The Real Fix for Homelessness?

A new book takes on activist orthodoxy.

Bruce Bawer is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

Three decades ago, when I lived in Manhattan, I’d get up early on Saturday mornings and, with fellow parishioners from Saint Thomas Church, hand out free lunches to homeless people outside the Port Authority building. Some of our clients were, shall we say, more appreciative than others. I can still remember the physically (if not mentally) fit young fellow who, when I handed him a bag containing a sandwich, an apple, potato chips, and orange juice, flung it back at me, screaming: “I don’t want your f---g food! Give me money!”

Some of his pals felt differently. When we arrived with our freebies, they’d grab, vulture-like, at all the bags they could get. After a few experiences with this greedy behavior by robust young men who didn’t look remotely undernourished, I started walking past them and into the Port Authority itself, where I encountered gaunt, sad-eyed older women who, crouched in the remotest corners and crannies of that grungy, labyrinthine structure, were palpably alone in the world, suffering profoundly, and in need of help - but many of whom, out of pride, turned down the food I offered them.

Eventually I decided that my do-gooderism was doing more harm than good, and resumed spending my Saturday mornings in bed. I didn’t know what should be done about homelessness, but I’d come to realize that handouts weren’t the answer. What, then, is? According to most homelessness activists, it’s Housing First, which has been official U.S. policy since George W. Bush. The thinking behind it is simple: when people are homeless, the main thing they need are homes. So give them homes - permanent public housing, right off the bat, with no strings attached. What if they have other problems that have contributed to their homelessness? Well, those issues can be addressed afterwards.

Reading the Wikipedia entry for Housing First, you’d think it’s been tremendously successful. In various jurisdictions, according to that page, it’s slashed government outlays per homeless person; reduced drinking by homeless alcoholics; lowered “the number of chronically homeless persons living on the streets or in shelters”; brought down hospitalization and incarceration rates; alleviated pressure on the child welfare system; and cut the number of people who become homeless again. Which raises one little question: if Housing First is so spectacularly effective, why are the streets and parks of many American cities swarming with unprecedented numbers of homeless people? Why the seas of tents? Why all the public defecation? Why the staggering number of used syringes in the gutters? In search of the answer to this conundrum, Michael Shellenberger, a longtime San Franciscan, decided to scrutinize approaches to homelessness in jurisdictions around the world. The product is an eye-opening new book entitled San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities.

His subtitle notwithstanding, Shellenberger didn’t begin his project with the intention of condemning progressives. He’s a longtime progressive himself, with a degree in Peace and Global Studies and a background in environmental activism. In 2008, Time Magazine named him a “Hero of the Environment”; in 2018 he ran for the Democratic nomination for governor of California. Recently, to be sure, he’s been taking on leftist orthodoxies: last year his book Apocalypse Never, an attack on “environmental alarmism,” antagonized climate-change hysterics; San Fransicko will doubtless receive a similar response from the devotees of homelessness ideology, i.e. Housing First.

For them, the received wisdom has long been that the principal cause of homelessness is financial calamity - which, in their view, is virtually always caused by the innate failings of capitalism and by the structural racism of Western institutions - and that Housing First is hence the most just and humane policy. But when Shellenberger looked closely into the matter, he discovered that “what I and other progressives had believed about cities, crime, and homelessness was all wrong.” In most cases, he found, the root cause of homelessness isn’t financial difficulty but addiction or mental illness - or a combination of the two. No fewer than 86 percent of homeless people have “trimorbidity” - medical complaints, psychiatric problems, and substance abuse. And the third is the most prevalent. Indeed, one formerly homeless person tells Shellenberger that there is no homelessness problem: “The problem is addiction, period.”

Where does this leave Housing First? Well, despite all the glowing PR on its behalf, it turns out that even as San Francisco, over a certain period, significantly increased the number of permanent housing units available to homeless people, the population of unsheltered homeless people in the city also rose dramatically. During the same period, the fatality rates of homeless people placed in public housing remained as high as when they were on the streets. Why? Simple: they were still taking drugs.

Not that it matters much to their progressive aiders and abetters. Far from trying to incentivize addicts to kick their habits, San Francisco and other West Coast cities legalized drug possession and stopped requiring addicts who’d been placed in public housing to undergo drug treatment. In a comment quoted by Shellenberger, Kristen Marshall of the Homeless Youth Alliance expresses the attitude behind these moves. “Drug use is usually the only thing that feels good for them,” Marshall says. “When you understand that, you stop caring about the drug use and ask people what they need.” It doesn’t occur to Marshall, apparently, that what drug addicts need, above all, is to be off drugs. 

Housing First, then, isn’t the cure-all for homelessness. A carrot-and-stick approach - in other words, putting homeless people in temporary shelters while they agree to be treated for their mental and drug problems. Makes sense, no? But among most homelessness activists, such talk is heresy. They’re dead set against imposing any kind of requirement on homeless people. “The left’s idea,” one Stanford researcher tells Shellenberger, “is that everyone who’s addicted really wants to change if we give them the right services.” (Meaning, of course, that they don’t grasp the first thing about addiction.) Powerful politicians and activists in San Francisco actually oppose the construction of shelters, on the grounds that they’ll reduce the pressure to give everybody permanent residences. In short, they prefer seeing the homeless wait for free housing on the streets, indefinitely, instead of in shelters.

If San Francisco takes the wrong approach to homelessness, who’s doing it right? Shellenberger’s own favorite model is Amsterdam. Despite its progressive image, Amsterdam addresses homelessness with “a combination of law enforcement and social services.” A Dutch expert tells him that in the 1980s, Amsterdam’s Zeedijk neighborhood was a lot like the heroin-ravaged Tenderloin in San Francisco. At first the city tried a do-gooder approach - free needles, no legal repercussions. But it didn’t work. Then police started collaborating with health workers. Open-air drug scenes were broken up. Public users were fined - and if they didn’t pay, they were arrested and offered a choice between treatment and incarceration. It worked.

Although Shellenberger’s arguments are convincing, I do have questions about his idyllic portrait of Amsterdam’s drug scene. Having been in that city dozens of times in the last quarter-century, I can testify that during that entire period it’s been impossible, at virtually any time of day, to walk down certain streets without being accosted by drug peddlers. Still, I’m willing to believe that, on this front anyway, things are better than they were in the 1980s; and in any event I know that Amsterdam doesn’t have a major homelessness problem. A nightmare of an Islamization crisis, yes, but no homelessness problem.

All in all, then, this is a powerful, persuasive book about an issue that, alas, is more urgent than ever. But will the politicians and activists in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, and other super-woke cities listen? Not likely, given that for such people ideology trumps hard facts every time.

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