TWEET TO MARC BENIOFF
Friedenbach and her allies were vocal critics of the tech industry setting up shop in the shadow of California’s Silicon Valley, (which stretches south from Palo Alto to San Jose), often making tech workers the boogeymen in social media posts blaming them for gentrification and evictions — that is, until they saw an opportunity to make millions from that same industry.
In 2018, COH drafted a plan to raise $300 million a year for “homeless services” by increasing gross receipts taxes 0.5 percent on San Francisco businesses making more than $50 million annually. They chose Christin Evans, a longtime homeless activist who runs several hobby businesses in the Haight district and whose parents own a $12 million home in the city, as their unlikely spokesperson. Evans, often described by detractors as a “trust fund baby,” seemed an unlikely choice, but it paid off for COH in more ways than one.
One evening while scrolling through Twitter, Evans came across a post from Marc Benioff, the founder and CEO of software company Salesforce, referring to San Francisco as the “Four Seasons of homelessness.” Outraged, she tweeted back, “Did @benioff just compare SF’s homeless services to a luxury hotel chain? How out of touch can a billionaire be?!?!”
Intrigued, Benioff reached out to Evans and the two exchanged private messages. While Benioff attributed the quote to somebody else, Evans saw an opportunity to reel in the CEO of San Francisco’s largest employer.
By the end of their chat, Benioff supported the measure, despite the fact it would cost his own company millions. He and Salesforce donated a combined $8 million to the campaign (the most ever spent on a local ballot measure so near to election day). Benioff became Prop. C’s biggest champion, chastising fellow CEOs for “not caring about homeless people.” Even his celebrity friends, comedian Chris Rock and singer Jewel, came onboard, shooting endorsement videos for Evans and COH. “We call her the CEO whisperer,” Friedenbach boasted at the time.
It took a couple of years to wind through a court challenge from the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, but in June 2020 the funds were released. Swelling to $600 million by 2022, the city spent only a quarter of that amount.
FRIEDENBACH’S CONFLICTS OF INTEREST
According to SF.gov, the Proposition C oversight committee “Our City, Our Home” (OCOH) makes sure spending from the fund is “fair and accountable,” however, OCOH is one of the least transparent city programs I’ve seen — and that says a lot. While Friendenbach has claimed for decades that COH doesn’t take city money, they’re taking money from OCOH in the form of a $250,000 grant. Friedenbach also sits on the committee that doled out the grant, and sources tell me it is Friedenbach who “runs the show.” The website’s word salad, riddled with typos, says COH earned the quarter of a million dollars because they “prepared testimony and trained presenters to testify before City Budget decision-makers, both in the Office of the Mayor and the City’s Board of Supervisors.”
In May, when I questioned Friedenbach on Twitter about what appears to be an egregious conflict of interest, she abruptly deleted her Twitter account.
So how is the money being spent? That has Friedenbach written all over it, too. OCOH budgeted $390 million for “permanent housing” and just $53 million for “shelter and hygiene.” Friedenbach is an adamant proponent for “permanent housing,” but she has never offered a plan for what that looks like in the real world.
Even if anti-housing supervisors like Dean Preston suddenly approved $400 million worth of units on an abandoned Nordstrom parking lot, and even if the city could buy existing properties or build new ones in a Barbie Dream House timeframe on steroids of say, five years, are taxpayers on the hook in perpetuity while the now formerly homeless live rent free?
Then there’s the Field of Dreams analogy “If you build it, they will come” — after San Francisco houses the estimated 4,400 people now on the streets, what happens when more show up?
If it’s starting to sound like Friedenbach doesn’t really want to solve this issue, there’s more: In September 2022, COH helped seven homeless individuals file a lawsuit alleging San Francisco violated their rights by “punishing residents who have nowhere to go” when removing tents and belongings from public spaces, with the goal of forcing the city to spend billions more on “affordable housing and other resources.”
U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna Ryu later agreed, granting an emergency order based on “evidence” presented by COH that the city regularly violated its own policies when clearing people from encampments without offering adequate access to shelter, which, in California, is illegal.
In July, San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu fired back with a motion in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California refuting allegations made by COH. “Instead of working through minor issues with the city, Plaintiffs have spent months unjustifiably painting San Francisco as a violator of people’s rights. Despite the superficial heft of Plaintiffs’ nearly 400-page filing, their factual assertions fall apart.” Chiu wrote. “Since the injunction was issued, the Plaintiffs have not identified a single instance of San Francisco citing or arresting someone under any of the enjoined laws. Unhoused people regularly refuse the city’s offers of shelter. For example, one plaintiff has been offered shelter multiple times, including an offer to live in an individual ‘tiny home’ cabin, which is typically considered a preferable shelter placement. But the plaintiff said he would have to check with his lawyers and then eventually refused the shelter space.”
The Robinhood of homelessness and her merry band of activists are also responsible for an appeal against the city over so-called “poverty tows,” which they claim hurt low-income individuals, and the California Court of Appeal recently agreed. Towing cars that have accrued unpaid parking tickets without a warrant is a common practice in many cities, including San Francisco, where “legally and safely parked cars with five or more unpaid parking tickets” were towed if the owner didn’t respond within 21 calendar days of issuance. Knowing the Friedenbach playbook, however, this is just another tactic to ensure the homeless living in cars and RVs can remain parked wherever they choose, legally or not — even in front of your home or business.
To many of her critics, Friedenbach is nothing but a fraud, sitting on the oversight board of OCOH, created by legislation she was instrumental in passing, while accepting a $250,000 grant for her own nonprofit to prepare testimony and train presenters to influence decision makers. OCOH is pushing millions toward Friendenbach’s pipe dream of “permanent housing for all” at the same time COH is suing the city for not offering enough shelter.
With conflicts galore, it’s time for Friedenbach to step down from OCOH. It’s also time for officials to stop listening to Friedenbach about the homeless crisis — after 25 years of big talk, her lack of success is visible each and every day on the streets of San Francisco.
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