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Coalition on Homelessness
Author Michael Shellenberger singles out groups like the Coalition on Homelessness and the ACLU for exacerbating the homeless problem.

Are Progressives Responsible for Our Homeless Inundation?

A review of Michael Shellenberger's “San Fransicko”

What gets us into trouble is not what we don't know. It's what we know for sure that just ain't so.”   - Mark Twain

•••••••••• January 9, 2023 ••••••••••

Bureaucracies are guardians of the status quo, slow to adapt in the face of failure. Contrarians can bring fresh insights to problems that fester under existing orthodoxies. One such is Berkeley journalist Michael Shellenberger, whose bio includes progressive activism for environmentalism, affordable housing, decriminalizing drugs, and prison reform. Appalled at the spread of homeless encampments, drug overdoses and anti-social behaviors, he conducted a quixotic gubernatorial campaign and wrote “San Fran-sicko – Why Progressives Ruin Cities.”  The book is a carefully researched critique of how West Coast cities address homelessness, crime and civic disorder.

Bookcover: San Fransicko

Shellenberger’s central tenet is that the plagues of addiction, homelessness and social disorder are worsening due to progressive ideology and policies. He argues that the phenomenal rise of street homelessness in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle, is unique in the nation and cannot be explained by differences in climate, housing prices or poverty. Poor people in expensive cities seldom end up on the street. They can rely on family and friends for support. But, those in the throes of addiction and mental illness become “disaffiliated” from supporters – a key determinant of street homelessness.

Derailment of Frontier Culture

Like other frontier cities, San Francisco has long embraced bohemianism and libertarianism. But individual freedom was previously tied to a civic spirit. Shellenberger believes that changed in the 1960s “when the progressive left chose to replace the principle of gratitude for charity with an attitude of entitlement.” Defending freedom for victims of mental illness and addiction has brought misery and inhumanity to our streets. He wonders; “What kind of city regulates ice-cream stores more strictly than drug dealers who kill 713 of its citizens in a single year.”

Shellenberger at the Commonwealth Club
Michael Shellenberger at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco.

Poor people in expensive cities seldom end up on the street. They can rely on family and friends for support. But, those in the throes of addiction and mental illness become “disaffiliated” from supporters – a key determinant of street homelessness.”

Housing First Ideology

“Housing First” policies provide housing without preconditions – and without reducing overall homelessness. To Shellenberger, the term “homeless” is propaganda. “The word homeless not only makes us think of housing, it also makes us not think of mental illness, drugs and disaffiliation.” The term reflects victimology; “Victimology asserts that victims are inherently good because they have been victimized. It robs victims of their moral agency.”  Assigning victim status to homeless folks draws “rescuers” and even “pathological altruism” whereby rescue efforts enable self-destructive, anti-social ways.

Moreover, the progressive view of unhoused persons as victims of circumstances beyond their control doesn’t explain their widespread refusal of services. Shellenberger cites studies showing that few homeless persons accept shelter after the breakup of encampments. One reason is that it’s much easier to score and use drugs in encampments than in shelters. The City’s permissive attitude toward drug use makes encampments more appealing.

London Breed
Mayor London Breed

 An example of this phenomenon emerges from data collected at the City’s Tenderloin Linkage Center. Just 1,528 (2.4%) of 124,100 clients accepted shelter and housing services. Although 300 overdoses were reportedly reversed, fewer than 1% of all clients sought drug or mental health treatment. Instead, they sought meals, showers, laundry, food stamps and other basics. Part of the problem is that persons with addiction or mental disorders don’t recognize their impairments. The now-closed Tenderloin Center cost almost $22 million.

“San Fran-sicko” notes that we have more permanent supportive housing per capita than other major US cities. And, these housing sites are magnets for drug use and crime. Yet, our unsheltered population exploded compared to places like New York, Chicago and Miami. Why? Well, those cities provide more shelters. Because Housing First policies divert funds from shelters, there aren’t nearly enough shelters. Meanwhile, prohibitive housing costs guarantee that most homeless will stay unhoused. Shellenberger concludes; “San Francisco leaders have deliberately chosen to leave a significant portion of the homeless unsheltered…”

Homeless Encampment
Homeless emcampments are tucked into many corners of the city.Photo: ReasonSF

The flaw in the Housing First dogma is that it offers unconditional housing. It doesn’t require clients to address their mental or drug ailments. Chaos, overdoses and evictions ensue. For example, the City responded to the COVID crisis by unconditionally housing 3,700 homeless persons in vacant hotel rooms. It seemed like a win-win. However, hotels that experienced “extensive damage” from harboring these new guests are suing the City for millions of dollars. Shellenberger shows that when abstinence is required to get housing, success rates are much higher.

Another snag is the Homeless-Industrial-Complex that generates millions for itself, not just the homeless. Further, “Non-profit organizations, funded by taxpayers, turn around and advocate for taxpayer funds, a conflict of interests.” Homelessness keeps these programs going. Plus, non-profits can be problematic. For example, we saw the recent financial collapse of Positive Resource Center & Baker Places and the United Council for Human Services, coupled with double-dipping by a top DPH official.

