A Tech Giant Steps Up for the Homeless. What's Not to Like?

the salesforce tower, when it was under construction. photo: Sundry Photography/shutterstock

the salesforce tower, when it was under construction. photo: Sundry Photography/shutterstock

To herald the opening of Salesforce Tower—now the tallest building in San Francisco—the company’s philanthropic arm recently announced a $1.5 million grant to Hamilton Families, a nonprofit that houses homeless families. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and his wife Lynne matched the gift, bringing the total donated to the nonprofit’s Heading Home Initiative to $3 million.

The initiative is a $30 million collaboration between San Francisco city and county, the San Francisco Unified School District and private philanthropy. Its purpose is to provide housing to 800 of San Francisco’s homeless families by 2020. To date, Salesforce.org has provided the organization with $3.5 million in funding. The Benioffs have donated $11.5 million in addition to that.

It's not surprising to see this power couple backing a local anti-homelessness initiative. For years, Marc Benioff has stood out among tech leaders for his commitment to Bay Area causes, and, more broadly, to the idea that Silicon Valley companies should give back. He's worked to rally other tech leaders behind philanthropic efforts, such as SF Gives, and last year, he was among the donors behind a $100 million commitment to fight homelessness by the Tipping Point Community, a charitable organization that's a hub for local tech philanthropy. Of course, Benioff and Salesforce have also played a catalytic role in spreading the 1+1+1 model of corporate philanthropy within the tech world, including the creation of Pledge 1%, a national campaign that's enlisted hundreds of companies—many in the startup phase—to commit some of their profits, employee time, or product to charitable causes. Finally, Marc and Lynne Benioff have given over $200 million to support Bay Area hospitals. 

RelatedTaking the Pledge: Inside the Next Big Wave of Tech Philanthropy

The Benioffs and Salesforce were leading on philanthropy well before a powerful backlash emerged to growing tech wealth and power, which started first in the Bay Area amid growing concerns about gentrification and inequality. Now, the pressure on tech companies to show they care in a city that feels increasingly Darwinian is greater than ever. And Salesforce is especially visible—literally, with a new 1,000-foot tower that's reshaped San Francisco's skyline and has instantly become a symbol of tech omnipotence. Against this backdrop, along with rising earnings and profits, it makes sense that the company and its leader might further step up their philanthropy. 

Homelessness is an obvious place to direct resources. No social problem weighs more heavily on the city, and the plight of unhoused families is especially disturbing. Which is why the Heading Home Initiative is so important. 

About 200 families have found homes since the initiative started in 2016, Hamilton Families reports. Often, finding a home for a family means moving them to cheaper real estate markets, like Sacramento, according to an interview that Tomiquia Moss, the nonprofit’s director, gave to the local public radio station earlier this year. Moss estimated Hamilton houses about three quarters of families outside of the city, in a reversal of previous trends.

San Francisco's longstanding homelessness problem is so notable that it's even drawing international attention. Leilani Farha, the United Nations special rapporteur on adequate housing, spotlighted the issue during a visit to the city earlier this year.

It’s estimated that about 7,500 homeless people live in the city, according to a biennial survey. Nearly 70 percent arrived in the city before becoming homeless. Though the problem has not worsened in the past few years, it has become more visible as tents proliferated and development made it harder for homeless people to find secluded places to set up camp.

During her visit, Farha drew attention to the underlying causes of homelessness. 

There’s a common misconception that drug use is the root cause of homelessness, she told the The Guardian during her visit to the city. However, that is most often not the case. “If I turned to San Francisco and there were 100 people who were homeless, I might say, ‘Hmm, this is probably about psychological disability, drug dependence, a history of sexual abuse in their childhood,’ or something like that. I might be able to say that it is very individualized.

“But when you’re seeing the numbers of people who are homeless here and in every other city, you just know it’s structural.”

Structural problems, of course, are much harder to address, as Farha reminded the SF Gate. Solutions have to address things like stagnating wages, rising housing costs, and local zoning practices. 

A shortcoming of the very public recent gift by Salesforce and Benioff is that does little to address or even acknowledge the structural dimensions of the city’s homelessness problem or how tech companies, like Salesforce, the largest tech employer within city limits, contribute to them.

As far as corporate neighbors go, Salesforce is one of the good ones, with giving baked into its operating model. Beyond its antipoverty grants, the company’s philanthropic arm has worked for years to develop deep ties to the local public school districts and to date its support for local public education tallies in the millions.  

But that’s what is disappointing about the gift to Hamilton Families. This is a company that has made philanthropy part of its business brand, but its work to solve one of its home city’s biggest problems doesn't feel bold enough.

There is hope, though. At the opening celebration for the tour today, Benioff spent his time at the podium highlighting the income disparity in the city and vowed to raise $200 million more to address the homelessness problem. It's also important to note that the $100 million effort by the Tipping Point Community that Benioff backed last year places a big focus on creating permanent supportive housing, which homeless advocates and funders increasingly view as a key long-term strategy for helping this population.

Still, to make a real difference in the broader local housing crisis, Salesforce and other local funders will need to get more strategic.