Twitter tax break beneficiary Zendesk launches app to help the homeless

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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.

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I will respond to your remark, even though it does not really address my comment:

I have volunteered at GLIDE and Hamilton Center soup kitchens and I have seen homeless and low-income individuals come in for meals who do have smart phones. You don't have to have to spend $500 on a phone to run an app these days. That said, if the company's resources could have been put to better use, then shame on the city, community groups and not-for-profits for not speaking up about what would be a better use of the employee's time. Obviously, the company is not purposefully devoting thousands of hours of time that could have gone instead to make money for the company on something that serves no purpose. Apparently, the company got input that this app would serve a useful purpose.

Now back to my original comment. I don't see how a partial tax exemption means a company is not paying its "fair share." The neighborhood is improving, I live smack in the heart of Mid-Market, and I venture to guess you and most people posting here do not. San Francisco has spent hundreds of millions of dollars throwing money at the neighborhood in just the last 20 years alone so obviously just directing public funding to the neighborhood, though perhaps helpful in keeping it from being completely abandoned, is not the sole solution. Having successful businesses and lots of new employees come to the neighborhood has had a ripple effect and encouraged more investment (restaurants and stores have followed), encouraged people to move to the neighborhood, motivated current residents to take pride in the neighborhood and work to improve it, etc. Whether Zen Desk's app is the best thing or not is not really the issue.

How does all this bitching and backbiting serve any purpose, except to contribute to a toxic atmosphere in the city? It would be better if everyone who spends countless hours (and when I scroll down and see the same names, or people writing in the same style under "guest" and just repeating the same thing, I think "My God, get a life!") posting nasty comments and endless critcisms of just about everything instead took all that time, energy and passion and directed it to volunteering or something useful. It is one thing to post a comment here and there, but the SFBG forums just devolve into nasty and silly arguments between people who don't know each other that drag on over weeks. And no one persuades anyone of anything, but I guess they feel better from trading insults.

In other words, instead of arguing about these issues, get out and DO something about them.

Posted by Chris Brown on Mar. 01, 2014 @ 11:32 am

I'm not mocking your volunteerism. I just disagree about the payroll tax break. Those tax revenues would be more useful to address social problems than the redundant, inaccessible app that Zendesk rolled out as part of a public relations campaign.

I agree about the quality of the comments here and elsewhere. I mostly stay away. I have volunteered feeding poor and homeless people for a long time and wanted to share my experience with regard to people who use such services and their lack of smart phones.

I should have anticipated that my comments would attract the negative energy from people who would rather attack volunteerism than do something about pressing issues.

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Posted by Guest on Feb. 28, 2014 @ 5:26 pm

I think that the SFBG will say something about the Google donation.

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Posted by Guest on Feb. 28, 2014 @ 6:18 pm

"One of the largest private contributions for city services in San Francisco history" sure ruins the SFBG narrative.

Do you think they'll discuss how there were only 2 Ellis Act filings (4 units) in January? Doesn't sound like an epidemic to me.

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Posted by Guest on Mar. 01, 2014 @ 7:48 am

Clearly members of the Lee Cult are becoming more and more agitated and annoyed that the SFBG does not have its head firmly planted up their savior Lee's upper colon, like the Lee Cult-bots do.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 01, 2014 @ 1:14 am
Posted by Guest on Mar. 02, 2014 @ 7:13 am

It's nice that Zendesk isn't sitting back and doing a Greg Gopman regarding homeless and low-income people. But do the people expected to be helped by Link-SF actually have smartphones in large enough numbers to make the tool useful? Or are they too busy, you know, worrying about where they're going to sleep tonight or what they can afford to eat?

Posted by Peter on Feb. 28, 2014 @ 5:31 pm

Well if you read the article you'll see that 45% of the people in the St Anthony technology program have a smart phone, so that's a start.

But realistically, Zendesk can't do much more right now. Rebecca's statement that 'financially the company is doing quite well' because they raised $60 million is a non sequitur. They aren't a public company so nobody knows how they are doing but they most likely are not making a profit. And they can't give any significant chunk of the $60 million away without opening themselves up to claims of a fiduciary breach by the investors (who didn't provide funds so that Zendesk can give them away).

Posted by Guest on Feb. 28, 2014 @ 6:50 pm

>>>Well if you read the article you'll see that 45% of the people in the St Anthony technology program have a smart phone, so that's a start.<<<

And you believe that? Why?

That's according to a "media advisory." WTF does that mean?

I don't believe that 45 percent stuff. I've never seen a homeless person with a gadget. If this "media advisory" (whatever that is or means) is anything like the useless corporate media in the US with their agenda---where gadgets are heavily promoted in corporate ads to encourage the gadget addiction to help make more $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$ for these corporations---then that "media advisory" has no credibility whatsoever.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 28, 2014 @ 11:22 pm

OK, my bad. I read that 45% of the people seeking help in a technology program had cell phones and believed it.

