Check your hoodie and your privilege at the door — an open letter to Justin Keller, re: your open letter about homelessness in SF

Hey there, buddy.

You’re gonna catch a lot of flak for this open letter to Mayor Ed Lee and Police Chief Greg Suhr, decrying your three recent interactions with homeless men in San Francisco, in addition to “countless times” your family was “approached for money and harassed.”

I must confess: When I came across your letter, it dredged up my own ugly stereotypes. I see your profession (start up founder), your age (30ish), your hair (gelled), race of yourself and your entire team (white), and your love of house music (…alright, brah). Instantly, I assume I know your whole life story: You get day-drunk in Dolores Park every Sunday, you Uber in lieu of public transportation, your industry’s notorious racism and sexism is poisoning the Bay Area’s work culture, and your techie ilk are driving the evictions that threaten San Francisco’s vibrant arts scene.

Resist these vicious clichés! I chided myself. The tech bros overtaking the streets of San Francisco have surely had their own struggles. (Plus, the Pope recommended we give up indifference for Lent, and I haven’t exactly been abstaining from Thin Mints.)

So, at the Holy Father’s urging, I checked out your blog. Amidst modest paragraphs about all the “lucrative offers at other bay area startups” you’ve declined, I read about your lifelong struggle with stuttering.

“I feel like I am at a disadvantage compared to all other founders when speaking.”

Here, Justin! Here, I know you are an actual person with an actual feeling! Welcome to humanity; we’re so happy to have you!

Now, I invite you to channel that frustration and multiply it by, oh, 10,000 (I’m sure you’re good at math). Consider extending the empathy you’re seeking from others.

What if, instead of a speech impediment, your lifelong struggle was with poverty, domestic violence, mental illness, or substance abuse? What if you lacked the supportive parents and relatives who travel cross-country to visit you?

You encountered the homeless gentlemen in places you clearly feel entitled to occupy (that one guy was “right in front of the restaurant”!), as part of San Francisco’s tech elite. Yet you mention you’ve been living in San Francisco for…wait? three years? Well, before you lay claim to this town, realize that 71% of homeless folks in San Francisco used to have homes here — and of those people, nearly half had been living in San Francisco for ten or more years.

Guided by empathy, we relative noobs (that’s what the kids are still saying, right?) to the Bay Area must examine our role in gentrification and help curb the displacement of local communities. We must educate ourselves about the homeless youth shelters and beloved community institutions shuttering because of astronomical rent. We must support grassroots efforts to keep local residents in their homes and neighborhoods.

So, the next time you declare you “shouldn’t have to see the pain, struggle, and despair of homeless people,” follow it up with “because no one should have to endure that in our beautiful city.”


Your friend from across the Bay

p.s. Looking for a place to get started with all my (awesome) recommendations? Begin by following Vanishing SF, Causa Justa/Just Cause, Mission Local, and 48 Hills. Volunteer or donate to wonderful places like Glide or St. Anthony’s.

Most importantly, since you believe “money and political pressure can make change,” raise your voice to advocate for affordable housing, substance abuse treatment, and mental health services. Help ensure San Francisco is a “special place” for all its residents (and your visiting mom and dad!)