As he floated the idea of buying Twitter in early April, Musk posted a poll on his account asking followers whether he should: “Convert Twitter SF HQ to homeless shelter since no one shows up anyway”. His plan won at least one admirer – Amazon CEO and rich list rival Jeff Bezos spoke about (sort of) doing the same at his firm’s Seattle base.
A couple of weeks later, the Tesla CEO was at it again, this time pointing out his own homelessness status in an interview with TED. “I don’t even own a place right now, I’m literally staying at friends’ places,” said Musk, speaking at Tesla’s new Texas Gigafactory. When he’s in the San Francisco Bay Area, the yachtless, homeless billionaire “rotates through friends’ spare bedrooms”.
This has been the case for the last two years. Musk tweeted in May 2020: “I am selling almost all physical possessions. Will own no house.” He flogged the last of his mansions last June.
While perhaps not the stereotypical image of your average sofa surfer, perhaps Musk has already done plenty to raise awareness of hidden homelessness.
But with an estimated fortune of $259bn (£203bn) he could do a lot more.
Having said that, with record house prices rises in both the UK and the USA – up 11 per cent in a year to an average of £282,753 in the former and 15 per cent to a median of $375,300 in the latter – perhaps you’ll soon need Musk money to get on the housing ladder. Regardless, the fact remains that Musk could provide vital funds to tackle homelessness in both countries.
The Joe Biden administration’s $170bn (£130bn) commitment to affordable housing and homelessness would take a chunk of Musk’s fortune but he could turbocharge efforts into a new stratosphere.
As for the UK, increasing spending on homelessness and housing would be mere pocket change for Musk. The £640m a year homelessness funding from the Westminster government could be increased in a heartbeat while he could also pick up the £11bn tab spent set aside for affordable housing up to 2026. Add in Scotland and Wales’ spending £50m and £30m on homelessness over five years as well as each country’s spending on affordable housing – £831m for Scotland and £310m for Wales – and Musk’s coffers have it covered.
Globally the UN estimates 1.6bn people worldwide live in inadequate housing conditions and while there is no estimate on how much it would cost to put that right, Musk’s billions could certainly make a bigger impact than on helping Twitter reach its “full potential”.
Could Elon Musk end world hunger?
Musk has also spoken up about ending world hunger in recent months.
The world’s richest man has been involved in a war of words over this issue after David Beasley, the director of the United Nations’ World Food Programme, told CNN that it would not be complicated for Musk to tackle hunger.
He said: “$6billion to help 42 million people that are literally going to die if we don’t reach them. It’s not complicated.”
Beasley argued that it would take a one-off donation of just two per cent of Musk’s $289bn pre-Twitter purchase fortune to make the difference and a seventh of the money he’s just shelled out on the social media platform.
Musk wasn’t so sure. He challenged the UN to show its working and present him with a plan to solve world hunger, promising to sell the Tesla stock to do it.
Beasley responded with a plan. For $6.6bn, the UN would deploy meals and vouchers to feed more than 40 million people in 43 countries that are on the brink of famine. That money would see $3.5bn to directly providing food as well as $2bn for food vouchers and cash to help people buy meals. A further $700m would go on managing new programmes to ensure the food reaches the people who need it while $400m would be spent on “operations management, administration and accountability”, according to the UN report.
Interestingly enough, Musk did give $5.74bn (£4.5bn) of Tesla shares to charity last year. So perhaps his Twitter purchase might not rule out efforts to tackle hunger across the globe.
However, it remains to be seen whether $6bn is enough to do the job. Meanwhile, Covid could make his task more difficult – with the cost of living crisis starting to drive up food poverty in developed nations.
In his recent TED interview, he took a more optimistic view. He said: “I’m not one of the doomsday people, which may surprise you. I actually think we’re on a good path. But at the same time I want to caution against complacency.
“So long as we are not complacent and as long as we have a high sense of urgency about moving towards a sustainable energy economy then I think things will be fine.”
The Tesla CEO went on to highlight the need for sustainable energy generation, battery production and electric transport – all areas he is involved in through Tesla. In texts between himself and Bill Gates, leaked to the NY Times in the last week, Musk said the firm was “the company doing the most to solve climate change”.
While that may or may not be true, even Musk doesn’t have deep enough pockets to single-handedly assure temperatures do not increase beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050 – the global target set by scientists to limit the impact of global warming.
The UN Environment Programme estimated that adapting to climate impacts could cost up to $300bn per year by 2030. That would take up Musk’s entire fortune and soon be dwarfed – by 2050 the costs could be $500bn.
Musk might make a big difference at Tesla, but even he can’t pay for the deep structural and widespread changes needed to tackle climate change.
If you can't visit your local vendor on a regular basis, then the next best way to support them is with a subscription to the Big Issue. As a social enterprise, we invest every penny we make back into the organisation. That means that with every subscription, we are supporting people in poverty to get back on their own two feet.