Christopher Rufo at the New York Post has an interesting article on homeless problems in Seattle. The analysis rings true of many other areas, especially San Francisco. It is also a good microcosm of how policy and law in so many social and economic areas stays so profoundly screwed up for so long.
The real battle isn’t being waged in the tents, under the bridges or in the corridors of City Hall, but in the realm of ideas, where, for now, four ideological power centers frame Seattle’s homelessness debate. I’ll identify them as the socialists, the compassion brigades, the homeless-industrial complex and the addiction evangelists.My emphasis. And the political influence of groups organized around absurdly counterfactual narratives is the larger picture of this story.
Who are these people? "Socialist" is not an insult, it is how the new left-wing groups describe themselves:
Socialist Alternative City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant claims that the city’s homelessness crisis is the inevitable result of the Amazon boom, greedy landlords and rapidly increasing rents.
The capitalists of Amazon, Starbucks, Microsoft and Boeing, in her Marxian optic, generate enormous wealth for themselves, drive up housing prices, and push the working class toward poverty and despair — and, too often, onto the streets.
...According to King County’s point-in-time study, only 6 percent of homeless people surveyed cited “could not afford rent increase” as the precipitating cause of their situation, pointing instead to a wide range of other problems — domestic violence, incarceration, mental illness, family conflict, medical conditions, breakups, eviction, addiction and job loss — as bigger factors.
...the evidence suggests that higher rents alone don’t push people onto the streets. Even in a pricey city like Seattle, most working- and middle-class residents respond to economic incentives in logical ways: relocating to less expensive neighborhoods, downsizing to smaller apartments, taking in roommates, moving in with family or leaving the city altogether. King County is home to more than 1 million residents earning below the median income, and 99 percent of them manage to find a place to live and pay the rent on time.To be clear, that response does not imply everything is hunky-dory in Seattle's (or San Francisco's) housing market. The point is narrow -- high rents do not cause people to live on the streets.
The compassion brigades are the moral crusaders of homelessness policy. Their Seattle political champion is City Councilman Mike O’Brien,... O’Brien has become a leader in the campaign to legalize homelessness throughout the city. He has proposed ordinances to legalize street camping on 167 miles of public sidewalks, permit RV camping on city streets, and prevent the city’s homeless-outreach Navigation Teams (made up of cops and other workers) from cleaning up tent cities.
O’Brien and his supporters have constructed an elaborate political vocabulary about the homeless, elevating three key myths to the status of conventional wisdom. The first is that many of the homeless are holding down jobs but can’t get ahead...
But according to King County’s own survey data, only 7.5 percent of the homeless report working full-time, despite record-low unemployment, record job growth and Seattle’s record-high $15 minimum wage. The reality, obvious to anyone who spends any time in tent cities or emergency shelters, is that 80 percent of the homeless suffer from drug and alcohol addiction and 30 percent suffer from serious mental illness, including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.Common sense suggests that the central conundrum of city policy to deal with homelessness is that people move. The "compassion brigades'' must deny this fact:
...Progressive publications like The Stranger insist that “most people experiencing homelessness in Seattle were already here when they became homeless.” This assertion, too, clashes with empirical evidence. More than half of Seattle’s homeless come from outside the city limits, according to the city’s own data. Even this number might be vastly inflated, as the survey asks only “where respondents were living at the time they most recently became homeless” — so, for example, a person could move to Seattle, check into a motel for a week, and then start living on the streets and be considered “from Seattle.”
More rigorous academic studies in San Francisco and Vancouver suggest that 40 percent to 50 percent of the homeless moved to those cities for their permissive culture and generous services.There's much more at the original. The next group are "addiction evangelists." I'm pretty libertarian about drugs, but there are certain externalities especially to policies that encourage drug use out doors and in concentrated areas. And again easy drugs in just one place forms a magnet:
public consumption sites do tremendous damage to businesses, residents and cities at large. It also attracts more homeless to a city.
In Seattle, the influx has already begun. According to survey data, approximately 9.5 percent of the city’s homeless say that they came “for legal marijuana,” 15.4 percent came “to access homeless services,” and 15.7 percent were “traveling or visiting” the region and decided that it was a good place to set up camp... Even King County’s former homelessness czar admits that the city’s policies have a “magnet effect.”Last time I was in San Francisco, as we were entering a restaurant a half-clothed man was shooting up heroin on the four foot wide sidewalk just in front of the restaurant. I feel for the problems this man must have been facing, and the terrible life he leads. But San Francisco's policies are not a functional response, either to his problems, or those of a city where this is a normal part of life.
Chris doesn't offer easy solutions, nor do I.
The best way to prevent homelessness isn’t to build new apartment complexes or pass new tax levies but to rebuild the family, community, and social bonds that once held communities together.That's nice, but let's put it mildly a large project. And neighborhoods where the vast majority of children are born to and raised by single women, with few fathers or working men in sight, seems like a larger goal of such a policy. (Another great topic for fanciful narratives is political discussion of "inequality" in which this screaming impediment to economic advancement is as unmentionable as is nuclear power at a climate-change rally.)
Homelessness should be seen not as a problem to be solved but one to be contained.
Cities must stop ceding their parks, schools and sidewalks to homeless encampments. In San Diego, for instance, city officials and the private sector worked together to build three barracks-style shelters that house nearly 1,000 people for only $4.5 million.
They’ve moved 700 individuals off the streets and into the emergency shelter, allowing the police and city crews to remove and clean up illegal encampments.
In Houston, local leaders have reduced homelessness by 60 percent through a combination of providing services and enforcing a zero-tolerance policy for street camping, panhandling, trespassing and property crimes. There’s nothing compassionate about letting addicts, the mentally ill and the poor die in the streets. The first order of business must be to clean up public spaces, move people into shelters and maintain public order.The latter is the heart of Chris's point. The former seems sensible, and I have heard good superficial reports of similar programs. Still, I'm skeptical. One trip to a public toilet is enough to convince you of the difficulties of renting any kind of apartment to people who are struggling with mental illness and drug addictions. Didn't we just close down housing projects all over the country? Plus, we are infatuated with building new housing. The easiest way to get cheap housing is to move wealthy people out of older houses by letting them build new. And this too is the sort of thing that really has to be done at the state level. If one city does too good a job, it will only attract people to move there and make its job harder.
Today's post though is not about exactly what policy is best to solve this tough problem. Most of all, I am struck by Chris' insight about how really dysfunctional policies persist through the repetition of these fairy-tale narratives.
The current policy dysfunction is pretty clear.
the Seattle metro area spends more than $1 billion fighting homelessness every year. That’s nearly $100,000 for every homeless man, woman and child in King County, yet the crisis seems only to have deepened,... By any measure, the city’s efforts are not workingNow let's talk about job training programs, disability, food stamps, agricultural subsidies, trade, tax laws...