Earlier this week Jesse Powell, CEO and cofounder of massive digital assets exchange Kraken, took to Twitter to complain about living in San Francisco. The theory itself—that workers would soon leave the Bay Area for places with a better quality of life—wasn’t unusual. It was the tweet’s rhetoric that was striking: Powell claimed that two of Kraken’s employees had been attacked by “crack zombies” and that “you can pay $3k/sqft for a condo but can’t stop people from literally shitting on your door.”
Though a few people responded critically, the majority of commenters to his poll appeared to agree, eagerly chiming in about “escaping zombies” and debating where he should move. The discussion gets at the heart of the often hostile relationship between tech companies and people experiencing homelessness in the rapidly gentrifying Bay Area—and what responsibility these companies have in working to address the crisis.
That battle has only intensified in the run up to the November 6 vote on Prop. C. If passed, the proposition would generate an estimated $250 million to $350 million per year via what’s known as a gross receipts tax. That money would go to services for the homeless—almost doubling the amount San Francisco currently spends—and would disproportionally affect financial tech companies in the city.
Many prominent tech company CEOs have come out against the proposition, including Jack Dorsey of Twitter and Square, who has donated $75,000 to No on C campaign, and Paul Graham of Y Combinator, who has donated $150,000. (In contrast, co-CEO and founder of Salesforce Marc Benioff has been a vocal advocate, donating millions to the Yes on C campaign.)
BREAKER reached out to Powell, who doubled down on his views about “crack zombies,” stating that “some people are too far gone.” He says that he has concerns about “throwing more money at the problem,” and foresees a mass exodus of tech workers from the city, where Kraken is based.
Why did you pick San Francisco for Kraken originally?
The original thinking was that this was just where there was a critical mass of people. So this was back in like 2011. There were very few people in the world interested in crypto, and it seemed like a good thing to have a good cluster of people that were interested in the space. Also, it was close to the venture capital and engineers, the people we would need to eventually [launch] the company.
What caused you to tweet that poll?
I follow the San Francisco subreddits, and I’m following a bunch of people who live in San Francisco on Twitter, and it seems like the pace of crazy things happening just keeps increasing. We’re opening up an office in Southern California pretty soon and there’s a bunch of people in San Francisco who are planning to move, so it’s also just kind of been a discussion in the office.
Anytime you go out on the street, it’s so saturated. Just right in the middle of downtown there will be like 20—it’s not even homeless people that are the problem—it’s like, I refer to them as “crack zombies” in my tweet. It’s really these people that are just completely out of their minds, screaming at you, defecating on the sidewalk, stomping by, just completely unaware or angry with their surroundings and they’re kind of unpredictable.
I can think of two incidents where one person was standing on the street, waiting for their food order to be ready and a person charged at them, shoved them to the ground, super-forcefully, and basically had to be scared off by some other bystanders, fortunately. The other incident was someone was physically grabbed, like in a bear hug, and managed to break away, and then the person was trying to grab their arm and bite it. Totally crazy stuff like that—somebody trying to bite your arm.
It’s just nuts, these people who have who knows what kind of sicknesses—definitely like crazy skin infections, like MRSA, who knows if they’ve got like HPV or what—but you see people shooting up all over the place. If you ever go through the Civic Center BART station, it’s like Mordor. It’s ridiculous. People are shooting up all over the place.
Would you personally ever consider moving out of the Bay Area?
For sure. I’m considering moving out of the city.
Is there any area that you think is especially welcoming to blockchain people right now?
There seems to be a critical mass forming in [Los Angeles’s] Silicon Beach area. There’s quite a few people in Vegas, quite a few people in Puerto Rico, which I’ve also looked at recently.
What do you make of Puerto Rico?
We ultimately decided against setting up an office in Puerto Rico just because when we went to visit we didn’t feel they had really recovered enough. But the tax incentives are extremely strong, so it’s definitely something that we’re keeping in mind.
What’s the response been to your poll on Twitter so far?
A lot of people are kind of fed up with San Francisco. The general sentiment seems to be “Policies have failed.” I said this in my response to [Civic founder] Vinny Lingham—basically what I’m seeing is the government wants to raise some new tax to pay for more cleanup or something. They’re spending like $100 million a year just cleaning up waste from campsites around the city and stuff, and when you do the math on that, it’s so ridiculous. They’re spending like $50,000 a year per homeless person just to clean up after them.
It’s actually around $4,000 per year [per person], not $40,000, which is a number that’s somehow circulating. But I’m curious: What’s your take on Prop. C?
I think there are some technical problems with it. Like the gross receipts thing, where some businesses have smaller margins, but they have a lot of revenue. I feel like this is just another Baid-Aid. They’re asking people to pay more, but it’s not clear what the outcomes will be or where it will end and who’s really going to be accountable.
