The Bay Area’s most densely populated and desirable neighborhoods are being destroyed by lawlessness and squalor. San Francisco now leads the nation in property crime, according to the FBI. “Other low-level offenses,” Sandberg reports for City Journal, “including drug dealing, street harassment, encampments, indecent exposure, public intoxication, simple assault, and disorderly conduct are also rampant.”
With the situation growing more dire, residents are organizing to demand that the city take action against repeat offenders and strengthen quality-of-life laws. It remains to be seen whether the city will change its approach to public safety. “Meantime,” Sandberg writes, “the poor bear the brunt of low-level and property crimes.”
Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Coming up on today's show, our associate editor, Seth Barron, talks with one of our newest writers, Erica Sandberg, who's based in San Francisco. Last year, the FBI confirmed what visitors and residents of the Bay Area have come to know all too well: disorder is metastasizing in that city. San Francisco is infamous for its filth, its homeless encampments. Drug use in broad daylight is is now disturbingly common. Stores are closing in some of the city's historic neighborhoods and San Francisco is now the nation's leader in property crime. City Journal has done a lot of reporting recently on the growing levels of disorder in some of our nation's biggest cities. Erica's work in San Francisco, mirrors what Chris Rufo has reported on in Seattle and Andy Ngo and Michael Totten in Portland. Here in New York, though it's not quite as bad as it is in these west coast cities, there's a concerted effort to reduce the kind of public order enforcement that has made the city so successful. But back to Erica, her latest piece in City Journal, "San Francisco's Quality-of-Life Toll," blew up on social media last week, so we asked her to call in to the studio and give us a report on the podcast. I'm sure our listeners will enjoy it. Lastly, we announced this on last week's episode, but if you want to get in touch with the podcast, you can email us at email@example.com that's firstname.lastname@example.org. That's it from me. The conversation between Seth Barron and Erica Sandberg begins after this.
Seth Barron: Welcome back to 10 Blocks, the podcast of CityJournal. This is your host for today, Seth Barron, associate editor at City Journal. Erica Sandberg is a writer and noted expert on consumer finance and a long-term resident of San Francisco. She's been writing for City Journal recently about problems with homelessness and crime in San Francisco. Her most recent piece, "San Francisco's Quality-of-Life Toll," addresses the rise in public disorder in one of the jewels among America's cities. Thanks for joining us, Erica.
Erica Sandberg: Thank you so much for having me.
Seth Barron: Now, are you a native of San Francisco-- did I mischaracterize your presence there-- or just a long term resident?
Erica Sandberg: Practically native? I've been here for over 30 years, about 31 years now.
Seth Barron: Okay. Well, San Francisco's always had a gritty, bohemian edge, but what's happening now in the city sounds qualitatively different. Is it?
Erica Sandberg: It absolutely is. We've experienced a major downturn in the quality of life: crime and filth and many different problems within the past five to 10 years. Ten years is kind of stretching it, but in the past five years we've really seen an explosion in some pretty bad things that are happening here.
Seth Barron: Well, like what?
Erica Sandberg: Well, a lot of people call it homelessness, which is this umbrella term that I don't like to use, although we see the effects of it-- we're seeing people out on the sidewalks, in the streets, in the parks, and it's very much in your face, you can't escape it-- but what really is the problem is the underlying issue that's causing people to be there. And there are two major issues that we're really seeing. One is the increased drug use is just really off the charts, it's just off the charts, but the other is mental illness that you often see. The two go very much hand in hand, and right now it is impossible for anybody to not see. So you can't really get around it now.
Seth Barron: So are there people camping out on the streets? Is that the problem, are there encampments?
Erica Sandberg: Yeah, it's interesting. There has been a change in straight up encampments, so I can't miss when you see these massive tent cities that we were seeing a lot of-- we saw them under the freeway, and we saw them in certain areas of the city-- and they've been kind of busted up to a certain extent, which sounds kind of violent, but that's not really what it is. The police have come and they said 'you can't have an encampment,' so the people just sort of disperse. So instead of having these homeless communities in just little areas, in the pockets, you're seeing them all over the city and in areas that we never saw people before in that way. So, I think it's really alarming to a lot of visitors and certainly a lot of people who live here thinking, 'oh, now what have we done? What, what is going on and how can we change things?
Seth Barron: One thing that's gotten some press and it's become kind of infamous, are these "poop maps" or something. People saying that there's a lot of human waste scattered all over the ground. Is this true?
Erica Sandberg: Yeah, it is true. And I've got to hand it to the people who are on top of it because they're doing a really filthy job. They're literally going out there with their cameras and taking pictures of what they see and what they experience. Most of that is happening in certain neighborhoods, but it's all over. If you go check out the poop maps, it's kind of wild because it's everywhere and we don't have public restrooms and hey, we're humans. We're living, breathing things, and we do have to go, and with the sheer number of people who are living on the streets, it's not surprising.
Seth Barron: So what are the estimates of how many people are living on the streets?
Erica Sandberg: Totally depends on who you ask. So, right now the estimate is around 8,200 people who are living on the street. So we're not talking about people who are living in single room occupancy hotels or doing that couch surfing thing or in their cars or RVs. We're talking straight up homeless people. So that's a lot of people for a relatively small city. We only have just shy of 900,000 people who live here in a small space, so it's very concentrated.
Seth Barron: Yeah, that's about double the number of people living on the streets in New York City, which has 10 times the number of people. So I could see that that's a significant issue.
Erica Sandberg: Yeah, and as I say, it does depend on who you ask for those figures. So those are the latest figures from I believe the Department of Housing and Social Services or whatever the name of that department is-- seems to change all the time. The Coalition on Homelessness, which is an advocacy group will estimate it at much, much higher and there are some pretty good reasons they're coming up with those high numbers. So, as I say, it really depends on who is delivering that information.
