Homelessness Is Not About Housing
Michael Shellenberger skewers the Left’s narrative on homelessness and urban disorder.
San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities, by Michael Shellenberger (Harper, 416 pp., $28.99)
For decades, concern for the global environment has been a major political issue, yet our shared local environment, or “oikos” to use conservative philosopher Roger Scruton’s term, seldom receives the same attention. Environmental researcher, author, and California gubernatorial candidate Michael Shellenberger, a San Francisco Bay Area resident, is one of few thinkers who take an interest in both spheres. After writing a bestselling book on climate change, Shellenberger found it “consistent with the organization’s mission” to expand the work of his think tank, Environmental Progress, to address the decline of many American cities due to the spread of homelessness and crime.
The result is his masterful new book, San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities, both a kind of war reportage and a critical, compassionate analysis of the “crisis of disorder” in the West Coast’s urban centers—San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle. “California,” writes Shellenberger, “has half of America’s homeless but just 12 percent of the population.” A substantial portion of this group is unsheltered, with catastrophic effects for quality of life of both the homeless themselves and of the communities in which they roam aimlessly. Shellenberger opens the book by noting that a major environmental nuisance in San Francisco in the 1970s was uncollected dog feces; today, it is human excrement that pollutes the city’s streets and parks.
Public defecation is sadly not the only crime that goes unchecked. Open-air drug injection and dealing, as well as brazen thefts, have become common sights in progressive West Coast cities, reports Shellenberger. Murder rates have also increased dramatically, as they have in big cities nationally, since the summer of 2020.
“You really can do anything in San Francisco,” one resident tells Shellenberger. “It’s a free-for-all here in Seattle,” says a resident of that city, which is not only blighted by homelessness but was also rocked by the violent protests surrounding the so-called Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone.
Though it focuses on America’s West Coast, San Fransicko offers important lessons for cities more broadly. One insight, against which the writer and podcaster Andrew Sullivan pushed back in his recent conversation with Shellenberger, is that we should avoid using the term “homeless.”
“One word, ‘homeless,’” writes Shellenberger, “entails an entire, insidious discourse that acts subconsciously and subliminally on our hearts and minds, rendering us unable to understand the reality before us.” Originally coined by progressive activists in the early 1980s, the term deliberately obfuscates the fact that people live on sidewalks not because of poverty and high housing costs, but primarily because of untreated mental illness, drug addiction, or a combination of the two, as Shellenberger shows by talking to “rough sleepers,” parents, and social workers.
This conceptual confusion produces counterproductive policy choices like the Housing First model, whose underlying assumption is that unsheltered addicts and the mentally ill will recover as soon as they are provided with an apartment. West Coast cities are so wedded to this model that they have diverted funding from providing cheaper temporary shelters toward building fewer, more expensive apartments. As Shellenberger discusses at length, a significant body of evidence shows that the “privacy and solitude created by Housing First make substance abuse worse” and impede improvements in the care of the mentally ill. Studies find more positive long-term outcomes, even in terms of keeping people housed, for programs that offer better housing in exchange for behavioral changes.
But facts are only part of the picture in this debate. San Fransicko convincingly argues that the progressive response to crime and what is called homelessness is ultimately a question of morality. In a novel rethinking of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory, Shellenberger suggests that progressives do in fact value the three “conservative” foundations of authority, loyalty, and sanctity, but interpret them radically differently.
Progressives value authority and loyalty when it comes to anyone whom they define as a victim. “They’re the voices that should be centered,” as one activist says in the book. Progressives, writes Shellenberger, thus “insist on taking orders . . . from the homeless” and even from criminals, and support efforts to decriminalize or lower the cost of many antisocial behaviors, from public camping to drug dealing. Progressives also value the sanctity of perceived victims, which leads them to reject involuntary drug and psychiatric treatment.
Shellenberger is right that we need to replace this flawed moral system with a “new pro-human, pro-civilization, and pro-cities morality” that considers public spaces as sacred and order as essential to freedom. We should restore what Scruton called “oikophilia,” the love of one’s home. In greater detail than many other urban observers, Shellenberger has shown us the consequences of loveless cities.
Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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