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Marc Benioff hopes to dent America’s homeless crisis with $30M research project

Marc Benioff hopes to dent America’s homeless crisis with $30M research project
[Photo: John Medina/Getty Images for New York Times]

Salesforce chairman and co-CEO Marc Benioff has dedicated a lot of energy, and money, to the homeless crisis in his hometown of San Francisco. In 2018, he poured $2 million into the Proposition C ballot initiative campaign for a new business tax that promises to raise around a quarter billion dollars per year for housing and homeless assistance. (It passed, but has been tied up in the courts.)

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Today, he and his wife, Lynne Benioff, have pledged $30 million to create a new program at the University of California San Francisco focused on studying causes of and possible solutions to homelessness across the country. (This comes on top of about $30 million donated to other housing projects, such as $6.1 million last November to lease a renovated hotel.)

It’s a common joke in public policy to say something like: What this urgent problem really needs is … another study. And at least some aspects of the homeless crisis in San Francisco and other U.S. cities are obvious. The rent is too damn high–due to an influx of well-off people bidding off constrained housing stock. Growing income inequality exacerbates the problem.

“We know for sure that the solution to this crisis is going to involve a massive investment in deeply affordable housing or subsidized housing. We don’t need to do research on that,” says Margot Kushel, director of UCSF’s Center for Vulnerable Populations, and now also director of its Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative.

But details of solutions are still foggy, she says. Rent subsidies can keep people from falling into homelessness in the first place, for instance; but it’s not obvious which people are most at risk and the best candidates for aid.

There’s also more need to understand subsets of homeless people, says Sam Lew, policy director at the nonprofit Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco. (The Coalition is unaffiliated with the Benioff Initiative. Lew learned of it the same day I did–yesterday.) “We have very little data on undocumented [immigrants] who are homeless or LGBTQ-identifying people who are homeless, or other marginalized populations,” says Lew. (There’s now a generational split, too, says Kushel, between homeless people in their 30s and 40s and a new elderly contingent.)

The coalition is preparing its own research project, together with San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley, to survey the shelter, mental health, and substance abuse treatment systems used by the homeless and those at risk of homelessness.

But Lew knows and values Kushel’s work, such as research showing that homeless people in their 50s have health problems like the general population in their 70s and 80s. Data like that bolster the case for better assistance programs and funding, says Lew.

Making information more accessible is a goal for the Benioff Initiative, says Kushel. That can be a combination of conducting new research, evaluating other research, and presenting data in a user-friendly way for the public, journalists, politicians, and program managers. The goal, she says, is that, “when they act, they can act with confidence, and they can make sure they’re spending the money the best way possible.”

There are reasons for optimism already. “Of the [homeless] people who get engaged with permanent supportive housing, about 85% stay housed long term,” says Kushel. But that statistic raises new questions. How many people never make it into those support programs in the first place, and why? And of those who do get help, “How about the other 15%?” says Kushel “What do we need to do to get them to safety?”

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