Can We Fix San Francisco?


In December, San Francisco Mayor London Breed declared a state of emergency within the metropolis’s Tenderloin district, which is able to result in elevated police presence within the epicenter of town’s homelessness disaster. It was a serious turnaround for Breed, who after the police killing of George Floyd in 2020 referred to as for “ending using police in responding to non-criminal exercise.” The transfer was criticized by teams just like the Coalition on Homelessness, which referred to as it an “enlargement of methods which were tried and failed” that might contribute to the “instability and poor public well being outcomes” of individuals dwelling on the streets.

Michael Shellenberger, creator of San Fransicko: Why Progressives Spoil Cities, referred to as Breed’s new “robust love” strategy a “huge step in the best course.” The homelessness disaster, he argues, is definitely an dependancy and psychological well being disaster; to cease it, he believes, we have to finish insurance policies that let open-air drug scenes on public property, stop police from imposing the legislation, and undermine the creation of a useful psychological well being care system. Shellenberger is actually not a libertarian, although says he appreciates the “cultural libertarianism” of his dwelling state.

In January, Motive‘s Zach Weissmueller interviewed Shellenberger, a Bay Space activist finest recognized for his advocacy of nuclear energy, about his foray into social coverage, his critiques of each progressive and libertarian politics, and whether or not America’s cities can clear up their streets with out grossly violating civil liberties.

Motive: Your new e book is San Fransicko: Why Progressives Spoil Cities. First off, may we speak in regards to the title for a second? It is a bit aggressive, no? Aren’t you nervous about scaring off probably persuadable folks?

Shellenberger: I do not wish to scare off anyone, however I consider in fact in promoting. San Francisco and different liberal cities are sick. They’ve folks with untreated psychological sickness and untreated dependancy tenting in parks, on sidewalks, utilizing medication publicly, defecating publicly. It is an enormous public well being downside. I do not simply imply homelessness—I additionally imply the broader city decay, together with rising crime.

I additionally argue that there is a sick mind-set about these issues, which is to pathologize our system as essentially evil and flawed, and that that results in horrible outcomes. The e book is about San Francisco, however it’s additionally actually about what the subtitle says, which is why progressives break cities. Why is it that cities that ostensibly care probably the most about poor folks, minorities, and other people struggling psychological sickness and dependancy deal with them so terribly? What is going on on? That is the explanation for the e book.

I’ve recognized as a progressive. I now determine as a liberal and a average, and I see myself making the case for establishments—police and legal justice and functioning electrical energy grids and homeless shelters.

The attitude that you simply deliver to this as a former activist concerned in progressive causes is oddly relatable to me, as a result of progressive politics and libertarian politics overlap in lots of of those areas—drug legalization, legal justice reform, the rights of these with psychological sickness. As a former Californian who has seen and documented a whole lot of the tragedy unfolding on the streets, I’ve needed to personally assume very deeply about how a few of these insurance policies have been applied and their real-world results. I nonetheless wish to see main modifications in legal guidelines and sentencing throughout the nation that maximize private liberty, however my common sense is that the best way it has been applied in follow has emphasised the non-public liberty aspect of the equation whereas ignoring the non-public accountability half. For a libertarian, these issues are sure collectively. What’s your big-picture prognosis of what is gone flawed in California cities? 

I am in California as a result of I like the cultural libertarianism right here, the truth that we actually reject a whole lot of the standard standing hierarchy of the East Coast round the place you went to high school, working in huge corporations, stuff like that. I like the entrepreneurialism.

I additionally care lots about folks. I imply, I feel the journey that libertarians lay on folks is that they care about freedom extra. And the journey that progressives lay on folks is that they are extra compassionate. The reality is that a whole lot of us love our freedom and a whole lot of us care about different folks, and we’re in search of some sensible methods to unravel these issues.

In the event you take the so-called homeless downside, I consider it is essentially an issue of untreated psychological sickness and drug dependancy, a type of psychological sickness. It is typically self-inflicted, and it typically comes from trauma or from undiagnosed despair, nervousness, or schizophrenia, however typically it simply comes from partying an excessive amount of.