There seem to be two dynamics at play. There’s this dynamic of people—maybe it’s the landowners of San Francisco—who just don’t want any new construction. They’re like, “People seem to still want to live here, and the more people who come in increase our property values, so screw new construction.” But then there’s the residents of the city, who have this culture of inclusion and tolerance and not discriminating against anybody. I think that makes it welcoming for people who are maybe homeless, looking for a friendly place to camp out. Like the police will have to be very sensitive to the way they interact with those people, out of fear of the residents feeling like they’ve gone too far, or they’re interfering with somebody’s freedom to exist.
"If you’re rich, why would you want to pay $3,000 a square foot for a condo and then come outside and the street is covered in feces and some guy’s trying to bite your face off?"
Do you think that should change?
I can move anytime, so it’s not that big of a deal to me. I think San Francisco just needs to decide. Not every city has to be for everybody. I think it’s OK to say, “It’s going to cost $10 million to have a house here. If you don’t have $10 million, sorry. Go live somewhere else.” I also think it’s fine to start building shitloads of housing and becoming the next Hong Kong or Tokyo.
So what type of person is San Francisco not for, then, right now?
I think it’s really not for anybody at this point. If you’re rich, why would you want to pay $3,000 a square foot for a condo and then come outside and the street is covered in feces and some guy’s trying to bite your face off? Or if you want to take your $3,000 to Malibu, your neighbors are movie stars and it’s beautiful oceans, beautiful weather. It’s clean; it’s safe. I think it’s not really for the rich, and I think for the poor, it’s obviously not for them either. People are spending like 80 percent of their income on rent to live there. It’s not sustainable.
Do you think that the tech community bears any responsibility for creating this situation?
I don’t know how they would be?
By driving up prices and making the city less affordable?
It’s not the tech industry. It’s a population influx with a mismatch on the supply side, right? It’s a supply-demand problem, if you see it as a problem. Real estate prices going up is not necessarily a problem.
Right, but obviously there’s been a huge influx of people in tech to San Francisco, which ends up increasing prices and making it impossible for people to afford to live there.
I don’t have the numbers to say “It’s tech,” or “It’s pharmaceuticals,” or “It’s legal.” However, I would guess that tech is probably going to be decreasingly responsible for the people there, given the increasing options for [remote] work in tech.
You mentioned that you don’t really know where the money from Prop. C is going to. What else can be done to address homelessness in San Francisco?
I think it’s ultimately a market problem. What is it that attracts all these people here? I don’t have the numbers, but I would love to know: Are people coming in, or how many of these people are new people coming in, versus how many are people who have been here for decades? Why are these people hanging out around [our office]? Why are there 20 homeless people per square foot? Is it that where people are giving them money? Is it that there’s enough tourists coming through who are suckers? Is it that the weather is so nice? Is it that there are services available to them, which will allow them to survive there and not hold them accountable to any kind of performance changes in their life? I don’t know, but there’s got to be something good about it for them.
So would you like to see some of those things change then?
Yeah, I don’t know what those things are, but somebody surely does. But I would hate to just pour more money into this system. Giving a bunch of cheap apartments to a bunch of crazed drug addicts, I don’t know if that’s going to help anybody.
"Some people are too far gone. Honestly, I kind of feel like they’re just waiting to die. I don’t feel like they’re going to ever be in a position where they’re going to be contributing value to society. And what you do with those people, I just don’t know."
Say you’re a crazed drug addict, and someone gave you like a free apartment. OK, awesome. Now maybe you’re not shooting up on the street, but you still have got to go get money somewhere. You’re not employable. So you’re going to be like wandering around the streets all day anyway, cracked out, trying to collect some money somehow, or steal something, or whatever you’ve got to do. So I don’t think it’s just a housing issue, although more housing would be great. [Editor’s note: Studies have shown that the “Housing First” methodology—providing chronically homeless people with permanent supportive housing with services, rather than first attempting drug treatment or treatment for mental illness—works well.]
Some people are too far gone. Honestly, I kind of feel like they’re just waiting to die. I don’t feel like they’re going to ever be in a position where they’re going to be contributing value to society. And what you do with those people, I just don’t know.
You use the expression “crack zombies” in your tweet, which is a pretty provocative term and a few of the responses to that were critical. Do you stand by that as a way to describe people?
Look, when people get to that state, they’re basically existing on the level of an animal and it’s like, you can’t blame a shark for biting you when you’re jumping in the water. You just shouldn’t be jumping in the water with sharks, right? And when we allow hungry sharks to swim around on Market Street, should we be upset with them when they randomly bite people? I think that’s the situation we’ve created, is that we’ve got these effectively wild animals. I mean peoples’ brains are fried, and they are not thinking at the level of human, a full person. So I don’t think of them as, like, people, with accountability and with rational thought.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I don’t have any of the answers. I think somebody’s going to have do a major study to find a data-driven possible answers, but I don’t like throwing more money at the problem. I think we need to look for solutions that are not as tax-intensive. Maybe that’s just doing things to actually reduce the amount of services available, in order to discourage more people from coming to San Francisco in the first place. I really don’t know. In the meantime, I think you’re going to see a lot of people move out.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Photo courtesy Jesse Powell.