Erica Sandberg joins Brian Anderson to discuss homelessness in San Francisco, the campaign to recall California governor Gavin Newsom, and the budding backlash against San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin.
Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is Erica Sandberg, a widely published consumer finance reporter based in San Francisco, and she also covers homelessness, crime, and public order in the Bay Area for City Journal. In her latest article, "San Francisco's Substance Abuse Crisis," Erica reports on the grim state of affairs in the city's sixth district in which thousands of homeless addicts shoot up and smoke unmolested while the city pushes policies that ignore the real source of the problem. Erica, thanks very much for joining us.
Erica Sandberg: Well, thank you so much for having me, Brian.
Brian Anderson: Well, let's discuss this recent piece you've done for us which got a lot of traffic, a lot of attention. California now leads the nation and has for some time I think in unsheltered homelessness. I think statewide, there's something like 90,000 people living on the streets. As you note, more than 8,000 of those homeless individuals live in San Francisco. Governor Newsom, Gavin Newsom has launched a program called Project Roomkey to relocate the unsheltered, homeless people to hotels and motels that the state is now leasing and turning over to them. Now, how has that program fared so far? So, let's start with that.
Erica Sandberg: Yeah. Overall, it's been a disaster. You wouldn't know it if you talked to the politician and anybody else who's involved in the program because they're going to say that it is fabulous. Everything's working out really well. But they don't want you to go down and take a look at what actually is happening. So, there's this massive disconnect. The crime in and around these hotels and motels is off the charts. We have seen absolutely no difference on our city streets. If the intention was to help people off the streets and that we'll have clearer, better communities after this, that certainly has not happened. And more tragically, it has not helped the people who were designated to these hotels. Most of them, I mean, there are a handful of people who were really grateful and it's really been beneficial. But you're talking about huge numbers of people who have extremely bad substance abuse problems, and the result of just simply putting them inside these rooms has been nothing short of a disaster.
Brian Anderson: Well, what do you think explains this strange fact that city and state leaders just won't recognize that homelessness is significantly a phenomenon of addiction and mental illness, often in combination? Why are they so intent on treating this as a problem of housing, insufficient housing, or [crosstalk 00:03:11]?
Erica Sandberg: It's insane. Yeah, it's the housing first philosophy where the reason that people are homeless is because they do not have housing and they're sticking to that like white on rice. They refuse to let that go and I can't really get into why they don't want to because I can't get inside their heads because it's so clear if you look at the situation and you look at the people who are on the streets. The first thing that's going to come in... The first reaction that you will have is these are very, very sick people. For the most part, they are just in the worst condition you can imagine. And your first reaction would not be, "Oh, if only they had a room to go to." It would be, "Oh, if only they had a place to go where they could get physically and emotionally well." That's where you would go.
So, yeah, why the disconnect? I'm sure it has something to do with money. It has something to do with politics. It has something to do with not wanting to admit that you're wrong. Instead of just stopping and changing direction, it's doubling down. So, it's a combination of factors.
Brian Anderson: Governor Newsom, in fact, has proposed Project Roomkey as a kind of national model that other cities should be following the lead of California and San Francisco in this. We're seeing a version of that here in New York and it's creating similar problems and similar public complaints.
Now, speaking of Newsom, there is a recall push which is something California makes possible, and it's taken off. Supporters of the petitions to recall the governor say they have now exceeded the threshold which is 1.5 million signatures to initiate the recall. So, that means Newsom will probably face this later this year. Right? Now, the governor's friends in the press and his political allies have called this a Republican recall led by diehard supporters of Donald Trump and motivated by this anti-scientific irrationality over masks and how Newsom has handled that and lockdowns. Is that an accurate view in your opinion or is Newsom facing something broader? Is this a dissatisfaction that goes beyond hardcore conservative elements in the state?
Erica Sandberg: It's pathetic, quite frankly. The people who have been really vocal about getting rid of Newsom and just being really upset about what's happened to California are people all across the political spectrum. It is absolutely not a conservative-only a Republican-only movement, not by a long shot. And I mean, again, I can take a look at here in San Francisco where I could probably fit all the Republicans into my small apartment and still have room. And I know a lot of people who had signed the recall petition and are very eager to have him out and they're just not on the right. Most of them, I would describe them as being just kind of in the center or apolitical, or even slightly on the left. So, yeah, I mean, it would be disingenuous to paint them all as this sort of hardcore right-wing movement trying to get rid of Gavin Newsom. It's absurd. To me, it smacks of desperation because if they have to lie about it, then it really shows they don't have the truth on their side.
Brian Anderson: Now, Newsom may prevail in the recall or he may not. As you suggest, it doesn't seem likely that California's going to become a swing state in presidential races anytime in the near future. But we are seeing some signs in California that voters do have limits about what they're going to tolerate on the left. This seems very true locally. It's perhaps true for at least certain statewide offices as well. What do you think the opportunity is for California conservatives or Republicans as discontent mounts with officials like Newsom or LA attorney, George Gascón?
