America’s Most Expensive City Can’t Build a Homeless Shelter Without Rich People Fighting Back

Photo: Justin Sullivan (Getty)

Right on the waterfront in the most expensive city in America, a group of wealthy residents have quickly raised nearly $50,000 and rising to oppose San Francisco Mayor London Breed’s plan to use some of the city’s budget surplus to turn what is now a parking lot into a 225-bed homeless shelter in their rather ritzy neighborhood.

The opposition group is led by Neel Lilani, a lawyer with a lengthy resume in Silicon Valley’s tech and venture capital industries. Lilani has worked at some of the biggest and richest law firms on earth, including DLA Piper, and consults around Silicon Valley. He lives in a downtown luxury high-rise about a baseball’s throw away from the Giant’s stadium. Devastatingly, the building would be about the same distance from the new shelter.

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Wow, that sounds great Neel, you’ve done really well for yourself. Now let the homeless people have a roof over their heads, please.

“Homelessness is a crisis in our city and we need to act to get people off the streets and into housing,” Breed tweeted on Wednesday when the fundraiser had reached $35,000. “We’re happy to demonstrate how these Nav Centers work and the benefits they’ve brought to other neighborhoods, but we can’t afford unnecessary delays.”

Downtown San Francisco’s homelessness crisis, a microcosm of the larger widening wealth gap and housing crisis that plagues the entirety of Silicon Valley and Northern California, was a key issue during the city’s 2018 mayoral election. There are thousands of homeless people in San Francisco, most of them tightly packed in or around downtown. In January, Breed said she would open 1,000 new beds for homeless people by 2020. Now that the shovels are nearing the dirt, the pushback is growing, according to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle.

“Everyone in SF wants to fix homelessness,” San Francisco resident and New York Times reporter Mike Isaac tweeted. “Unless it’s near their house.”

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Breed’s plan for the Embarcadero is to build a new navigation center at Seawall Lot 330 across from piers 30 to 32 on the water, buildings designed to help the homeless leave outdoor encampments and connect with permanent housing and medical care. Differing in key ways from traditional homeless shelters, navigation centers are 24/7 buildings that emphasize cleanliness and safety. More than that, they give homeless people a place to sleep and a chance to get care.

The fundraiser’s money will go to retaining Andrew Zacks, a lawyer from the firm Zacks, Freedman & Patterson, who is reportedly crafting a legal strategy to fight to stop the navigation center from being built. It was raised through a booming GoFundMe page called Safe Embarcadero For All. Wait, do they really mean “all”?

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The group did not respond to a request for comment.

The fundraiser aims to raise $100,000. In seven days, they’re almost half way to their goal. Many of the donations have been anonymous, including one $10,000 donation made on Wednesday. But the fight has already begun as Zacks recently filed a public records request relating to the shelter.

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The anti-homeless shelter group has a website where they call the navigation center a “#megashelter,” a dystopian hashtag that translates to “ruthless war on helpless denizens of luxury high-rises.”

Breed just pushed through new laws expediting the building of navigation centers so that process would, in theory, take a few months from beginning to end. The new laws make it so the city does not have to go through a lengthy building and permit process and instead has to get a sign off from a handful of city departments authorizing construction and inspection.

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The impending legal challenge looks like it will be this strategy’s first major test.

“I don’t blame people for having opinions about their neighborhoods. I do blame a bad system that allows people to delay or kill projects that help homeless off the streets,” Scott Weiner, the California state senator representing San Francisco, tweeted on Thursday. “The same system that‘s given us a housing crisis. Let’s fix this broken system.”

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Patrick Howell O'Neill

Reporter in Silicon Valley. Contact me: Email poneill@gizmodo.com, Signal +1-650-488-7247