We do not have a functioning psychiatric system. Lots of people which might be hooked on onerous medication may need completed superb with an antidepressant, some cognitive behavioral remedy, and train, which works for nearly all people. We do not have that, and that is the standard progressive criticism.

Then the opposite situation is why are there so many individuals on the streets in San Francisco? It is as a result of we allow them to. There is a delusion that it is due to the climate. Definitely in freezing locations like Chicago, it is onerous to be on the streets year-round. However there’s different locations like Miami, that are heat, which haven’t got the identical issues that we’ve. Or they did, after which they fastened them. The answer is principally common shelter—a protected and clear place to sleep. It shouldn’t be so good that it attracts folks to wish to keep there.

That is not the coverage we’ve. We’ve a “housing first” coverage slightly than a “shelter first” coverage, underneath this utopian concept that we will simply present all people who needs their very own condo in San Francisco or Venice Seaside with their very own condo. It is clearly flawed. Simply geographically you possibly can’t do it, however financially you possibly can’t do it. And it creates a horrible incentive for folks to turn out to be homeless.

We want a “therapy first” coverage. We have to implement legal guidelines, together with misdemeanors, together with towards public tenting, public defecation, and public drug use. These are cries for assist from folks. After they break these legal guidelines, they need to be arrested, introduced earlier than a decide, and given the chance to have rehab or psychiatric care slightly than jail or jail.

We must always search to cut back the dimensions of the jail inhabitants. That is a objective that I had within the Nineteen Nineties once I labored for [George] Soros’ basis and Soros-funded nonprofits. I nonetheless share that view, however that is not what many progressive prosecutors are doing. Prosecutors in L.A., San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Chicago are simply letting folks out of jail, and so they’re not prosecuting crimes.

The core American worth has been freedom ever since our founding. That is a stupendous worth, and we should always proceed to have that worth, however it does require accountability, on the particular person degree but additionally on the societal degree. We have to steadiness these two values.

By way of fashions, I seemed on the Netherlands but additionally Portugal. The Europeans all do the identical factor: They do not enable folks to camp publicly, use medication publicly, defecate publicly. They do require folks to remain in shelters.

“Housing first” is the working assumption of most homelessness coverage. There is a simplicity to it that is interesting.

In the event you give folks with untreated psychological sickness and dependancy their very own residences and do not cope with the untreated psychological sickness or dependancy, they find yourself again on the road, typically in a short time. We now know from a giant Harvard examine that was completed over 12 years that there have been no higher outcomes for those that had housing first than non–housing first, even on their very own metric of retaining folks in housing.

The Nationwide Academies of Science, our premier analysis physique, did a evaluation of the science a pair years in the past [and] discovered that “housing first” didn’t have any improved outcomes. And there was some proof that it had worse outcomes as a result of it did not cope with the underlying downside of dependancy and psychological sickness. Simply to be honest to my opponents on this, their response is, “Effectively, we by no means stated that you simply would not even have companies.”

We do not have functioning psychiatric and dependancy care companies, however a whole lot of it is usually sufferer ideology, [which says] that it is best to give them issues, like their very own condo, and provide them assist however do not mandate it, as a result of that might be an extension of the victimization. And that is the place the whole lot goes flawed.

There may be some quantity of coercion that is normally required for folks to stop their dependancy. Folks do must be arrested. In Portugal, they do these interventions with a mixture of members of the family, social employees, authorities officers, and cops. I feel that is the place the dogma has interrupted the correct therapy of individuals with dependancy or psychological sickness: truly requiring some quantity of stress or coercion, if solely the enforcement of legal guidelines after they break them.

One of many issues that social employees do within the Netherlands is provide folks their very own non-public room as an incentive, or finally possibly their very own condo. However even their very own room is a extremely good incentive for folks, as a result of folks don’t love congregate areas; all people’s the identical in that approach. In order that’s a “housing earned” strategy. With a carrot-and-stick mannequin, you are all the time making an attempt to present folks a reward after they reply correctly, after which a stick—some consequence—after they violate it. There have been huge research completed on this in Birmingham, Alabama, truly, together with round crack. Crack addicts who got their very own condo as a reward for passing a drug take a look at did very nicely.

