Hoover Institution (Stanford, CA) – During the latest meeting of Hoover’s Working Group on Economic Policy, Michael Shellenberger, author of the best-selling book San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities and a recent candidate for governor of California, argued that the greatest factors driving the homelessness crisis in the Golden State are mental illness and substance abuse and addiction.

The conversation, chaired by George P. Shultz Senior Fellow in Economics John Taylor and moderated by Senior Fellow Lee Ohanian, also featured remarks by California assemblyman Kevin Kiley, a Republican who represents a district on the outskirts of Sacramento.

Shellenberger described the dramatic increase in drug-related deaths over the past fifteen years in the United States. He said that in 2007, 17,000 people died from overdoses. By 2017, that number had skyrocketed to 70,000. He added that it is estimated that drug overdose or poisoning deaths will reach 107,000 or more this year, which is three times the number of people who are killed in car accidents and almost five times the number of homicides in the country.

He blames this spike in large part to the decriminalization of narcotics use in recent years. This has fostered a culture in which people with serious mental illnesses congregate into encampments where they can have unfettered access to dangerously lethal drugs such as fentanyl and heroin. In progressive large cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, these “open air drug scenes” operate with little or no consequence and breed conditions for other illicit activities, including prostitution, and rampant incidents of violence, such as sexual assaults and murders. Due to their proximity to main thoroughfares, people living in encampments are frequently struck and killed by passing vehicles.

Shellenberger explained that in comparison to LA and San Francisco, East Coast cities like New York have far more homeless people. However, these metros experience much fewer vagrancy-related deaths, because their respective law enforcement agencies deny people experiencing homelessness the ability to seek refuge outdoors and mandate that they sleep in shelters, of which there is sufficient capacity.

Kiley explained that in California recently passed ballot measures reducing some drug-related crimes from felonies to misdemeanors and guaranteeing early release for nonviolent offenders (propositions 47 and 57, respectively) have eviscerated the ability of prosecutors to leverage the prospect of harsh penalties in order to convince defendants to avoid incarceration, enter drug treatment programs, and turn their lives around. 

Shellenberger asserted that the lack of ingenuity on the policy side is due to not only the influence of homeless population advocates, who in many cases hold anarchic views about government action, but also a libertarian impulse among many people who are afflicted with what he calls “Big Lebowski Syndrome,” a term inspired by the imperturbable protagonist portrayed by Jeff Bridges in the 1998 Coen brothers film The Big Lebowski.

“There is a California thing that is like, ‘Take it easy man.’ You like to drink chardonnay and smoke marijuana, why not let this poor person sit there and smoke meth and fentanyl in a tent?” said Shellenberger.

The state’s homelessness policies have come at an exorbitantly high price of $13 billion over the past three fiscal years. The results have been abysmal. According to Senior Fellow Joshua Rauh and Jillian Ludwig in their recent paper, “Homelessness in California: Practical Solutions for a Complex Problem,” even as the number of permanent housing units meant to address homelessness has increased by 43 percent since 2016, the number of unsheltered homeless individuals in the state has risen by 45 percent in the same period.

Among the policies that didn’t escape Shellenberger’s criticism was “Housing First,” which he accuses of being a political grift, whereby contractors charge the government an average of $800,000 per unit to house people experiencing homelessness, and in turn recycle those earnings back into the coffers of politicians’ campaign funds.

Alternatively, Shellenberger advocates an approach of “shelter first, treatment first, and housing earned,” which would prohibit people from living on the streets and place them in shelters on a temporary basis. Once they have completed treatment and have demonstrated a requisite level of personal responsibility, they could then petition the state for permanent housing. He also recommended that this approach be administered by a single state agency, since California’s counties and cities don’t have the resources and capacity to shelter their homeless populations.

Kiley explained, however, that lack of coherent strategies and insufficient accountability throughout state government has allowed money to flow into programs that have yielded disappointing results. Any attempts to audit government welfare agencies have been shirked by lawmakers and other state officials.

“The issue has reached a level of salience where there is a kind of desire among some legislators where it looks like they are doing something about it,” Kiley said. “I think a lot of the time they are kind of afraid of what these audits are going to turn up.”

Topic: California Homelessness: New Policies to Address an Intractable Problem
Start Time: June 22, 2022, 12:15 PM PT

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