Twitter tax break beneficiary Zendesk launches app to help the homeless

Mayor Ed Lee looks on as Zendesk CEO Mikkel Svane addresses reporters.

Mayor Ed Lee, Sup. Jane Kim, and representatives from tech firm Zendesk gathered at St. Anthony’s in the Tenderloin this morning to announce the launch of a new smartphone tool, Link-SF, to help homeless and low-income people access services. 

Zendesk is a customer-service software company located near Sixth and Market streets. It was the first tech company to move into mid-Market in 2011 and take advantage of the city's Central Market Payroll Tax Exclusion Zone (aka the “Twitter tax break”), a controversial bid to attract tech companies to an area that has historically had the city’s highest concentration of poverty.

Financially speaking, Zendesk is doing quite well. In 2012, it raised $60 million in new funding and hired 160 new employees. That same year, the city’s Central Market tax exclusion resulted in about $1.9 million in forgone revenues that the city would have otherwise collected from 14 companies that took advantage of the payroll-tax exclusion zone.

Zendesk has 350 San Francisco employees, and Public Affairs Director Tiffany Maleshefski told the Bay Guardian that the company has contributed a collective 1,400 hours of volunteer service to uphold the company’s end of a community benefit agreement deal with the city, a requirement for those receiving the local tax breaks.

Sup. Jane Kim praises Zendesk during a press conference at St. Anthony’s.

“Link-SF was part of the community benefit agreement,” Maleshefski confirmed. The smartphone app, designed for use by homeless and low-income people seeking services, provides data on food, shelter, medical, or employment assistance programs. “It’s empowering for the users,” Maleshefski said.

The users of this software, of course, will be people experiencing dire straits in San Francisco at a time when housing prices are sky-high and housing assistance for low-income people is at a minimum. Of all the kinds of services that exist to remedy the problem of being homeless, permanent housing ranks at the top of every list. But the daunting lack of affordable housing is San Francisco’s greatest challenge.

Zendesk software engineer Ken Nakagawa explained that a team of collaborators worked for months to try and understand the needs of poor San Franciscans and build an app to help them connect with services. According to a media advisory, 45 percent of people who utilize St. Anthony’s technology training program own smart phones.

While helping people to connect with services is a good step, tech companies could put more energy toward a long-term solution that would result in fewer people having to rely upon services for basic survival (many of these services, meanwhile, have diminished in recent years due to steep funding shortfalls).

Just after the press conference ended, homeless and low-income clients lined up for lunch outside St. Anthony’s, which serves roughly 2,500 meals every day to people in need. It was raining, and people had to wait outside in line since there were so many. Even though the dining room was packed full, Volunteer Coordinator Barbara Montagnoli said it was a relatively quiet day there since a lot of assistance funds had just been disbursed.

Thirty-three percent of homeless people interviewed for a study reported winding up homeless because they lost a job, and the people who are most likely to wind up homeless are those trying to subsist on less than $16,000 per year in San Francisco. (To illustrate the deep economic divide, a Zendesk software engineer living in the same city earns somewhere between $96,000 and $120,000 per year, a search on Glassdoor shows.)

The fact that tech companies want to be part of the solution is great. These deep-pocketed multinational companies have been criticized for their role in transforming the city in ways that are quite painful for many of its long-term residents, and it's encouraging to see members of the tech sector find ways to be engaged in the community.   

That said, there is a serious problem in San Francisco that's only getting worse due to a widening wealth gap and simmering affordability crisis  – and if it is going to be solved, those who set out to find solutions have to genuinely want to solve it, for the sake of restoring a general sense of health, fairness, and wellbeing to the city's less fortunate. If helping out only comes from a desire to look good in front of the cameras, the actions will be empty.