Erica Sandberg: Yeah. I think that there's huge opportunity. There's huge opportunity for independents, for independent politicians. Anybody who's going to step in and say, "I'm just done. I'm actually going to completely ignore the two-party system, and I'm just going to go forward because obviously what we have is not working." I think that there is an opportunity for classic conservatives. It's really hard with the Republican Party. It's been really tarnished. So, I don't have as much optimism regarding that. But I think anybody who would be a little bit different, has a great message, is very positive, and has something to back it up with. You and I were talking earlier very briefly about Yang in New York, and honestly, if he were here, I think he would do well. So, it's going to be somebody who is slightly different, who would have the most enthusiasm from voters at this stage.
It's so sad to see what has happened to this state. Diehard Californians, we are here. There are plenty of us, and we want somebody who is going to just simply run the state well, be a good manager, and we do not have one. It is truly a tragedy what has happened to this state. It truly is. It would be very difficult to look at California and say, "This is a success right now." It's embarrassing. The homelessness alone, and I hate that word homelessness because it really doesn't describe what's driving the homelessness, but you look at Venice, California, Sacramento, Berkeley, San Francisco, downtown San Diego. It's astonishing how bad it is. And it's all policy-driven. So, we need to have somebody who going to be here and is going to change that policy. That's what we're looking for. And that's just one step. That's just one thing that's making us in California so completely livid.
Brian Anderson: Returning to San Francisco, you have a progressive prosecutor serving as district attorney there, a notorious figure now, Chesa Boudin, who has started to encounter some backlash of his own when it recently emerged that a man who allegedly murdered a baby boy had twice been arrested for a felony domestic violence this year, only to be released both times. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Boudin's office dismissed 113 of 131 domestic violence cases brought between October and December of 2020. San Francisco's a very progressive city, but is patience with this kind of progressivism starting to wear thin in your view?
Erica Sandberg: Oh, it's worn thin. If it was a novelty in the beginning that made people very excited, like, "Oh, we have this social justicey guy here, and he's going to empty the prisons, and everything is going to be grand." Even his supporters have backed away and have said, "Okay, this is not working out." So, it's pretty astonishing. For example, city supervisors, those who did support him very publicly, you cannot find their support online right now. They're still there, but they're not really there. As far as the public is concerned, they've turned their back on him. Chesa Boudin's main supporters now are actually coming from outside the city which is really interesting to see.
If you're here in the city, you know how bad crime has become. You feel it. You see it. It's happened to someone you know if it hasn't happened to you personally. So, the first person you're going to look toward and say, "Well, what are you going to do about this?" is going to be the DA. And that DA has abdicated his responsibilities. He is an absolutely atrocious district attorney. He's not doing his job. And the greater San Francisco population has really very, very much soured on him, and yeah, he is being recalled, and there's a lot of excitement about that.
Brian Anderson: I wonder, a last question just on the local press in the city, the San Francisco Chronicle is still publishing, although I think it's not the force it once was in city life. What is the media environment like there and how do they regard the city's current situation?
Erica Sandberg: Well, I think the media, it depends obviously on the publication. I think there has been a push toward gentleness on Chesa Boudin, even though you have columnists like Heather Knight from the San Francisco Chronicle who has definitely covered the situation regarding crime. You have some amazing anchors and reporters like Dion Lim of Channel 7 ABC who has been on it hard, documenting what Chesa Boudin has done and the effect he's had on crime and how it's not being prosecuted. It's here. It's just not enough.
We definitely need more journalists who are brave, and who are going to come out and say, "Look, this is the truth. These are the numbers." Oh, we have the Marina Times, which is a small, independent newspaper who has been very, very on it and is not afraid to tell the truth. But you've got the San Francisco Examiner who still has one foot in left-wing media, and it's really hard. They don't want to come out and be as blunt as they should be. It's kind of sad. But at the same time, yeah, there is independent reporters, and some even staid, traditional reporters have definitely come out and reported on what they need to because it's the truth that we are not doing well, And that's really sad. I mean, the fact is we're not doing well. The baby is very sick. The baby is San Francisco. I'm very afraid of what's going to be happening in the future. I have optimism, but there's a lot of sickness here.
Brian Anderson: Well, I think this helps explain why your work is gaining such attention on the city, Erica. Now, don't forget to check out her work on the City Journal website, www.city-journal.org. We'll link to Erica's author page in the description. You can also find City Journal on Twitter, @CityJournal, and on Instagram, @cityjournal_mi. If you like what you've heard on the podcast, please give us a ratings on iTunes. Erica Sandberg, thanks very much for joining us today.
Erica Sandberg: Oh my pleasure. Thank you.
Photo by Gabrielle Lurie/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images