I’d like a drink. I desire to forget life. Life is a hideous invention by somebody I don’t know. It doesn’t last, and it’s good for nothing. You break your neck simply living.Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
Author Michael Shellenberger has a new book out titled San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities, which seems to dwell on the issue of homelessness. I have read some of his other books, which criticize climate alarmism in public policy. As someone who values conservation a great deal but is skeptical of manufactured panics in public policy, he provides a very interesting independent perspective. I am not sure if I am going to read this book, however, because I feel like it is just going to make me very, very angry with what’s happening in our country (and I can achieve that result well enough on my own). But the book seems to have everyone talking, which is undeniably a good thing.
Homelessness happens to be an issue I have a lot of experience with.
Years ago, I was on the board of directors of a homeless shelter. I had many reasons for wanting to serve at a homeless shelter, but mostly I wanted to help our veterans. As I have mentioned on this blog before, my father is a Vietnam combat veteran. In fact, every generation of our (very large) extended family has served in foreign conflicts since our family immigrated to the United States. But growing up around a combat veteran is a front-row seat to the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. Combat seems to rewire how your brain functions permanently. Even 50 years later, my father still has graphic nightmares about Vietnam. Although my father manages to deal with PTSD, I understand how many combat veterans cannot function in society and end up living on the streets.
I have worked with diverse charities over the years. But never have I dealt with an issue less straightforward than homelessness.
I really threw myself into the public policy orthodoxy of the era, marketed as “Housing First.” The concept, for those who are unfamiliar with it, is that all social problems are subordinated to having physical shelter. You get the homeless into apartments or houses first – to stabilize their living situation – and then you can get to work on issues like addiction and professional skills. Sounds great, right? You could not find a single person connected to affordable housing or homelessness back then who did not talk about Housing First as if there were no alternative way of framing things. We are talking covid levels of groupthink here.
There are a lot of legitimate problems with our country’s safety net that contribute to people being unhoused. Probably the biggest among them is that the universe of welfare programs penalizes saving, and you absolutely need a savings to get yourself into housing, regardless of whether you are going to own or rent a property. If you amass a savings, the government thinks you no longer need welfare and you cease to qualify for programs. But if you don’t have a savings, how are you going to put down a deposit for an apartment? (I fear this is something that has only gotten worse after the eviction moratorium debacle, as landlords had to price in serious financial risk and wanted prime candidates only. Not only do you need a savings now, you need a higher level of savings to account for political risk and inflation.) And what resources do you have to insulate you – and in the case of homeless families, your partner and children – in the event something bad happens?
It’s insanity – and I would submit to you that part of the reason it stays this way is that trapping people in poverty is quite profitable for the people in the business of working with the poor. That is not a phenomenon limited to homelessness, either. We’ve spent trillions of dollars on the “War on Poverty” in this country, only to create a durable caste of untouchables. Where does the money go? To a lot of third parties.
But the big problem with homelessness is more about who the homeless are. When I was working with homeless people, the big categories were (1) mentally ill people, (2) drug addicts, and (3) convicted felons (including registered sex offenders, who are highly likely to assault someone again). All of these people get pushed out of housing for reasons that have nothing to do with traditional issues involving financial stability. And even when they do land in more permanent housing, they tend to be surrounded by poverty, which increases the likelihood that they will sabotage their situation.
It is a very difficult thing to live with someone with a serious mental illness, especially if they are untreated or constantly fight taking their medication. You get a lot of people with schizophrenia and extreme bipolar disorder, and frankly, most of these folks are never going to have a stable source of income. There aren’t long-term facilities for them to be placed in, either. You look at situations like what is happening with Britney Spears, and you can see even the fantastically wealthy can’t deal with unstructured responses to extreme mental illness. Everyone thought it would be cool to shut down her conservatorship, and now she’s posting full-frontal nudes on Instagram. Which brings me to another point: We live in a society that has chosen to “normalize” and even glorify mental illness. A big part of that is denying that the bad decision-making and instability that comes with mental illness are even negative things. Aren’t Britney’s nude pictures so “empowering”? You can’t help people with mental illness when you are bringing beliefs like this into the relationship.
Convicted felons, particularly violent felons, and sex offenders also get pushed out of society for who they are. Most people do not think twice about the questions on job applications or rental applications asking if you have ever been convicted of a crime. But for people who have, these are scarlet letters that follow them around and make it impossible for them to rejoin normal society. A person runs up against this wall enough times, and they start to see crime as their only option to survive. And realistically, in many situations, that’s not an inaccurate assessment. But it is also difficult to blame a landlord for this. Would you allow a pedophile into your apartment complex? How’s that for operating without any vacancies and meeting your own financial obligations? It’s a catch-22.
