For years, San Francisco deli owner and community advocate Adam Mesnick has been demanding a public debate with Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness. Mesnick’s home and business are located in the city’s beleaguered South of Market (SoMa) neighborhood, and he runs an X account, @bettersoma, to call attention to the city’s humanitarian crisis and document the encampments and sickness, blight and criminal activity, garbage and human waste—and most importantly, the thousands of deaths, overwhelmingly due to drug overdose.
Friedenbach and her organization have been a contentious force in the city for more than 25 years. Since its inception, the so-called homeless problem in San Francisco has steadily worsened. Through several changes of mayoral administration, she and the Coalition on Homelessness have influenced major decisions about how the city deals with the street population.
But now it seems that the Coalition has overplayed its hand. Along with the ACLU, the Coalition sued the City of San Francisco for cleaning up homeless encampments. Calling the efforts “sweeps,” the organization accused the city of failing to offer housing to people living on the street and throwing away their possessions.
San Franciscans were infuriated by the lawsuit. On August 23, 2023, a large crowd gathered outside the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to protest the injunction stemming from the case, which made it almost impossible for the city to clear tents from public spaces.
Adam Mesnick used the moment to issue another challenge, this time in front of the teeming crowd. “Debate me, Jenny,” he said. “Debate me!” This time, she agreed.
The event was held at Manny’s, a cafe and community discussion space in the Mission District on September 26. Many wondered whether Friedenbach would show up. She would have to face Mesnick, who enjoys a substantial following among local residents and business owners fed up with city conditions and with the Coalition’s role in causing them.
But Friedenbach did not cancel, walking into Manny’s approximately 45 minutes before the event. I approached her, requesting an interview. My questions were neutral. “What do you hope to gain from tonight?” “Why did you accept the challenge?” She declined to answer, citing fear of “misinformation,” though she invited me to communicate with her via email.
Mesnick, on the other hand, sat with me for a few minutes. I asked him the same questions. His response: “I want to ask her how she can claim success. What is victory? It’s inhumane to allow people to live on the streets, whether in a tent or on a sidewalk. These people need doctors. They have rotting flesh, broken limbs, bent and curved backs. I’m on a quest for knowledge. I was forced to learn about fentanyl, dead people. I expect logic, so my neighbors can live in harmony. What’s going on now is simply a massacre.”
The event sold out the same day it was announced. Both sides have passionate supporters. Media were present, and tension was tight in the packed room.
Friedenbach sat with an armload of notes and drew upon vast public-speaking experience. She displayed a politician’s smoothness, over-explaining even as she avoided direct answers. Mesnick was light on notes, having instead prepared with information gleaned from experience and years of frustration. Here, finally, was his opportunity to describe the devastation he witnesses daily and to confront a person whom many say bears a large share of responsibility for it.
Friedenbach said that she understands people’s frustration and is seeking “evidence-based” solutions. Mesnick wants to stop seeing dead bodies. Two of his best friends are homeless, he said, for whom he cares and provides meals.
Friedenbach said that the Coalition on Homelessness sometimes tells the city what to do. “Well, not really telling,” she quickly clarified. “Suggesting.” It was an extraordinary admission.
At one point, Mesnick asked her: “Will you make a pledge that you won’t give out any more tents?” Friedenbach appeared confused, explaining that the Coalition doesn’t distribute tents, and then, when the crowd expressed disbelief, backtracked and said that it did once, during the pandemic and at the request of the city’s health department. Mesnick pressed for a definitive answer on whether the Coalition will hand out tents to people arriving in San Francisco in the future. Friedenbach would not give a straight answer, but her evasions are belied by the evidence.
The debate eventually covered mental health, police response, conservatorship, photographing homeless people, harm reduction, lack of toilets, how to deal with addiction, and the impact that people living on the street have on the community at large—a range of issues too broad to be comprehensively treated in one evening.
Nevertheless, the debate suggested a different path for San Francisco. We’re in a battle between the establishment and the upstarts. Friedenbach and her organization have been in power for so long that they can’t distance themselves from responsibility for current conditions. Mesnick numbers among the rapidly growing group of people taking on the establishment. They’re ready to fight and don’t mind the (rhetorical) bloody knuckles.
When the moderator asked the two debaters what they could agree on, Mesnick said that he wants the city to establish MASH-style tents—Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals, like those located on the frontlines of war to provide immediate care for people wounded in battle. San Francisco has plenty of sick and dying people, with more arriving every day. Friedenbach said that she, too, believes homeless people should have a place to go, citing the need for “wellness hubs” that include drug-use areas. Mesnick vehemently disagreed. Such spaces should be staffed by only by real doctors, he said, and allow people to reconnect with their families; they should not be spaces to consume fentanyl and other drugs. At that point, the moderator appeared to give up in his quest to find common ground.
But the audience, inside the room and well beyond, was listening. And the city is reacting. On the same morning as the debate, Mayor London Breed announced that, despite the wishes of Friedenbach and her Coalition on Homelessness, San Francisco will resume encampment clearing when people inside the tents refuse offers of shelter.
Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images