Startup founder Justin Keller has come under a barrage of internet fire for posting an open letter to city officials with the complaint that he is forced to witness the struggles of homeless individuals on city streets.
“The wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city. They went out, got an education, work hard, and earned it,” wrote Keller in his letter to Mayor Ed Lee and Police Chief Greg Suhr, which he posted on his personal blog on February 15. “I shouldn’t have to see the pain, struggle, and despair of homeless people to and from my way to work every day.”
Michael Lopez, a prep cook at Southern Pacific Brewing on Treat Avenue, understands the frustration.
“He did the stereotypical thing that the tech force is criticized for, which is rant about it on the internet,” Lopez said.
Keller’s statements included calling the homeless “riff raff,” for which he later apologized, but he did not offer any viable solutions to dealing with homelessness. Many who live and work in tech in the Mission district said they agreed with Keller’s message, but disagreed with the delivery.
“A lot of people out here are very educated, they come from different places and maybe they can’t relate,” said Jamie Gasparella, who is in marketing for tech companies. “Maybe it was an honest opinion about a problem that he saw, and what he saw moved him. The way he said it was misconceived by a lot of people, but it started a conversation.”
Keller’s decision to speak out made him the latest poster child for an issue that strikes a nerve with many of the city’s residents — the economic disparities that exist in San Francisco’s rapidly gentrifying communities.
“Homeless people have been here before tech got to San Francisco. Sure, tech brought beneficial additions to the city, but there needs to be a balance,” said Arrianne Talma, who works in marketing for a tech startup.
Talma said she found Keller’s comments to be narrow-minded. “He does not understand the problem fully. The entrepreneur spirit in tech is supposed to be finding solutions to a problem, so that means you actually have to offer a solution.”
Most stated that Keller’s views are not prevalent throughout the tech industry.
“There are many other rich people that talk about this stuff and are also assholes and they are not in tech,” said a tech worker who declined to give his name. “I don’t think it’s fair to demonize the industry over one person’s personal opinions — his opinion is not common in the industry at all.”
Observing many of the young and affluent people moving to the neighborhood the past five years, longtime Mission resident Greg Clayton said he understands Keller’s intolerance for poverty.
“Young people are moving in with lots of money from the suburbs, maybe they are coming from mall communities and have a different aesthetic visually,” said Clayton. “Maybe he’s not talking about the homeless, but the things that come along with homelessness like crime and trash.”
In the letter, the entrepreneur states that he has been living in San Francisco for three years — long enough to witness homelessness escalate. “Without a doubt it is the worst it has ever been,” he said.
“San Francisco’s homeless problem predates you — by a lot,” reads a blog post by a different man named Justin Keller, who said that his social media channels “erupted” thanks to the entrepreneur. Pointing to a culture of compassion that has shaped San Francisco since the 1906 earthquake, this Keller wrote: “One of the things that’s made San Francisco great is the empathy and compassion historically shown to people without anywhere or anything.”
“What I get from that is that he is a typical tech worker…new to the city, new to the Bay Area culture of openness, acceptance, and compassion in dealing with real-life problems,” said Chris Young, who has been living in a tent at Florida and 17th streets since he was evicted from his Mission home in October. “People here love to rant because they find validation in it and in ridiculing the homeless. I’m tired of it.”
Keller wrote that he did not want to subject his visiting parents to what most San Franciscans see daily, presumably “the pain, struggle, and despair of homeless people” that he sees going to and from work.
Yash Chechani, a product manager who splits his time between San Francisco and Santa Clara, said that although Keller’s delivery was “off,” he understands the intention behind his letter.
“I think it’s good to have zero homeless people, but not because I want to show a clean city to my parents, but because we actually need to house these people,” said Chechani. “During Super Bowl they were suddenly gone. I don’t know what the city did, honestly — if they were chased somewhere else. I do see [Keller’s] point in that we need to solve the problem permanently.”
Bhautik Joshi, a senior software engineer at Flickr, agreed that Keller’s lack of empathy should not be used against him — rather, it should be treated as an opportunity to inspire others who share his values to care and to take action.
“He didn’t get it, so maybe there is some way of reaching out to people like him and giving them a hook. It was a lost opportunity,” said Joshi. “If he spent a little more time understanding and searching for empathy, he could have done some real good. But it’s not too late.”