An necessary piece of that’s to have case managers. You want a bossy, annoying social employee. You are not supposed to love your social employee. They’re making an attempt to get you unbiased of them. A social employee must have a big quantity of energy truly delivering these rewards and incentives.

I wish to speak to you in regards to the drug conflict, which I nonetheless see as an enormous failure. I feel that decriminalization and finally legalization is the best path ahead to alleviate a whole lot of the struggling we see on the streets and sidewalks—possibly completed in a extra cautious approach than it has been completed in a few of these cities. You say within the e book that you simply had been as soon as a critic of the drug conflict. Do you now assume it is a good suggestion? Given what we all know in regards to the results of the black market, folks having their lives ruined with jail or jail time, is retaining medication criminalized a viable path ahead?

I nonetheless wish to see much less incarceration. We had a system that was looking for rehabilitation with a mannequin of nonfixed sentences, variable sentences for jail, the place there was a whole lot of leeway on the a part of parole boards by way of lowering time in jail in trade for good habits. It was truly the novel left that pushed to do away with that and have fastened sentences within the ’60s and ’70s. It was the conservatives who then went together with it and stated, yeah, we’ll simply have longer sentences. So in some methods I feel we had been stepping into a greater course within the ’50s.

I feel it is usually useful to get some image of the numbers of individuals which might be truly in jail for medication. There’s a whole lot of mythologies promoted by issues like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, and others, which recommend that almost all of individuals in jail are there for nonviolent drug crimes. It isn’t the case. It is true that half the folks in federal prisons are there for medication, however federal prisons are nearly 13 p.c of complete prisoners. Nearly 90 p.c of prisoners are in state prisons. And of these, solely 14 p.c are there on drug expenses; over half are there for violence.

Did the drug conflict succeed or fail? Effectively, on the one hand, it has spectacularly failed on each degree, as a result of we’ve 100,000 folks that died from medication final yr. That is a rise from 17,000 within the yr 2000. I imply, the numbers are mind-blowing. That is thrice extra folks dying of medication than automotive accidents, 5 instances greater than from homicides. It is the No. 1 explanation for demise proper now for folks between the ages of 18 and 45. These are horrible numbers.

Our pondering had historically been simply: decriminalize medication or prosecute folks and lock them up. I feel there’s a third approach, which is rather more much like the Dutch and Portuguese fashions. [In] the Dutch mannequin, they’re placing stress on addicts to stop. On the similar time, in the event you’re utilizing heroin or cocaine within the privateness of your individual dwelling, and you are not tenting on the streets, they don’t seem to be going to go after you.

By way of drug dealing, drug dealing continues within the Netherlands. I do not assume you might do away with drug dealing or drug use with no extreme curtailment of our civil liberties, which no one, not even probably the most fascist in our society would assist. However you possibly can disallow open drug scenes. [With that focus] you get out of this black-and-white view that you will one way or the other eradicate medication from society.

I’ve arguments with my conservative associates who assume that one way or the other we may do one thing to cease the movement of fentanyl and meth into the US. We could not cease the movement of cocaine and heroin, and people are plant-based substances. Whenever you’re speaking about synthetics like meth and fentanyl, that are made in labs in Mexico after which shipped throughout the border, I imply, neglect about it. You may’t cease the movement of medication, and you’ll’t cease drug dealing or drug use. The best place of intervention, then, is on the neighborhood degree and on the degree of the addict who’s committing crimes.

I feel you may make the case for cities prohibiting these open-air drug scenes on public property—on libertarian grounds, even. The place it will get dicey is with the problem of private consumption or gross sales inside the privateness of your individual dwelling or a personal venue. And in Portugal, for the document, they are going to arrest you only for doing medication, and produce you in entrance of a drug court docket, after which drive you into rehab. Are you prepared to attract a vibrant line there and deal with the open-air drug scenes and never going after informal drug customers? 

