The San Francisco Homeless Crisis: What Has Gone Wrong?

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By Wes Enzinna

Why Progressives Ruin Cities
By Michael Shellenberger

This investigation into the causes and costs of San Francisco’s homelessness crisis, written by the journalist-turned-culture-warrior Michael Shellenberger, gets one important thing right: The city’s progressive leadership has proved totally incapable of ending the huge spectacle and tragedy in the streets. Today in the City by the Bay, one of every 100 residents is homeless, and between 2005 and 2020, the number of people sleeping on the streets or in tents nearly doubled, even as the number of unhoused people elsewhere in America declined. Of the city’s estimated 8,124 people who are currently unhoused, a full 73 percent are “unsheltered” — meaning they sleep out of doors, in tents, under highway overpasses. (In New York City, by comparison, just 3 percent are unsheltered.) Across the Bay, in Alameda County, which includes Oakland and Berkeley, the situation is by some measures even worse — homelessness has nearly doubled in the last five years. “There’s a cruelty here that I don’t think I’ve seen,” the United Nations’ special rapporteur remarked on a visit in 2018, “and I’ve done outreach on every continent.”

Shellenberger promises in “San Fransicko” to explain how things got this way and how we might solve them. This, he argues, means blaming progressives and Democrats, who are in control at every level of city and state government. “How and why,” he wonders, “do progressives ruin cities?”

He’s right that there’s too little candid discussion about the seeming contradictions between the good intentions and dubious outcomes of Bay Area policies. San Francisco, which allocated $1.25 billion for homelessness and related services from 2018 to 2021, spends more per resident than Los Angeles or New York City, but a failure of clear leadership and planning, and ineffective nonprofit management, has led to tremendous waste. Last year, for example, city officials turned Civic Center Plaza into a “safe sleeping site,” installing tents for 262 unhoused people. Each tent cost the city $61,000, 2.5 times the median annual rent for a one-bedroom apartment.

Unfortunately, Shellenberger isn’t really interested in having a nuanced debate about failed policies. His ultimate goal is more ambitious: He wants to redefine homelessness as a problem caused not by poverty or lack of housing but as one caused by addiction, mental illness and “disaffiliation,” by which he means “choice.” Claiming that the homeless choose to live on the streets is an old conservative cliché, but Shellenberger injects it with new life by blaming the “pathological altruism” of woke progressive culture. “One word, ‘homeless,’ entails an entire, insidious discourse that acts unconsciously and subliminally on our hearts and minds,” he writes, “rendering us unable to understand the reality before us.”

The facts, however, don’t support his argument. According to experts, as many as 30-40 percent of San Francisco’s unhoused may suffer from some form of mental illness, but addiction and mental illness are often the result of homelessness, or are greatly exacerbated by the stress of living on the streets, not its root cause. When asked to self-report in a city survey, 25 percent of unhoused respondents cited job loss as the primary cause of their homelessness, 18 percent cited substance abuse and 13 percent eviction; only 8 percent listed mental illness. What’s more, conceiving of homelessness as a problem caused primarily by addiction and mental illness is even less useful when trying to explain what is new about the crisis — that is, why it has gotten so much worse in the Bay Area in recent years. “The biggest growth area in homelessness” is “actually people who still have a car or an RV and are choosing to live in it because they can’t afford housing,” said Elaine de Coligny, the executive director of EveryOne Counts, the organization that conducts the homeless census across California.

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    Perhaps Shellenberger fails to grasp the contours of the crisis because, over the course of nearly 300 pages of text, he doesn’t interview a single currently homeless person except for one young man he identifies by his first name, Daniel. whom Shellenberger passes in the streets of Berkeley before telling him “God loves you.” His information about the experiences of the unhoused is otherwise entirely secondhand or out of date, based exclusively on interviews with several people who were homeless years ago, along with an ethnographic account of homelessness conducted 20 years ago.

    I’ve spent much of the last year reporting, and sometimes living, in a tent city in Oakland, and there one can quickly see the inadequacy of Shellenberger’s analysis. Among the camp’s 30 or so residents, there are many drug and alcohol users as well as two people suffering from severe mental illness. But the encampment has also served as a temporary home of last resort to a UPS worker who lost his job after a serious injury; former homeowners; a professional soccer player; a transgender DoorDash driver who moved from Louisiana to escape bigotry; and retirees and disabled persons whose Social Security checks of about $1,000 a month aren’t enough to afford them an apartment. Still, they, like many others in the encampment, keep trying to get out.

    Recognizing that the unhoused have agency doesn’t require us to conclude they have “chosen” to be homeless. The real tragedy is one to which Shellenberger seems oblivious: For far too many sane, sober people, tent cities are their best available option in today’s Bay Area.

    To bolster his argument, Shellenberger frequently exaggerates or misleads. He criticizes the “harm reduction” and “housing first” policies embraced by many progressives and advocates (these approaches seek to destigmatize drug abuse and not make housing contingent on sobriety) by inaccurately implying that the Project Roomkey initiative, which placed unhoused persons in San Francisco and the East Bay in hotel rooms during the pandemic, provided “crack pipes and foil” to residents. Elsewhere, he suggests that the reason “homelessness exploded” in the region around 2009 is that 2009 was the year California cities stopped making housing assistance conditional on sobriety — yet he doesn’t mention the much more important cause: The state was in the middle of the largest housing crash in modern history, during which thousands of middle- and lower-income people lost their homes and many ended up homeless. It’s just one of many sleights-of-hand.

    In reality, the entire low end of the housing market in the Bay Area has been decimated by a complex combination of national and regional factors. Stymied from building shelters, permanent supportive housing and affordable apartments by years of federal and state defunding, astronomical construction costs, rampant manipulation of the state’s environmental and zoning laws by special interests and a general lack of political will by city residents and their representatives, officials have instead invested taxpayer money in ineffective solutions like safe sleeping sites or providing portable toilets and hygiene services to encampments. The result is policies that often work as well as a Band-Aid on a knife wound. Shellenberger’s occasionally insightful but frequently inaccurate account does little to illuminate the complex reality of the crisis, much less help us find ways out of it.

    Yet what is ultimately so troubling about “San Fransicko” isn’t just how much the book gets wrong — it’s the way Shellenberger distorts facts to turn homelessness into a new front of the culture wars. Indeed, he does exactly what he accuses his left-wing enemies of doing: ignoring facts, best practices and complicated and heterodox approaches in favor of dogma. Such thinking leads him to propose vaguely authoritarian solutions like aggressively criminalizing encampments, expanding the powers of the state and family members to involuntarily commit drug users and the mentally ill, and creating a goofy superorganization he calls Cal-Psych, which would institutionalize people who shoplift or defecate in public.

    The book’s failure is a shame, because Shellenberger’s central question remains a valid one — why have Bay Area cities, under progressive leaders, failed so spectacularly? Why is homelessness so pervasive when huge sums of money are spent by well-intentioned governments? “What kind of a civilization,” Shellenberger writes, “leaves its most vulnerable people to use deadly substances and die on the streets?” The real explanations are vastly more complicated than he allows. A proper accounting of California’s housing and homelessness crisis remains to be written.

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