Triage: A Tech Company's Bid to Make a Dent in Silicon Valley Homelessness

the RVs of the homeless line a street in mountain View, CA. photo: Phyllis Peterson/shutterstock

the RVs of the homeless line a street in mountain View, CA. photo: Phyllis Peterson/shutterstock

On minimum wage, it’s difficult to afford housing almost everywhere in America. But the problem comes into stark focus in Silicon Valley, where astronomical wealth shares the streets with thousands of chronically homeless people. The need to do something wasn’t lost on the Santa Clara County voters who approved Measure A, a late 2016 bond measure that lets the county borrow up to $950 million to create about 5,000 units of affordable housing.

Of the full sum from Measure A, $700 million is reserved to build housing for “extremely low income” residents and to fund related support services. That’s quite a hefty figure. But given the vast sea of money sloshing around in this part of the county, there's also room for corporate philanthropy to ensure the measure’s success over the next decade.

That seems to be the intent of at least one big local tech firm. In what may be the largest-ever corporate contribution to address homelessness, Cisco pledged $50 million in late March to bolster housing provision through Measure A. Over the next five years, the public-private partnership organization Destination: Home will distribute Cisco’s gift out of the company’s fund at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. In addition to building housing, the money will provide formerly homeless people with the services they need to stay off the streets.

Cisco’s $50 million is the latest sign of a growing consensus among funders that providing housing first, especially permanent supportive housing, is the best way to handle chronic homelessness. Cisco appears to be fully on board with that strategy. In comments published in the Silicon Valley Business Journal, CEO Chuck Robbins said, “I think you’ve got a problem when people are dying on the streets. […] You need to put them in a home before you actually solve the issues. It’s like triage. You’ve got to triage a problem and then we can get back and start solving the other things.”

An emergency room analogy is apt, given the severity of the problem in expensive coastal cities. But this isn’t a hopeless space. As we’ve seen, the crisis has also prompted funders to embrace new strategies like public-private initiatives and impact investing that aim to multiply the effectiveness of grantmaking. Advocacy is another promising avenue. The success of Measure A in Santa Clara County, as well as Measure H and Proposition HHH in Los Angeles, suggest there is growing public will to fix things—at least, as long as those fixes actually work. The Silicon Valley Community Foundation's energetic role in advocating for Measure A illustrates the role that philanthropy can play in pushing along efforts to find new funding for housing. Private funders also played a role in developing and securing passage of the measures in Los Angeles, as detailed in a recent report by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, which was deeply involved in this work. 

Cisco's giving tends to follow the pattern of many Bay Area tech firms: lots of initiatives connected with its business, including vigorous support for international efforts to boost connectivity. We’ve written, for instance, about how the company has deployed a “Tactical Operations Team” to set up communications networks for those responding to the global refugee crisis

But the company’s homelessness pledge isn’t the only time it has backed housing causes closer to home. Cisco was the first of several funders to support Housing Trust Silicon Valley’s TECH Fund last year, putting down $10 million to be matched by others. The Sobrato Family Foundation and the Packard Foundation met the challenge with $5 million each, followed by another $10 million from LinkedIn. Note that Sobrato and Packard have also supported Destination: Home, along with firms like Google, Ebay, and Lockheed Martin, as well as the Knight Foundation and, of course, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. Facebook is another company worth mentioning, here. In 2016, we reported on its pledges totaling nearly $30 million for affordable housing in Menlo Park, where its headquarters are located. 


The TECH Fund has an interesting model. Unlike Destination: Home, it’s taking on the affordability crisis writ large. As we often observe, philanthropy faces an uphill battle when it comes to tackling the housing challenge overall, given its limited resources. (Although impact investing could be a game changer in this regard, as we've reported.) But the odds of success are better when private funders focus on housing the homeless—especially when major firms like Cisco are joining the fight. 

The Bay Area has become something of a test case of whether private foundations, corporate funders and individual mega-givers can move the needle on housing. Beyond the action in Silicon Valley, we've also reported on San Francisco’s Heading Home campaign—with Saleforce’s Marc Benioff, a key figure in tech giving, in the lead. Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna have also supported the effort, as well as investor Ron Conway and Google.

Of course, just housing those who are currently homeless doesn’t address root causes. To the extent that philanthropy can address the web of challenges around unaffordable housing, stagnant wages, addiction, and things like healthcare and transportation costs, it may be through state and local advocacy as well as broader “narrative change.” Funders for Housing and Opportunity is one new initiative focused at that larger level.