I am very snug with that. Being specific about it and creating some societal consensus is a crucial step in fixing this downside. I’m very uncomfortable with the federal government getting concerned in promoting these medication or promoting them from pharmacies. I feel it is OK to decriminalize. Decriminalization is totally different than legalization. I feel it needs to be onerous to get these substances, not simple. Proper now, $10 a day can get you your provide of fentanyl, about $10 a day for meth as nicely. I imply, that is simply principally free at that time, when it is the price of two Starbucks frappuccinos.

OK, however we have had this opioid disaster. And in areas the place they crack down on ache tablets, folks flip to illicit avenue medication and the overdoses go up. Is not there a case for simply permitting the authorized sale of all of it? We have to construct up a security web round it. We have to construct applicable therapy facilities, put restoration up there as one of many high priorities, and study to grapple with the truth of those medication in a extra subtle method society-wide. 

I look to the Europeans as a result of they’re forward of us on this. That they had open drug scenes within the late ’80s. They made the identical mistake that we’re making now. They modified their strategy, they concerned legislation enforcement within the early ’90s, and so they fastened it. There are supervised drug use websites within the Netherlands. They get between 10 and 20 folks per day. That is a tiny variety of folks if you consider it.

There are some folks that they do give heroin to within the Netherlands—lower than 150. These are folks for whom methadone, which is the substitute for heroin, didn’t work. Suboxone or buprenorphine, which is considerably superior to methadone, is extensively accessible. I am on board with the Dutch mannequin. I am superb if that you must enable some people to make use of these tougher medication, however they don’t promote heroin or fentanyl in espresso retailers in the identical approach that they do marijuana.

By the best way, marijuana smoking shouldn’t be allowed in public outdoors of these espresso retailers within the Netherlands. And in Portugal as nicely. They do arrest drug customers who use in public. I interviewed the pinnacle of the Portuguese drug program, who stated very clearly, “We don’t normalize drug use.”

I don’t assume we should always make it simple for folks to get entry to these onerous medication. I’ve even turn out to be considerably extra conservative on alcohol and marijuana. I used to roll my eyes at prohibitions on promoting alcohol on Sundays or on the grocery store or previous 10 p.m. [Now] I feel these can truly lead folks to alter their behaviors in constructive methods. I fear in regards to the heavy promotion of marijuana.

However look, it is onerous. There’s an issue proper now in California the place we have taxed marijuana a lot that there is simply a way more thriving black marketplace for marijuana, as a result of they will promote marijuana for a lot cheaper. It is a robust downside.

Your big-picture thought for fixing dysfunction on the streets is that this company that you simply name Cal Psych, which might override native psychological well being departments and funnel these with psychological diseases and drug addictions right into a centralized system. And you are a critic of what you name the outcomes of the neoliberal mannequin of contracting to nonprofits. 

However aren’t extra localized public-private partnerships extra accountable to communities? Why ought to anybody belief a system run by California’s state authorities, which oversaw the system of abusive insane asylums of the late nineteenth and mid-Twentieth centuries? Why would I count on one thing run out of Sacramento to be cost-effective, humane, or accountable?

Within the present system, you have got a bunch of charities, church buildings, non-public well being care suppliers, and rehab well being care suppliers which might be paid by taxpayers on the county degree to supply care. Proper now, they don’t seem to be accountable. They’ve been struggling for many years. They can not coordinate even on the native degree.

A part of the issue is the inhabitants itself. The addict inhabitants is very transient. If it is a legal inhabitants, they’re typically escaping native police jurisdictions which might be after them. But when they’re mentally ailing, there’s additionally a excessive degree of transience. So it is simply an enormous downside in that sense.

The opposite huge downside is the fee. San Francisco and Los Angeles are attracting enormous numbers of addicts from across the area, the state, and the nation. There’s folks on the streets from Cleveland and West Virginia.

San Francisco’s wealthy, however it will possibly’t present psychiatric and dependancy care for each addict in America. You might have a bodily downside: We do not have sufficient homeless shelters, psychiatric beds, residential care in San Francisco. And also you by no means will. The town’s simply too tiny for it.