Civic Center encampment.
Homeless encampment at Civic CenterPhoto: ReasonSF

Harmful Advocates

Shellenberger laments the inordinate influence of homeless advocates like the ACLU and the Coalition on Homelessness. Not only do they stifle alternate solutions but they castigate their proponents. In 2021, Supervisor Rafael Mandelman introduced legislation to require the homeless to stay in shelters or in tents at Safe Sleeping sites. Advocates denounced his plan as “criminalizing” the homeless.

“San Fran-sicko” faults the ACLU for viewing deranged street people as too mentally-ill to be responsible for their actions – but not ill enough to be hospitalized. Defending the right of homeless persons to lie on sidewalks and camp in public spaces, while providing them with tents, syringes, crack pipes and untrammeled access to drug dealers and cheap drugs, has led to more encampments, crime, and open drug use. The end result is that cities tolerate and then normalize anti-social behaviors. Pointing to this outcome triggers accusations of fomenting hatred — even violence — toward the homeless. Shellenberger counters that the violence experienced by unsheltered folks comes mostly from their peers and drug dealers, not from critics of City programs.

While conservatorships could be used to make decisions on behalf of gravely disabled persons, San Francisco has fewer people under conservatorship than neighboring counties – and the number is dropping. As the Westside Observer previously reportedSB-1045, the 2018 “Conservatorship: Serious Mental Illness and Substance Use Disorders” bill (revised by SB-40 in 2019), allowed conservatorship for persons - overwhelmingly meth users - undergoing 8 psychiatric holds per year. As of January 2023, after 3.5 years, just 3 among scores of drug-addled San Franciscans have been conserved, per DPH records. While conservatorships are routinely imposed on people with dementia, the ACLU opposes conserving the mentally ill on civil rights grounds. Shellenberger emphasizes;  “…understanding this, and the power of the ACLU in progressive cities…goes a long way toward understanding the addiction, untreated mental illness, and homelessness crisis.”

The War on the War on Drugs

Shellenberger warns that drug decriminalization, something he previously supported, lowers drug production and distribution costs. The upshot: more availability and use. Laws like Prop 36 from 2000 allowed non-violent drug users to receive probation and drug treatment. But it resulted in more recidivism compared to treatment mandated by drug courts. Similarly, Prop 47 of 2014 reduced penalties for petty crimes. Such crimes increased. In short, “People are not dying from drug overdose deaths in San Francisco because they’re being arrested. They’re dying because they aren’t being arrested.” 

Needle distribution in SF
Courtesy SF AIDS Foundation

“San Fran-sicko” challenges the progressive view that poverty, trauma and structural racism cause addiction, asking; “why did addiction worsen over the same time period that poverty, trauma and racism declined?” Meanwhile, anti-police sentiments drove legislation and policies that gradually “legalized crime.” Shellenberger notes that San Francisco gives away more needles to drug users than New York City, despite having one-tenth the population. While San Francisco clamps down on vaping, it is strangely permissive of drug and alcohol use in SRO hotels in the name of harm reduction.

Some may feel that Shellenberger is individualizing the drug problem, focusing on drug users while skirting systemic factors like an unregulated and contaminated drug market and the shortage of treatment programs. Not so. He describes in detail the social forces that led to the closure of state mental hospitals, the underfunding of community mental health services, loss of government-funded housing, as well as the decimation of hospital psychiatric beds and Board & Care Homes. Although the 2004 Mental Health Services Act raised $2.4 billion to treat and prevent serious mental illnesses, California has more mentally ill people in jails and on the streets than the nation as a whole. Similarly, San Francisco spends record amounts of money on homeless folks with mental illness and addiction. But the problems grow.

Drugs forbidden in Netherlands
Netherlands: no drug policy

More Stick, Less Carrot

Notably, the money raised by the Mental Health Services Act cannot be used for involuntary treatment. Shellenberger maintains that Medicaid could be tapped to fund more psychiatric hospitalizations. But unlike other states, California doesn’t have a Mental Health Department that could negotiate with Medicaid. He favors the system developed in Portugal where drug possession is decriminalized but users are pressured into massively expanded treatment programs. Likewise, the Netherlands gave up on “helping” addicts. Now, police break up open air drug markets. Violators are fined - and arrested if they don’t pay. Next comes a choice – incarceration or monitored treatment. Because addicts prefer drugs to treatment, they need both “carrot” and “stick” to get clean.

Accordingly, Shellenberger wants a state-funded behavioral health program called “Cal-Psych.” This agency would expand shelters, provide supportive housing on a contingency basis and coordinate the break-up of drug markets. It would develop long-term residential psychiatric facilities, more psychiatric beds in local hospitals, robust conservatorship programs, assisted outpatient treatment, drug courts and diversion into psychiatric care. Funding would come from Medicaid, the Mental Health Act (Prop 63) and recouping money currently spent on non-profits.

Dr. Derek Kerr is a San Francisco investigative reporter for the Westside Observer and a member of SPJ-NorCal. Contact:

January 2023

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