But now you say that you've never seen a homeless person with a gadget which proves, beyond any possible doubt, that the above statistic is wrong. Of course.

Really, I apologize for believing the statistic when you had such powerful knowledge proving that it was wrong.

Moron.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 01, 2014 @ 12:29 am

You missed my point entirely and even added things that I didn't say.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 01, 2014 @ 12:47 am

Maybe you missed this comment up the page from someone else:

"I volunteer as well. Everybody should. The fact that Zendesk thinks an smartphone app is an efficient use of its resources to address our shocking social problems shows them to be out of touch with the problems and concerns of poor and homeless people.

In all my years serving food in San Francisco, I have rarely seen anyone eating using a smart phone because they don't have them.

And people know or quickly learn where the resources are the old fashioned way, word of mouth from their friends and cohorts, so the app is both redundant and inaccessible for its intended audience."

Posted by Guest on Mar. 01, 2014 @ 12:56 am

I have helped feed poor and homeless people on the street for years and can't remember someone partaking at these sharings using a smart phone.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 01, 2014 @ 7:48 am

I'm sure the average homeless person knows how to get hold of a stolen phone for very little money.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 01, 2014 @ 8:11 am

poor and homeless people stealing phones in order to access this app?

Posted by Guest on Mar. 01, 2014 @ 8:48 am

If you think crime isn't endemic in the homeless community then you are naive.

Why do you think the cops go to those SRO's in the first place?

Posted by Guest on Mar. 01, 2014 @ 8:53 am

to sell for some extra cash.

I shared my experience with poor and homeless people on the street. You are arguing pointlessly and ineffectively.

Me: Street people don't have smart phones to access this Zendesk app.
You: They can buy stolen ones for cheap.
Me: So it's okay to steal phones in order to use the app?
You: (Subject changing irrelevancy) Crime is endemic among the homeless. (Personal attack) You are naive.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 01, 2014 @ 9:08 am

Sounds like it's the "voluntary" part.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 01, 2014 @ 9:37 am

Hey Rebecca--

Did you miss the story about how Google is paying for all of SF's low-income youth Muni passes? Since you and the many other SFBG bloggers are obsessed wih Google and their buses, you'd be interested in covering a story like that. I figured you might even present it as some sort of victory you contributed to. I guess it either 1) doesn't fit your narrative of Google being a company hell-bent on using corporate profits exclusively for gentrification and displacement of the poor so you're choosing to ignore it and/or 2) it's taking you a while to process this mind-blowing development.

Looking forward to your take on this.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 28, 2014 @ 6:55 pm

We're supposed to celebrate parasitic and state-surveillance Google just because of their PR stunt of donating $6.8 million to fund the Free Muni for Low Income Youth pilot program for another two years? Phew!

$6.8 million is nothing to Google. They have billions. They could afford to build their own cities and you're jumping up and down over this piddly little thing? Corporate Sucker.

More corporate BS. A public relations stunt.

Only a Corporate-Ass-Eating Sucker (such as yourself) would celebrate that.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 28, 2014 @ 7:23 pm

>"$6.8 million is nothing to Google. They have billions. They could afford to build their own cities and you're jumping up and down over this piddly little thing? Corporate Sucker."

Not a lot to Google but it is a lot to Muni -- the biggest public sector donation they've ever received. And it is a lot to the low income families who just had the free Muni paid for two years.

So luckily there are a lot of adults in the room, like Ed Lee, who can work with companies like Google as opposed to people who foam at the mouth and shout obscenities because they don't understand the dynamics of the situation. Like you.

Or I suppose that you have a plan to get $6.8 million other than "We should just take it because they're so f*cking rich!"

Posted by Guest on Feb. 28, 2014 @ 7:39 pm

Your savior Lee---I've heard that you refer to him as "Your Worship" at weekly services---works for his corporate owners and only them. Period. One of them being Google. Another is Twitter, and the other techie corporations ruining this city.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 28, 2014 @ 10:51 pm

He's just a popular, pragmatic, effective can-do mayor.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 01, 2014 @ 4:28 pm

Have you never heard of a thesaurus? Come up with something other than that shit. You've spammed that Orwellian newspeak drivel about your savior Lee on this site countless times. It's your equivalent of The Nicene Creed.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 01, 2014 @ 7:55 pm

minority opinion that he's a popular, pragmatic mayor.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 02, 2014 @ 7:11 am

And you've spammed that crap about the "cult of Lee" on this site dozens of times. People throwing stones, glass houses, and all that. Tard.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 02, 2014 @ 12:11 pm

When the trolls have nothing else to say, they simply resort to lame and childish personal attacks.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 03, 2014 @ 10:13 am

Only trolls are obsessed with talking about trolling

Posted by Guest on Mar. 03, 2014 @ 10:56 am

Only the trolls are obsessed with Lili. Give it a rest already.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 03, 2014 @ 12:52 pm

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