Researcher: Left-Wing Policies Exacerbate Homelessness

Book cover: San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities
San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities book cover | Image by HarperCollins

To cure the cause and treat the symptoms of homelessness in metropolitan cities across the United States, politicians must get out of their own way and allow commonsense methods to work, claims a former Democratic activist.

Michael Shellenberger has embraced the other end of the political spectrum — at least when it comes to addressing homelessness and reducing crime in some of the country’s biggest cities where both have become rampant — speaking to anyone who will listen about the issues.

He is also a best-selling author whose book San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities is a source of pride for the former journalist. In a February video that he posted on X, Shellenberger expressed his criticisms of policies he claims exacerbate homelessness in Democrat-controlled cities and the media narratives that advance them.

In 2020, Shellenberger quoted Margot Kushel, a professor at the University of California-San Francisco, in The New York Times as an example of how the mainstream media aids in the development of failed homelessness policies in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

“By now, you’ve all heard the news that poverty causes homelessness,” he says in the video, referring to the NYT story. “We’ve always known that most homelessness is a result, pure and simple, of poverty, the lack of a living wage, the lack of affordable housing, and the insidious impact of racism. You hear people saying things like, ‘You can’t just house people who have addiction problems.’ You can, and you must.”

In the video, Shellenberger calls Kushel “one of the three most important and influential researchers on homelessness” before mentioning other stories by NYT that cite a source who claims drug decriminalization in Portugal is effective and can work in Portland, Oregon.

And “in San Francisco, the city government put billboards around the city with the theme, ‘Know Overdose,’ K-N-O-W,” he said, mocking some of the enabling messaging of local officials. “‘Take it easy. Go slow and use less at first to test the strength of your drugs. Do it with friends. Use with people and take turns. Try not to use alone and have someone check on you. We’re better together. Know the signs of someone [who] is overdosing. Carry naloxone … and know how to use it.'”

Naloxone can reverse an opioid overdose by blocking the effects of the drugs and restoring normal breathing within three minutes, according to the CDC. In San Francisco, homeless people using drugs openly on the streets and in the now-rehabilitated UN Plaza were distributed naloxone to help reduce overdose deaths in the city of just under 900,000 people. In 2022, the number of people experiencing homelessness in San Francisco was nearly 7,800.

“Poverty rates have fallen for every demographic group in the United States, and yet homelessness is rising … but disproportionately in California,” Shellenberger said.

In California, particularly in San Francisco and Los Angeles, Housing First policies are allegedly driving homelessness trends — and not in a good way.

“Housing First, which is unconditional housing given to people experiencing homelessness, works,” Shellenberger said sarcastically in the video. “The New York Times has reassured us of this for 20 years.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, officials have taken the same approach to reducing homelessness in Dallas, where the City’s Office of Homeless Solutions and Housing Forward has taken the lead.

Based merely on data provided by Housing Forward from the January 2024 point-in-time count, these programs may appear to be working. But while some officials prefer to adopt a policy that focuses on transitional housing and mental-health and substance-abuse treatment, along with permanent housing, others favor the Housing First model, insisting it works and is less expensive than alternative methods.

Shellenberger has a far different opinion.

“In the year 2000 … 20,000 people were dying every year,” he says in the video. “Last year, 112,000 Americans died from illicit drug overdoses. It’s an incredible increase, and you can see it skyrocketing. Seventy-five thousand of those deaths were from fentanyl. If this continues, we’re going to have a million people dead in a decade from drug deaths. We’re all failing on this issue. It’s worse in liberal cities.”

Shellenberger explained that in “liberal cities,” such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, the Housing First model is the purportedly central exacerbator of a problem that continues to spread across the United States.

“Housing First gives you a private room — no questions asked, no conditions,” Shellenberger added. “Housing First is condition-free care, whereas contingency management is shelter for all, housing earned.”

Dr. Robert Marbut, the homelessness czar under former President Donald Trump, whose Haven for Hope model in San Antonio has been credited for changing that city’s homelessness reality, warned during the Central Texas Community Health Summit in April 2023 that San Francisco’s failures could become Texas’ failures.

“We are in a crisis … and it’s time for us to start making some changes,” he said, according to the Killeen Daily Herald. “[At the] government level, this is very expensive. Most of the time, you see it [with] the police, criminal justice, courts, the jails. We have to understand what’s going on. If you want to see the future of Texas on homelessness, go to San Francisco and spend a day in San Francisco. Spend a day in Portland. Spend a day in Seattle. Spend a day in L.A.”

The Book

In a trio of critical reviews, journalists with the San Francisco Examiner, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times reach the same conclusion: Many of Shellenberger’s findings have merit, based on sound research and the data to back it. But some of his arguments are flawed.

In his Examiner piece published in October 2021, Benjamin Schneider called Shellenberger’s central complaint in San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities “another installment in a flourishing genre of apocalyptic nonfiction about The City, this one closer to the Fox News school. As a Bay Area resident and a lapsed progressive activist who previously focused on the environment and drug decriminalization, Shellenberger writes with the conviction of a convert. As such, he cherry picks data that fits his narrative, and overlooks essential counterfactuals — namely, the situation in conservative America.”