In cheaper components of the state, just like the Central Valley, you possibly can have rehab services which might be on natural farms, with woodworking courses and programming courses to assist folks get their lives collectively. And in the event that they’re in Fresno, it is lots cheaper than in the event that they’re in San Francisco or Venice Seaside or downtown L.A., even. It is good to get folks out of drug scenes. Probably the most well-known [example] is American troopers in Vietnam who grew to become hooked on heroin. They got here again to the US, and most of them had been capable of stop with none downside, as a result of they weren’t round it on a regular basis.

With Cal Psych, I am arguing for a super-hierarchical, clear company that does contracts with these totally different suppliers, so there’ll nonetheless be a whole lot of private-sector suppliers. I do not assume that you must nationalize all the sector. The Dutch, for instance, do a giant subcontract with the Salvation Military. It is truly the way it works in Massachusetts.

It could be a authorities company with a CEO who stories on to the governor, with regional managers who oversee case employees and contractors.

Look, there is no good mannequin. If that is up and operating and has success for a number of a long time, by 2050 or 2060 or 2070 it is probably not working anymore, and chances are you’ll want to alter these establishments. I feel that is truly what the Founders meant after they stated that you simply want a revolution each a number of a long time. These establishments do get corrupt.

I do know from studying your e book that you do not wish to return to the unhealthy outdated days of insane asylums and mass incarceration. However the present trajectory in these cities is clearly not proper both. What’s the center path? And the way do you assume that these of us who’re legitimately involved about points like private liberty and autonomy and never bringing in heavy-handed legislation enforcement who trouble folks for sitting on a park bench with their stuff could be a part of a productive coalition to get America’s cities again on monitor for the twenty first century?

We do not need over-incarceration. That signifies that we have to rely extra closely on good policing, psychiatry, and probation. I would come with, inside psychiatry, rehab and dependancy care. You additionally want some sort of case employee. You want empowered case employees—”assertive case administration” is what it is referred to as—to bridge these issues.

One of many huge arguments for defunding the cops is that they should not be responding to psychological well being calls; we should always have social employees try this. Truly, lower than 10 p.c of these psychological well being calls are protected sufficient for a social employee alone. Lots of these psychological well being calls are actually scary and contain folks engaged in violent actions. Actually what you need is extra mushy cops and extra onerous social employees, and also you need them working collectively. It sounds very kumbaya, however it’s not simple and it does take the police departments altering.

That is why I feel you want one thing like Cal Psych, as a result of I feel it needs to be considerably hierarchical in the identical approach that police departments are hierarchical, the place there’s some mandate that it’s a must to work with the social employee or it’s a must to work with a cop on this specific approach.

By way of psychiatry, I am with you. There have been some folks that have referred to as for the return to huge asylums. The proof, and principally what all people says who has to dwell in a kind of, is that residential care is far most well-liked to huge, outdated asylums. It’s important to bear in mind, then, that these residential care services are going to need to be in folks’s communities, and there is normally very robust NIMBY [“not in my backyard”] resistance. I feel a few of that’s solved by having the ability to have these residential care services unfold out extra uniformly across the state, not all concentrated in downtown San Francisco. However I feel that is an necessary reform and possibly does want a whole lot of federal assist.

After which probation. We’d slightly not have the state doing drug checks or digital monitoring, for instance, however these are higher approaches than jail. We’ve to get away from pondering of sentencing as a swap: You are both incarcerated otherwise you’re not; you both do your time otherwise you’re free. There’s a whole lot of good center floor in digital monitoring, digital ankle bracelets. The know-how may be very subtle at this level. We needs to be doing much more of that.

One of many belongings you hear lots whenever you interview folks is that they’ll say, “I actually hate my parole officer, they actually bug me” or, “I hate my case employee, however I want them with the intention to keep sober and preserve my life collectively.” I’ve three associates from highschool who grew to become homeless drug addicts. Two are lifeless; one is alive. He has advised mutual associates of ours that he feels he must be on probation to be getting the fixed care he wants.

It isn’t the libertarian supreme, however it’s lots higher than chaos or mass incarceration.

This interview has been condensed and edited for fashion and readability. The complete video model could be seen right here.

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