Greg Gopman stood near a homeless encampment in San Francisco on Monday afternoon that was just a few blocks away from the apartment he and his girlfriend rent at Fifth and Townsend streets. The people who lived there were packing their belongings into shopping carts, putting away their tents and even sweeping up the area.
One homeless man said city officials had just come by and told everyone to clear out.
“This is really sad. This has been here for months, at least,” Gopman said of the encampment breaking up. “It's great they have somewhere safe to sleep until we figure out something better for them.”
Such sentiment from Gopman might have been unimaginable two years ago. That's when the 31-year-old was buried under a mountain of scorn for bashing homeless San Franciscans in a post on his Facebook page. The backlash was immediate and overwhelming. But these days, Gopman says he is a different man — one who now advocates on behalf of homeless people.
The entrepreneur moved to San Francisco in 2011 with dreams of founding the next big tech startup. Within a few years, however, Gopman had become the symbol of what many saw as a toxic wave of change choking the real San Francisco — obnoxious and entitled tech workers moving to The City in droves, jacking up the cost of living and rents, displacing longtime residents and exposing a widening income inequality gap.
“At the time, I was selfishly focused on myself and my own company,” said Gopman, who was working as CEO of the company he co-founded, AngelHack. He is no longer with the company.
Gopman, who was raised in an affluent suburb in Florida, now calls himself a homeless advocate. He is drumming up attention for himself and telling everyone who will listen that he is no longer the blind, frustrated and angry youth of two years ago.
Yet the questions dog him. Is he being sincere? Is he only repairing his image so he can get a job? (Gopman said he has been unemployed for two years and his savings will dry up by year's end.) And who really cares about this guy and his reformation?
But Gopman is hard to ignore. For the past year, he said, he has studied San Francisco's long-standing homeless issue and undeniably is bringing new attention to it.
The sheer numbers of those living without homes in the streets has long been a focus of mayors and city officials, and the issue is further complicated by often becoming wrapped up in bitter politics. While Gopman was blasted for writing nasty comments about the homeless in a city that celebrates itself for being named after the selfless and compassionate St. Francis of Assisi, City Hall has passed laws that many view as anti-homeless. They include no sleeping overnight in parks and no sitting on sidewalks.
Gopman said people still approach him to say, “Dude, you didn't do anything wrong.” He said he tries to help them understand.
“It's not a tech industry thing. It's really a capitalism thing, probably,” Gopman said. “We are raised in America to try and be productive, efficient members. And if you don't learn about homelessness and you don't learn about the causes and you don't learn about the struggles of why people can't fight their way out … then you might have a different viewpoint.”
Today, Gopman is hosting a town-hall-style meeting “to end homelessness” in which he, with the help of Project Homeless Connect Executive Director Kara Zordel, assembled a panel of nonprofit leaders and supervisors Jane Kim and Mark Farrell. The event takes place at The Nourse at 275 Hayes St. from 6 to 9 p.m.
The model for the event is one the former AngelHack CEO thinks he can replicate for other causes in San Francisco. He has also been working on an app based on its premise: Assemble a committee that then votes on innovative initiatives to address a challenge, present those initiatives to a larger group of people and inspire them to get involved.
“The real innovation right now is that we are bringing everybody together and giving the community not only a voice to speak up about things but a way to empower them to join these new initiatives,” Gopman said.
A few weeks ago, Gopman and a friend interviewed homeless people living in encampments from The Embarcadero to Haight-Ashbury, creating a virtual-reality experience of which a portion will be shown at today's event. Gopman sees virtual reality as a way to create empathy, which he lacked.
“My view of the world ended with helping taking care of my friends, me, my family,” Gopman said. “My circles didn't go all the way to everyone. Now, they do.”
Gopman said he envisions that “one day, no matter what happens, if you fall into struggling times in San Francisco, there's a place for you to stay and be safe and get services.”
At the event, the initiatives discussed will be some of the newer ones that have gained attention for being innovative, such as Lava Mae, a nonprofit that turned old Muni buses into roving showers for homeless people. Another is HandUp, a nonprofit with a website that allows people to donate directly to a homeless person for such things as eyeglasses or dentures.
Gopman is most passionate about an initiative he plans to discuss: transitional villages.
Imagine a self-policing, temporary, low-cost housing site where 100 homeless people can have shelter. Basically, it's taking the community they form in encampments on the street and instead placing them in a more stable and humane situation where city services can also be offered.
He envisions one in every supervisorial district in The City.
“That is a big, bright answer that we have currently overlooked,” Gopman said.
The idea is modeled after Seattle's Camp Unity on the Eastside and the 27-acre Community First Village in Austin, Texas. Arondo Cox, a homeless man who lives at the Seattle camp, is being flown in for today's event.
“When I see people on the streets, I think that that is the only option they have,” Gopman said. “That is a reminder that there are [still] solutions that we need to figure out. [Living on the streets] shouldn't be the only option people have.”