And then there are drug users and petty drug dealers. Again, this comes back to the issue of what we are “normalizing” in our society. You go to progressive cities and you can talk to endless people who think drugs should be legalized, the war on drugs is a failure, blah blah blah. I actually had a crank libertarian homeschooling mom here storm out of my house in a fit of rage because I refused to agree with her that legalizing heroin would lead to positive outcomes where no one wanted to do heroin anymore because the “allure” had been erased. (Like there’s anyone who starts shooting up because they think it will make them beautiful, successful, and edgy.) We could be just like Portugal, these folks love to say, ad nauseam. Like a predominantly Catholic country with half the population of Florida is somehow a model for problems in the United States. Needless to say, I am pretty cool with not having people who talk like that around my kid.
This is not even a thought experiment for the United States, however. We’ve seen these policies enacted here and they have objectively been disasters. Look at how “unpopular” hard drugs have become out west as drug use has been decriminalized – the populations of homeless junkies have only grown… exponentially. Boy, are they maximizing happiness there. The end result of “normalizing” drug trade in a postmodern country is not a clean society but open-air drug markets, streets full of zombies, women (and men) prostituting themselves for the next hit. (Did we mention that the sex trade is just so empowering for women? Nothing says feminism like a pimp getting you hooked on smack. Let the woketastic “bodily autonomy” wash over you.) This is not a new question to ponder – heroin dens have been around as long as heroin. But like all bad policy attitudes these days, some folks need to break the world to understand their ideas are nuts.
If you have ever lived in a city where tent colonies are popping up, you are familiar with the weaponized compassion that keeps this sort of thing going. [In a Greta Thunberg voice….] How dare you kick these people out of your area? They have a “right” to shelter. In some places, liberals think the homeless also have a “right” to drugs and give them unlimited free drug paraphernalia (which ends up biohazard litter on the streets and in the oceans). They’ll even train your family to administer the free Narcan they are passing out, to prolong your self-destruction as long as possible.
In our last town, we had two homeless encampments, one behind the public library and one behind an elementary school. The liberals in the town lost their minds at every city council meeting fighting for pedophiles in tents behind the school and drug addicts selling heroin and bath salts behind the library. The library staff, not cultural conservatives by any means, recounted how one homeless man defecated on the floor of the restroom and smeared his feces all over the place. Remarkably, none of the compassionate army volunteered to clean the restrooms going forward. They just liked the idea of the homeless encampment, like it was some Woodstock reenactment or something. More kumbaya than public overdoses and harassing elderly patrons for cash. It’s a convenient delusion for them that the tent city is no different than an affordable housing project. They can do literally nothing for these people and congratulate themselves for having the correct emotions.
Then there is the problem of fundraising for homeless folks. There is seriously no cause more difficult to find donors for than homelessness, and no population that has a greater need for public services. A liberal will feel good for weeks after they buy the panhandler outside of McDonald’s a cheeseburger. They will post a picture on the ‘Gram of them sharing this moment, the homeless dude and his upper middle class white savior. Maybe add a quote from Maya Angelou or something. The reality is a $5 investment isn’t transforming anyone’s life, and panhandlers aren’t always homeless.
You try to host events for homeless shelters and it’s incredibly difficult to get anyone to give any real amount of money. There are a lot of reasons for this. People know the demographics that end up homeless and they don’t want to take part of their income to prop up an addict or a felon. Some feel like giving to any charity is unnecessary – they already pay taxes, you know. They don’t want a homeless shelter anywhere near their own real estate. Even a lot of churches won’t participate in homeless causes because they do not want to aggravate their NIMBY membership. They’ll send missionaries overseas but not across town.
The cost of “fixing” a homeless person’s situation is off the charts, however. You need a psychiatrist for the mentally ill, a therapist for the addict or the battered woman. You need someone to train them so they have job skills, then coach them day in and day out to get onto the bus to get to the job that a salaried and pensioned social worker spent weeks or months helping them find. They need health care. Dental care. Housing. Utilities. Food. You tally all this up and the person could be a one-percenter for the cost of government services they are utilizing on an annual basis. I’m not even kidding.
Then you get to meet the other people who are operating facilities. Most people don’t know this, but providing shelter and whatnot to homeless folks is a legitimate industry. You have people who are in the business of operating shelters, and using the homeless for sub-minimum wage labor (because housing gets worked in), with their primary counterparty being the state or federal government, which pretty much does not care about minimizing cost or maximizing outcomes. They even refer to the homeless people as their “clients” – something that is supposed to entail some dignity, I guess, but actually clarifies that their relationship is purely transactional. Many of the shelters struggle with crime and violence. When I would talk to homeless folks, they’d tell me all about the “good shelters” and the “bad shelters” and their efforts not to end up in the latter at night.
Having seen all this, it is difficult to listen to people ranting on social media about how they live in the richest state/country, but look at all these folks out on the streets. It is so easy to be a slacktivist in this society now, where people congratulate themselves merely for having the opinion that something needs to be done (read: Other People’s Money needs to be spent). The homeless are some theoretical other, and their existence is a mystery to be pondered before live-tweeting Yellowstone or whatever. Probably the worst part of this slacktivism, however, is the weaponized compassion that leads to insane policy choices, like making hard drugs easily available. More often than not, the main way someone escapes homelessness is when they move into the grave. That’s the outcome this framework self-selects for.