Few issues have confounded urban policymakers more in recent years than homelessness. And while agreement has lately been growing among advocates and funders that providing housing first, especially packaged with support services, is a key to confronting this defining challenge for American cities, many questions remain about how to implement such policies and also address the underlying causes of homelessness.
Enter Marc and Lynne Benioff, who recently made a $30 million gift for research into homelessness. The donation comes as state and local governments in California and elsewhere are stepping up spending to tackle homelessness—yet facing tough questions about priorities and impact. Last week, for example, the Los Angeles Times reported that officials there “are bracing for the release of a report that’s likely to show little or no progress in reining in homelessness, despite the $619 million they spent last year to grapple with the crisis.” L.A. plans to spend hundreds of millions more to address homelessness, while California governor Gavin Newsom recently called for doubling state spending in this area. Meanwhile, across the country, New York City is slated to spend $3 billion this year to address its homelessness crisis. Ensuring that such funds are deployed effectively is critical.
The Benioff gift funds the University of California at San Francisco, which has launched the UCSF Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative to conduct what it calls “groundbreaking” research into the causes of homelessness and identify evidence-based solutions to the problem. The initiative is a part of UCSF’s existing Center for Vulnerable Populations (CVP). In a press release, Marc Benioff referred to the project rather grandiosely as “a North Star for truth on homelessness… providing the latest research, data and evidence-based solutions to ensure we’re investing in programs that will help solve the homelessness crisis.”
Dr. Margot Kushel, who serves as the CVP’s director and will lead the new initiative, said in the same release that service providers and advocates already know a great deal about how to end homelessness. The problem, she says, is that policymakers aren’t always aware of that knowledge—even as ballot measures like Santa Clara’s Measure A and Los Angeles’ Proposition HHH raise considerable local sums for affordable and supportive housing.
Nevertheless, on Twitter and in articles covering the Benioff gift, commenters called out the Salesforce billionaire for funding research while unsheltered people suffer on San Francisco’s streets. A deeper critique of homelessness funders from tech (and elsewhere) is that these donors fail to acknowledge structural factors behind the problem and that their companies can be complicit as rents rise and neighborhoods gentrify.
Marc Benioff, however, is one tech billionaire who’s long been attuned to soaring inequality in the Bay Area and he’s been a persistent advocate for greater action on homelessness among his ultra-wealthy peers. Last year, he pledged to help raise $200 million to address the problem, and he’s backed a $100 million effort by the Tipping Point Community to create permanent supportive housing in the region.
Also telling is Benioff’s public spat with fellow tech winners—notably Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey—over Proposition C, a ballot initiative passed by San Francisco voters last year that would tax the city’s biggest businesses to support a homelessness fund. Despite possible repercussions for Salesforce’s profits, the Benioffs spent millions to support the measure, which is expected to raise $300 million—although it’s still mired in lawsuits and hasn’t yet taken effect.
Given the new public and private funding that Benioff is working to unlock for the homeless, it’s not surprising that he and Lynne are now backing research on what solutions are most effective. Since the 1980s, government agencies across the U.S. have spent a fortune on failed approaches to this problem. With the political stars aligned in key cities for a stepped-up push on homelessness, it’s imperative that policymakers and nonprofits direct resources to the solutions that work.
As CEO of Salesforce, Benioff pioneered the Pledge 1% campaign and the associated 1+1+1 model of corporate philanthropy, in which firms commit funds, employee volunteer hours, and product to charitable ventures. The model has caught on.
But where Benioff stands out as a philanthropist—and as an advocate—is right at home in the Bay Area. Both the Benioffs and Salesforce have given extensively to local schools and hospitals, including $50 million to the San Francisco and Oakland school districts over the past five years. On homelessness, the Benioffs have given $11.5 million to Hamilton Families, a nonprofit that locates homes for families on the street. That’s in addition to $3.5 million Salesforce has given to the organization. In a highly publicized move, Benioff also gave San Francisco $6.1 million late last year to preserve a hotel in the Tenderloin district as housing for the homeless.