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.


is actually helping to address SF's social and housing problems as well as halving the unemployment rate, boosting tax revenues and helping to improve the mid-Market neighborhood?


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Posted by 家庭自種 on Jul. 01, 2014 @ 5:16 am

A few tech gurus becoming billionaires does not make the rest of us poorer. In fact, in many cases, it provides us with opportunities to become wealthier ourselves.

Blaming the rich for the existence of some poor people is really missing the point. If those billionaires all moved to Switzerland, we'd still have the same poor folks, and they would probably be even poorer as a result.

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through their peers, networks and helpers already know where most services are located, will hop right on their smart phones to take advantage of this app. Or maybe they'll have to "borrow" yours or mine since they don't have one.

A good intentioned waste of money. How about these companies pay their fair share and their local government enablers stop instituting gentrifying policies that lead to evictions and more homelessness?

Public policy by public relations is mostly useless.

And off the subject, don't mess with a sleeping bear especially if you are a paper tiger.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 28, 2014 @ 5:12 pm

all the evidence is that that just attracts more of them?

Posted by Guest on Feb. 28, 2014 @ 6:44 pm

Guest at 5:12: totally agree. If these companies want to help the homeless they should donate to a food shelter. Instead of creating some stupid app, maybe they should volunteer in the real world. The world's problems aren't going to be solved by apps.

And if this is referring to what I think it is...
"And off the subject, don't mess with a sleeping bear especially if you are a paper tiger. "

Then hell yes! Well put indeed.

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Posted by on Jul. 01, 2014 @ 4:29 am

I keep hearing that these companies should "pay their fair share." What is fair? And, why are they not being credited with what has been an improvement in the quality of life in the Mid-Market area after decades of decline.

These companies pay federal income taxes, state income taxes, sales taxes, real property taxes (even if they lease, most commercial lease agreements pass the taxes on to the tenants), business property taxes, employer's share of Social Security taxes, and various fees, etc. What they are getting is a PARTIAL city payroll tax exemption--they still pay taxes to SF.

The City and County of San Francisco despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars in the Mid-Market area just in the last 20 years alone, including along the infamous stretch of 6th Street (well over $100 million dollars just on 6th Street), has failed to improve the quality of life for residents in the area, and not just in the past 20 years, put in the past 60 years of failed redevelopment schemes (the area began its slow and long decline in the mid-1950's during the suburban boom). So, the city decided to give a tax break to companies (and they didn't have to be tech companies) if they would relocate to the area, and finally, for the first time in decades the neighborhood is beginning to show signs of turning around.

Yes, gentrification is occuring in SF, and it has been occuring at a rapid clip since long before I first moved to the City nearly 20 years ago. Pretending that a few companies are the sole or even primary reason for gentrification in SF is delusional thinking.

I am tired of people pitching a b***ch, but offering no solutions--it's always that someone else or some company or organization should do more and never what they can do to help out. One thing I do, among many other things, is volunteer from 10-20 hours a month at a local not-for-profit in the Excelsior neighborhood that provides supportive housing to low to zero income women in recovery. This is just one example of a direct way to help the homeless and low-income individuals in the City. Stop complaining about a fairly minor tax break in the scheme of things, which does seem to be showing some positive results (and would SF be better off if these companies took their jobs and taxes they pay down the Peninsula? No) and start doing things to effect the change you would like to see.

Posted by Chris Brown (Resident of Mid-Market Since Before Twitter) on Feb. 28, 2014 @ 8:51 pm

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 Feb. 28, 2014 @ 10:03 pm

"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."


Posted by Guest on Feb. 28, 2014 @ 10:59 pm

what they do. A car manufacturer would presumably offer vehicles and a food company would offer food.

It's not complicated.

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Posted by on Jun. 30, 2014 @ 6:38 pm

You appear to want to tell people what to volunteer. That's not how it works, obviously.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 01, 2014 @ 7:47 am

I said "should".

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

That's for them to decide and you to appreciate.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 01, 2014 @ 8:13 am

meglomaniac with unresolved guilt feelings about his lack of volunteering. Take a chill pill or pop a blood vessel, what do I care.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 01, 2014 @ 8:25 am

that whatever it is I do about volunteering is not something you get to use the word "should" about.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 01, 2014 @ 8:45 am

"Should" is a suggestive word. You have problems.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 01, 2014 @ 8:51 am

That's an equally valid use of the word "should".

Posted by Guest on Mar. 01, 2014 @ 9:36 am

took the word "should" to mean this: "You appear to want to tell people what to volunteer."

Fuck dude, I share my mostly innocuous suggestion that people should volunteer in their communities. I'm not for compelling people to do so. And you go on a fucking crusade against my commentary, sticking your nose into a discussion for no other reasons than to pick a fight and fill your time.

Do you resent people that help out others? Most people don't like to be told what to do, I agree. And no one is telling you that you have to volunteer. So what's the big deal?

People like you (and maybe you) say the government shouldn't help the poor, that's the role of church and civic volunteerism. Then when someone like me agrees that people SHOULD volunteer, you blow a fucking online gasket and launch ridiculous points and personal attacks.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 01, 2014 @ 9:59 am

You don't get to tell people what they should volunteer for, nor when, nor where, nor how. You only get to decide that for yourself.

You might as well people what you think they should eat, or what kind of car they should drive. None of your beeswax, I will volunteer how I want.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 01, 2014 @ 10:30 am

you accuse. Try a course in reading comprehension.

You attacked me for writing that everybody should volunteer and twisted it in your mind that I was dictating how, what, where people should choose to volunteer. So we agree, and you just like to fight and subvert reasonable discussion for reasons I can only guess.

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also engage in the studious-failure-to-understand without those tell-tale preambles.

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