Furthermore, Schneider argues that the book’s “philosophical dimension is bizarre and unnecessary, blinding remotely progressive readers to a sprinkling of specific policy criticisms that deserve a hearing in our public discourse. Shellenberger points out just how polarized and calcified so much of the thinking on homelessness, mental health, and addiction have become, while failing to build any bridges for those inclined to disagree with him.”

Still, Schneider acknowledges that homelessness is “clearly much worse in liberal, West Coast cities.” And researchers know that mental illness and substance abuse are “major” factors in homelessness. That’s in addition, he said, to “domestic violence, job loss, eviction, health problems and other forces.”

“But the cost and availability of housing is the preexisting condition that is at the root of homelessness,” Schneider said in his review. “In more affordable cities like Houston or St. Louis, a disability or welfare check might be enough to pay for a ramshackle apartment. Good luck pulling that off in San Francisco or New York.”

The writer also admits that Shellenberger is correct in describing San Francisco as a place where policies have created a “live-and-let-live,” “do your own thing” reality for many residents.

“It’s part of what makes us the center of so many liberation movements, and so many innovations in science, technology, public policy, and the arts,” he said in the review. “But it also sets us apart from other cultures that we often lionize for their approaches to homelessness, drugs, and mental health.”

An October 2021 Wall Street Journal article by Barton Swaim is less skeptical of Shellenberger’s claims.

“Thanks to generous welfare payments, lenient law enforcement and clement weather, thousands of homeless have made their way to the city from elsewhere, and the ranks of the local homeless have swelled, too,” Swaim wrote. “Why so many homeless? Mr. Shellenberger … suggests one answer: City leaders have decided that public housing, as distinct from public shelter, is the best, perhaps the only, way to deal with homelessness. The premise appears to be that the street-dweller would have a job and live in a home if only a decent job and an affordable house were available. What he needs isn’t a bed for a few nights and some counseling but a proper home — on the taxpayer’s dime.”

Swaim appears to take exception to such a premise.

“Even accepting the questionable logic of the city’s premise, there are serious problems. One: Where to put all these homes? Two: How to pay for them? Regulations and taxes put the cost of building a single housing unit in San Francisco at — this is not a misprint — more than $500,000.”

A November 2021 Times article by Wes Enzinna said Shellenberger, whom he calls a “journalist-turned-culture-warrior,” is right in at least one area: “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.”

Moreover, of San Francisco’s 8,124 unhoused people at the time of Enzinna’s review, 73% were unsheltered.

“Shellenberger promises in ‘San Fransicko’ to explain how things got this way and how we might solve them,” Enzinna wrote. “This, he argues, means blaming progressives and Democrats, who are in control at every level of city and state government. … 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.”

In the review, Enzinna claims that Shellenberger is not interested in having a “nuanced debate.” However, in the video Shellenberger posted on X, he says that he uses empiricism to back his arguments. Shellenberger shares brief clips of interviews he conducted with street-level homeless people on the West Coast who admitted to stealing to support their drug habits, how they became homeless, whether they were choosing to remain that way, and what daily life is like on the streets of West Coast cities.

“To put this in context a little bit, my critics were saying that I was wrong in that the people who were homeless in San Francisco mostly … were just priced out of housing and they were all local people from San Francisco,” he says in the video.

Police data released after those streetside interviews showed that just 6% of unsheltered homeless people in San Francisco were from there — an assertion one of his interviewees insisted. But that’s not what city officials and others said, arguing that the number was closer to 70%.

“I had a chip on my shoulder, if I’m being honest,” Shellenberger says in the video. “When you write a book, you’re very proud of yourself. I wrote a whole book on this, and I don’t really need to do anything else because you think that I’m an expert. But, of course, I was not treated like an expert as you might imagine.”

He used the NYT review as an example of that treatment.

“[It] published a review that claimed I had only interviewed a single homeless person in all of my research over all of those years,” Shellenberger says. “The idea that this is just a problem of high rents … I have never met a sober tech executive who got priced out of his apartment living in a tent on the street. Never has happened. The truth is that shelter is the first step to ending homelessness. If you don’t think it’s compassionate to require people to sleep inside, consider that three times more homeless people died in Los Angeles than in New York between 2020 and 2021.”

He says in the video that “mirrors” the percentage of people who are required to be in shelters in New York.

“New York puts its money in requiring people to have basic congregant shelter. Los Angeles says it’s not good enough, [that] everybody should have their own room. And it leaves people on the street. Housing First, turns out … fails for years, decades even. In spring of 2021, medical experts found that after 10 years of study, just 12% of the homeless remain housed in Housing First housing.”

But it’s the same argument that Enzinna called “sleights-of-hand,” appearing as an apologist for San Francisco policies on homelessness.

“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,” Enzinna wrote. “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.”

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