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When we look at the homeless population, we see an over-representation of African Americans,” said Jennifer Friedenbach of the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness.  “We see everyone who is facing oppression reflected in the homeless population.”

Domestic violence and child abuse contribute to homelessness.

People dehumanize the homeless, perpetuating their victimization.

Racism contributes to homelessness, addiction, and overdose, argue progressives.

But if poverty, trauma, and structural racism cause addiction, why did addiction worsen over the same period that poverty, trauma, and racism declined?

Trauma from child and partner violence is at its lowest level in decades and perhaps hundreds of years. Crimes of violence against children, including rape, assault, and robbery, declined by one- to two-thirds between 1992 and 2010. Total reported child abuse during the same period declined 62 percent. And the number of children who were spanked or otherwise received physical discipline declined by one-third between 1975 and 2014.

Few nations have achieved a higher material standard of living than the United States. Just 2 percent of Americans who graduate from high school, live in a family with at least one full-time worker, and wait to have children until after turning twenty-one and marrying, in what is known as the “success sequence,” are in poverty. According to research by the Brookings Institution, 70 percent of those who follow the success sequence enjoy middle-class or higher incomes, defined as at least 300 percent of the poverty line.

In the fifty years between 1970 and 2019, per capita income in the United States rose from $18,719 to $39,156 in 2019 dollars. True, white and Asian per capita incomes were higher at $41,374 and $44,880, respectively, compared to black and Latino incomes of $27,024 and $23,289. But per capita income still rose 84 percent among Hispanic people and 145 percent among black people. And a declining share of incomes today go to many basic necessities, allowing for far greater material wealth. In 1960, the average American family spent 24 percent of its income on meals at home. In 2019, it spent just 6 percent.

AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File
Despite declining poverty, trauma, and racism, addiction has increased--homelessness has persisted.

…It was wrong that the federal government channeled black families into rental apartments and white people into subsidized homeownership after World War II, but few argue that racism increased since then, and on many measures it declined significantly in the period that addiction worsened. The 1964 Civil Rights Act mandated desegregation by institutions that received federal money. In 1968 the Fair Housing Act closed loopholes on discriminatory lending. And governments, universities, and firms have used affirmative action programs to promote people of color to positions of power within organizations since 1965.

… America’s social safety net has expanded dramatically over the last half century. New programs included Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program (1972); the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) nutrition program (1972); Pell Grants (1972); the Earned Income Tax Credit (1975); the child support program (1975); Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (1981); Children’s Health Insurance Program (1997); Medicare Part D subsidy for low-income Americans (2003); and the Affordable Care Act (2010).

…While people still say dehumanizing things about the homeless, doing so certainly isn’t good politics. Quite the opposite. Over the last decade, the governor of California and the mayors of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle have made helping the homeless a centerpiece of their election campaigns. All have expressed great compassion and sympathy for the homeless. And all have significantly expanded the amount of money they spend on housing, shelter, and services.

Fawad Assadullah/Office of Mayor Eric Garcetti
Prominent politicians like LA Mayor Eric Garcetti have destigmatized homelessness, made it a central campaign issue, and plowed money into housing, shelter, and services.

…It is worth putting today’s treatment of the homeless in historical context. California’s constitution in 1879 authorized local governments to arrest beggars, vagrants, and the poor if they were Chinese. In 1941, California defended before the US Supreme Court a law that resulted in a man being incarcerated for six months simply for bringing his homeless brother-in-law into the state. The US Supreme Court rejected California’s argument, and struck the law down, saying “poverty and immorality are not synonymous.”

Over the last fifty years, public attitudes, laws, and the courts have all grown significantly more liberal. In 1972, the Supreme Court strongly restricted the enforcement of vagrancy laws, which in some states had targeted African Americans. In 1993, a federal court ruling prevented New York City from banning panhandling because, it ruled, begging is a form of protected free speech. In 2006, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals blocked Los Angeles from enforcing a 1968 law that outlawed sleeping on sidewalks. And in 2020, the Supreme Court upheld a 2018 ruling by a lower court against the city of Boise, Idaho, which found that cities cannot impose or enforce camping bans unless “shelter” were “practically available.”

