More than 100 spectators gathered at Manny’s in the Mission on Tuesday to witness in person a clash of worldviews on San Francisco’s homeless crisis that usually plays out on the web.
Adam Mesnick, the self-proclaimed “chairman of the board” and owner of Deli Board who runs the @bettersoma account on X (formerly known as Twitter), took the stage against Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, in a debate moderated by Manny Yekutiel, the venue’s eponymous owner.
Prior to the debate, Yekutiel cautioned attendees to engage one another with civility to create a safe environment in the space, adding that the debate was made possible by Mesnick, who reached out to propose the event.
The two key mouthpieces in San Francisco’s contentious discourse on homelessness exchanged barbs about how the city should address the crisis amid ongoing litigation that, until recently, prevented officials from clearing encampments.
Mesnick said he has become a homeless expert due to his personal experience as a business owner in the South of Market neighborhood.
“I have an opinion, and my opinion is based on my experiences,” he said, adding that he twice found people dead while walking his dog, first in 2019 and again this year. “If you can look at the situation on Seventh and Mission and you can look at me and honestly tell me that that’s humane, then I will give up. I will bow out, and I will leave. But I don't think it’s refutable. I don’t think my position can be debated.”
Mesnick, who uses his X account with 20,000-plus followers to post graphic pictures of people living on city streets in order to call for stricter policies on homelessness and drug use, defended his graphic posts as the reality of harm reduction in San Francisco.
“What you will see on @bettersoma are different characters and what I believe to be humanizing of homeless people,” Mesnick said.
Friedenbach said Mesnick’s posts dehumanized homeless people and those trying to solve the crisis.
“When we are taking photos, we have people sign a release,” she said. “We try to make sure the images are empowering and that they’re not going to end up hurting the people down the line. Images on social media stick with people for a long time, and that can really be damaging when they’re trying to get work.”
Hours before Tuesday’s debate, San Francisco Mayor London Breed proposed legislation that would require people with substance-use disorders to seek treatment to qualify for cash assistance from the city. Those who fail an addiction screening would no longer receive financial support from the city unless they enroll in treatment.
Both Mesnick and Friedenbach exchanged ideas on when authorities should intervene in mental health and substance-abuse situations.
“I think we need medical professionals to screen these people and figure out what their real needs are,” Mesnick said. “I think if someone overdoses on public property in the street, they should be at least required to go to the hospital.”
“We are not opposed to conservatorship,” Friedenbach said. “If someone is harming themselves and a harm to others, that may or may not be a permanent situation.”
During one of her answers, Friedenbach admonished some of the attendees who began to scoff.
“I know this stuff is really difficult, y’all, and I feel your frustration, and I feel your pain. I also think that a lot of these kind of reactionary responses to things end up actually being counterproductive," she said. "They don’t actually lead to the results that you think they’re going to lead to."
Joel Umanzor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org