Michael Shellenberger is author of San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities. He recently spoke with City Journal associate editor Daniel Kennelly about the book and the Bay Area’s crisis with homelessness, addiction, and mental health.
As you write in the book, you’ve been a progressive and a Democrat all your life. Could you describe where you started out on these issues?
Visiting San Francisco as a 14-year-old in 1985, I remember seeing people who were clearly psychotic and in dirty clothing talking to themselves, and my stepmother saying that it was because Reagan had let everybody out of the psychiatric hospitals. I didn’t think much more about it, because there were very few visible homeless in Colorado, where I’m from. When I moved to San Francisco in 1993, there were many homeless people in my neighborhood, the Mission District. In particular, the 16th Street BART station was an open drug scene. But still, as late as 2019, I wrote a column for Forbes calling on the governor to declare a state of emergency to build more housing, because I thought homelessness was still primarily a housing issue.
How did you come to write a book that questions so many of those assumptions?
Friends of mine kept telling me that it’s not just a housing issue—that it’s also obviously an addiction and mental illness issue. And I went on Dr. Drew Pinsky’s radio show—to talk about the Amazon and environmental issues—and we got to talking about San Francisco, and he said, yes, it’s a drug addiction and mental illness issue. After my book Apocalypse Never became a bestseller, I had a chance to do another book, and it was obvious that homelessness and addiction deserved such treatment. Ever since, I’ve continued to be shocked by the things that I got wrong in the past. My basic view now is that what we call homelessness or homeless encampments are more properly referred to as open drug scenes. These are places where people buy, sell, and use drugs. Their addiction leads them to live in those places, right where the drugs are, because they’re so sick with addiction. This is not just a problem of people who lost their jobs or couldn’t afford the rent. These are people who are suffering a mental illness, which is what substance-abuse disorder is and should be considered.
What were your first thoughts when you heard Mayor London Breed’s speech last winter about the “bullshit that has destroyed our city” and her promise to address the violence and drug trade in the Tenderloin and elsewhere?
It was almost unadulterated joy and elation. I felt proud to have contributed to the conversation evolving toward the themes I’ve been hitting, including tough love. And I think her use of the profanity was significant. The big-crayon-level view of this is that we need to be tougher. It’s not that complicated. The strategy of the radical Left for more than 30 years has been to accuse anybody who calls for toughness as lacking love. And I think Breed did a great job of expressing toughness but also love. Those two qualities should be balanced. That’s the main theme of San Fransicko. You don’t get that soft, coddled family life without a hard shell of security, in the form of police, national guard, and so on, and anybody who thinks otherwise isn’t living in reality. It’s interesting that my book is landing at a time when wishful thinking on a host of things—about Putin, about renewable energy, and about mental illness and addiction—is coming to an end.
And what about Mayor Breed’s follow up? How would you assess her response?
It’s been a gigantic step backward ever since—maybe two steps backward. I’m shocked at how bad the situation has become. She used her December announcement to hide the fact that she had already been planning to open an illegal supervised drug-consumption site in the midst of this formerly pristine public square in the theater district that was used for farmer’s markets.
You’re talking about the story you broke about the Linkage Center. Can you tell us what you saw inside?
I heard a rumor about it from Erica Sandberg, who was covering the issue before me and deserves huge amounts of credit. So she tipped me off. She was just being a good, nosy reporter and was told, while getting a tour of the Linkage Center, that it was a “safe” drug-use site. So I went, and we got the same tour, and we took photos. Inside we saw people smoking fentanyl and meth, primarily being supervised. We saw lots of people sitting under a canopy, sitting in the sun in highly unsanitary conditions, suffering late-stage substance-use disorder. Visible skin lesions and sores. Gauntness. Behavioral disorders, including aggression and hostility. Not the picture of a medicalized, semi-palliative care scene that advocates of supervised drug sites have been selling to policymakers for the last ten years.
What were some of the most important books or authors you kept coming back to as you were doing the writing?
Victor Frankl, the great Austrian psychiatrist and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, who survived the concentration camps through what you might today call cognitive behavioral therapy and was a founder of a more stoic philosophical self-help tradition. I found that just watching a few minutes of his videos almost instantaneously cured me of my early Covid depression at having our lives turned upside down. I became somewhat obsessed with Frankl, and in particular with the question of why, if so many progressives and liberals love Victor Frankl and the idea of mental strength, did the Left come to see that sort of thing as blaming the victim and bad for poor people, when the whole point is that’s how you end victimization.
Photo by Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images