During the pandemic, the federal government gave cities funding to pay for hotel rooms for many homeless to stay in, free of charge, for most of the pandemic, and when it received the coronavirus vaccine, San Francisco and most other cities vaccinated its homeless population early in the process. The city spends a share of its budget that is 50 percent larger than the share spent by New York City and six times more than the share spent by Chicago on homelessness. San Francisco increased its spending on homelessness from $157 million to $567 million between 2011 and 2022. While it’s true that people on the street suffer higher rates of eviction, trauma, and abuse than people who don’t live on the street, it’s also true that the vast majority of people who lose their housing, get traumatized, live with over-policing, and come from generations of poverty aren’t living on the street, or addicted to heroin, fentanyl, and meth. The choices that evicted, traumatized, and over-policed people make must matter, otherwise the number of homeless would be far higher.

The choices that evicted, traumatized, and over-policed people make must matter, otherwise the number of homeless would be far higher.

Michael Shellenberger

…Until the early 1980s, many people described the homeless as “bums,” “hobos,” and “vagrants” who chose their lifestyle and were undeserving of help. “It was advocates who coined the phrase, ‘homeless,’” said the University of Pennsylvania’s Dennis Culhane. “They’re the ones who thought ‘homeless’ would be a soft, fluffy term for the public to be sympathetic to.”

The term was used as a way to advocate for public subsidies for housing. “The anti-homelessness movement chose the term ‘homelessness,’” wrote Gowan, “as opposed to ‘transient,’ ‘indigent,’ etc., for its implication that the biggest difference between the homeless and the housed was their lack of shelter.”

Words are powerful. The word “homeless” not only makes us think of housing, it also makes us not think of mental illness, drugs, and disaffiliation. The word directs our attention to things perceived as outside of a person’s control, such as the high cost of housing, and away from things perceived as in their control, such as working, parenting, and staying sober. The news media have framed homelessness as poverty since the 1980s. “It hasn’t been this bad since the Great Depression,” claimed KQED, San Francisco’s main public broadcaster, in 1983. “Yet the stock market is booming. Venture capitalists are making millions of dollars overnight in Silicon Valley video games. For a few, it’s the best of times.

For many more, it’s the worst.”

It was a grossly misleading statement. The poor farming families like the Okies who fled to the Bay Area in 1933 were utterly unlike the crack-, heroin-, and alcohol-abusing single homeless men of San Francisco in 1983. The two groups were homeless for completely different reasons and needed completely different things to improve their lives. As for unemployment, it declined dramatically, from nearly 10 percent in 1982, the year when the national news media started to heavily cover homelessness, to just over 5 percent in 1989.

Few were more influential than homeless advocate Mitch Snyder, who was played by the actor Martin Sheen in a 1986 made-for-TV movie. Snyder had become famous in 1982 after claiming that the number of homeless had grown to two to three million, based on little evidence and wild extrapolations. Experts at the time said that the number was wrong but news media used it to conflate homelessness with poverty and attribute it to mass unemployment and the economic policies of Reagan.

Media attention and advocacy resulted in sweeping new federal legislation. In the spring of 1986, five million people attempted to form a human chain from California to New York to raise $24 million for the “Hungry and Homeless.” Thanks in part to the heavy media attention, progressive advocates for the homeless were able to turn out 40,000 demonstrators to march in Washington to demand “Housing Now!” in the fall of 1989. The year before, over one hundred of the nation’s leading editorial cartoonists and comic strip creators, including Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau, created cartoons aimed at “raising awareness.” In response, Congress passed the McKinney Act, which provided federal money for homeless shelters and transformed homelessness support services from the independent agencies of the 1980s into what is today referred to pejoratively as the “homeless industrial complex.” The number of government agencies increased tenfold, from 1,500 in the early eighties to over 15,000 a decade later.

But the warning signs were all there, including with Mitch Snyder, who ran a dangerous homeless shelter. “That place was an insane asylum,” wrote a Washington Post reporter later, “with people fighting and vomiting and urinating on themselves. After 15 years of trying to help such people, almost anyone would be depressed.”

(AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin: "We will not prosecute cases involving quality-of-life crimes."

Arresting and prosecuting the homeless for things like defecating in public, injecting fentanyl publicly, and living on the sidewalk is unethical, say a growing number of progressive political candidates and elected officials, because the people doing those things are victims of racism, poverty, and trauma. When he ran for office in 2018, San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin announced, “We will not prosecute cases involving quality-of-life crimes. Crimes such as public camping, offering or soliciting sex, public urination, blocking a sidewalk, etc., should not and will not be prosecuted.” Enforcing the law contributes to further victimization, says Boudin. “Jails do nothing to treat the root cause of crime,” read his campaign platform. In early 2020 Boudin said, “There are people who are harmed by the addiction crisis in this city, by open-air drug use and drug sales.” But, he added, “those are technically victimless crimes.”

