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High-profile debate on San Francisco homeless encampments packs Mission District venue

Debate on San Francisco homelessness issue held between business owner and activist
Debate on San Francisco homelessness issue held between business owner and activist 03:35

Two high-profile figures in the contentious debate over San Francisco's homeless crisis drew a full house at the civic and community space Manny's in the city's Mission District Tuesday evening. A local business owner and a prominent homeless advocate usually would trade blows and take a lot of heat for their vocal views online. 

Deli Board owner Adam Mesnick, who runs the X account @bettersoma, said he became an expert on homelessness through his personal experience in the city's South of Market district.

"I have found two dead bodies, one in 2023, one in 2019, both walking my dog outside of my home," Mesnick said. "If you've seen the conditions on 7th and Mission and you can look at me and honestly tell me that that's humane, then I will give up." 

Mesnick approached Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director for the Coalition on Homelessness for a public debate. The non-profit is suing the city, arguing that it had violated the law by clearing homeless encampments without offering shelter. There is a temporary limit on sweeps of unhoused people. This week, the city received court guidance that would allow them to clear certain encampments if individuals refuse shelter. 

"What we have to do to have a functioning homeless system, one of the first things we have to do, is we have to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place. Last year in San Francisco for every one person that we got off, we had five more people becoming homeless," said Friedenbach. 

Mesnick believes the city needs a tougher, more aggressive approach to handling open-air drug use, mental illness and homelessness,  

"We need medical professionals to actually screen these people and figure out what their real needs are," said Mesnick. "One thing that I have a real issue with and I'm going to say it out loud, how in the world do you ask a fentanyl addict, in a tent, high, if they want services. You have to give these people a time to decompress a little bit, give them an opportunity to take a shower, give them hope." 

Venue owner Manny Yekutiel gave Friedenbach an opportunity to respond to why she called Mesnick, who often posts grim street scenes, toxic.

"I think the quote was, I think he's well-intentioned, but his messaging is often toxic," she responded. "I think that what is happening in a lot of the debate is we're dehumanizing folks."

Mesnick said the city needs to make San Francisco less attractive to drug users and homeless people. 

"It's crazy. I just saw a kid yesterday, I asked him how long he's been here. He said three days, he came from New Hampshire," he said. "People come here, it's the cheapest fentanyl on the planet. It's the easiest place to sustain on the bottom with zero consequences." 

Friedenbach said the city needs to appropriately match people with the right services. 

"Pushing people from block to block doesn't really [work], that's what we have been doing," she said. "You give someone a citation or you give them an arrest, they're back in the same situation, they're worse off because maybe you threw away all their stuff and they lost their paperwork." 

Both agreed the dignity of people on the street is important, though they differ on how to best uphold it.

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