Seth Barron: Oh, so 8,200 is actually a conservative figure? It could be higher.
Erica Sandberg: Correct. I have heard the leaders of this organization say, 'oh no, it's more like 23,000.' So you're looking at these bloated numbers. And let's face it, the more people that you say are out and about as vagrants, or wherever you want to call them, the more money they're going to be asking for.
Seth Barron: Oh, I see. So is crime an issue in San Francisco? Because I understand California has changed the way it deals with theft and misdemeanors in terms of arrests and prosecutions. So what's happened with low-level crime in San Francisco? Is it a growing issue?
Erica Sandberg: It's become absolutely out of control. You're right Seth. It was Proposition 47, which was passed a number of years ago for California, and what it did is that it switched out crimes that were once considered felonies and they're now considered misdemeanors. So when you have that vast reduction in what they are considered, you can't. . . Here, let me give you an example. So a property theft of an item that's worth less than $950 is no longer a felony. It used to be. It used to be around $340 something dollars, so anything above that was considered a felony. So now this ceiling, the threshold has reached almost $1,000, which now puts property at risk that you would think would be a major crime. So, for example, you're out at a cafe and someone takes your laptop, it's a misdemeanor. Does that or does it not give you, as a thief, the impetus to go out and grab somebody's laptop? Of course it does. The slap on the wrist is going to be very, very light, if at all. So we have seen an explosion in these types of property crimes, which extends to car break-ins, people grabbing cell phones on BART trains, any kind of theft that you might see that seems like it's not going to be this huge smash and grab in a major jewelry store kind of thing. It's a low-level crime. It's nothing.
Seth Barron: So how small businesses responded to this?
Erica Sandberg: Oh, it's terrible for small businesses. They have absolutely been inundated with these thieves who will come and grab stuff and then walk out the door, and some are so bold. I'm constantly going to my Safeway and saying, 'how's it going today? Who came in here and took what?' Like, 'yeah, it was at 8 o'clock in the morning, somebody came in and they cleared out the meat department.' It's not hard to find people who have been impacted, whether it's the small business owner, these mom-and-pop shops that are just trying desperately to survive, to major operations like Safeway and Macy's, where theft has skyrocketed.
Seth Barron: That's frightening. So how has the city responded to this? I assume the elected officials are fighting back and trying to curtail this, right?
Erica Sandberg: Well, you would think. Again, it depends on which department you're looking at. Of course the SFPD has been trying desperately to keep up with it because people are making the calls, they have to respond. So they are the ones on the front lines. They're like, 'okay, well, somebody just called because their car was broken into, or somebody stole their cell phone right out of their hands is they were waiting for their Uber.' They've got to respond, but their hands are tied, so there's only so much they can do. Regarding supervisors and the mayor, they have absolutely fallen short on clamping down on this and it's appalling. And so much of it is driven by two key factors. One is organized crime, which can be small, these little tiny groups of organized criminals, and the other one is drug crimes. And that also was majorly impacted by the passage of Proposition 47 because it essentially said, 'hey, drug use, if you're carrying drugs that are for your personal use up to a certain amount--' and it kind of depends on each type of drug-- 'it's not a felony anymore, it's a misdemeanor.' So it's increased the drug dealing in neighborhoods because so many people can access their drugs, it's easier. And so you're seeing these overlapping crimes. People who need money for their drug use are going to certainly be the ones who are very often on the street, they're not employed. So how are they going to get the money? You can do the math. So the city officials are not taking that type of crime seriously at all.
Seth Barron: So is there a growing resistance to this? How do people feel about it? There's an election this November. Are they going to turn out the mayor or is it going to be more of the same?
Erica Sandberg: What I absolutely love, and this is what's so exciting right now, is that we are seeing this groundswell of people in San Francisco who are done, they are absolutely 100% done with the status quo. So, liberal, conservative, it crosses boundaries. Politics has nothing to do with it. Quality of life has everything to do with it. So yes, we are seeing more people from all over, from all walks of life, say this administration and the way it's being run is, is done. It's over. And it's really, really exciting. So yes, we're definitely seeing a lot of people who are more than willing to overturn what we have right now. The problem is, we don't have many people who are willing to step up and do the job. So you can not elect Mayor Breed, but who was in her place? So right now there are no strong contenders because we don't really have anybody who can step up and say, okay, I'm going to do things differently.
Seth Barron: That's a shame. You wrote a piece for us on what you called "harm production." What did you mean by that?
Erica Sandberg: Well, it's kind of play on harm reduction, which is this theory that instead of helping people off drugs and really putting your attention into things like rehabilitation centers and cracking down on drug crimes, we're just going to help people stay on drugs. And that's really what it is, stay on the substance of their choice, make it safe, make it so the needles are there, they're clean, that people can have immediate access to them. But it's not just with needles, it's also meth pipes, it's also straws that you can use for snorting, which is really hilarious of course, because straws are outlawed here in San Francisco if you're going to use them for a beverage. But the whole premise of it is let's make it clean, safe, accessible so that people can maybe, if they really want to, pursue a life that's free of drugs. But so far we haven't seen that manifest. So it's really bizarre and safe injection sites are part of this. We don't have them yet, there's a huge push for them, and I'm completely opposed to it.
Seth Barron: Yeah, those are coming here, too, in New York.
Erica Sandberg: Are they?
Seth Barron: Well, that's the plan, anyway. It's not clear when or where precisely, but there are advocates for it. Erica, this was a sobering discussion. We'd like to hear your comments about today's episode on Twitter at @CityJournal #10blocks. If you like our show and want to hear more of it, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes. This is your host, Seth Barron. Erica Sandberg. Thank you so much for joining us.
Erica Sandberg: Thank you so much for having me.