From 2019 to 2021, the number of crimes Boudin decided not to enforce grew. In 2020, Boudin announced that he was not going to prosecute street-level drug dealers because, in part, they are “themselves victims of human trafficking.” Defendants often receive plea deals and stay-away orders that are easily ignored. “It’s common for the defendant to return to the same corner anyway, get arrested again and be sentenced by a judge to probation,” noted a Chronicle columnist. “Defendants are almost always out in the community as their cases wind their way through the courts.”

In May 2021, a San Francisco Superior Court judge refused to grant stay-away orders for four defendants who had been charged multiple times with drug dealing offenses, ruling that such orders would “violate the defendants’ constitutional rights.” The ACLU applauded the ruling, saying the judge had rejected the city’s “attempt to scapegoat four individuals for its own policy failures to address real needs in the Tenderloin.”

In 2020 a Seattle city councilor introduced legislation to order the district attorney to stop enforcing laws if they are committed by the poor, the mentally ill, or people with substance use disorders. “Stalking, harassment, vehicle prowls, sexual exploitation, property destruction, hit-and-run, threatening someone with a gun,” noted the Seattle Times, “would be minimized and easily defensible.”

But even if we were to accept that everyone on the street has been victimized, and even if we were to agree that victimization has grown worse, does that mean we should give them the identity as victims, and make them immune from the law?

[E]ven if we were to accept that everyone on the street has been victimized, and even if we were to agree that victimization has grown worse, does that mean we should give them the identity as victims, and make them immune from the law?

Michael Shellenberger

In 1928, a twenty-three-year-old psychiatrist in Vienna, Austria, named Viktor Frankl created youth counseling centers to address rising suicides among adolescents. The innovative psychotherapy he created was so effective that by 1931, not a single student in Vienna had taken his or her life. Throughout the 1930s Frankl treated depressed patients, as well as other people with mental disabilities, and saved many of them from the Nazis who sought to exterminate them.

Frankl demanded that his depressed patients find a reason for living. He would even ask them, somewhat shockingly, “Why do you not commit suicide?” He wasn’t encouraging them to do it. Rather, he knew that by asking the question they would be forced to identify and specify their purpose, which was often tied to personal relationships or some kind of work.

Frankl asked challenging questions to provoke individuals to take responsibility for, and gain power over, their lives. Where Freud wanted people to orient toward the past, toward their childhood traumas, Frankl wanted people to orient toward their future, toward their goals. Where Freud emphasized how we are shaped by our environments, Frankl emphasized how we can control our experience. When people have a powerful reason to live, Frankl argued, and are aware of what it is, and pursue it, we can be free.

Frankl married his girlfriend in December 1941, one month before the Nazis rounded up Austrian Jews, split him from her and from his parents, and shipped them to different concentration camps. A prisoner, Frankl realized that if he were to survive he would need to put his theory of human motivation to work. He decided to concentrate on his reasons for living, which were so he could be with his wife and parents again, as well as to write a book about how he survived the death camps.

When the war ended and Frankl was released from the Nazi concentration camps, he learned that his wife and parents had all been killed. The goal of seeing them again had saved his life; now that goal was gone. So he turned to his other goal, to write a book about his experience, and added a new one, remarrying. He wrote the book quickly and saw it published in 1946. The original title in German was Nevertheless Saying “Yes” to Life, and the original title in English was From Death-Camp to Existentialism, which was eventually renamed Man’s Search for Meaning. It became one of the most influential books of the twentieth century, with translations into two dozen languages and over 10 million copies sold.

Frankl’s books and lectures helped give rise to self-help culture, first in progressive cities, and then in the rest of the United States, starting in the 1960s. Frankl loved the San Francisco Bay Area and was enormously popular here in the 1960s and 1970s, visiting several times, and giving lectures to very large audiences. In 1978 a scholar in Berkeley, a fellow survivor of the concentration camps, started the Viktor Frankl Institute of Logotherapy. Progressive psychologists and psychiatrists who are familiar with Frankl’s work, in my experience, revere him, as do the many progressive high school, college, and university teachers and professors who still assign his book today.

However, the very same progressives who promote Frankl’s philosophy as a guide for living, either directly or indirectly through Dr. Phil, Oprah, and other self-help gurus, condemn similar self-help thinking in political life as “blaming the victim.” Why is that?

Excerpted, with light edits, from San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities by Michael Shellenberger. Copyright 2021 by Michael Shellenberger. Published with permission from Harper Books and HarperCollins Publishers.
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