Heather Mac Donald joins Seth Barron to discuss homelessness on the streets of San Francisco and the city’s wrongheaded attempts to solve the problem.

“San Francisco has conducted a real-life experiment in what happens when a society stops enforcing bourgeois norms of behavior,” writes Mac Donald in City Journal. For nearly three decades, the Bay Area has been a magnet for the homeless. Now the situation is growing dire, as residents and visitors experience near-daily contact with mentally disturbed persons.

Mac Donald’s essay, “San Francisco, Hostage to the Homeless,” appears in City Journal’s Autumn 2019 issue; an adapted version was published in the Wall Street Journal.

Audio Transcript

Paul Beston: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Paul Beston, managing editor of City Journal. Coming up on the show today, Heather Mac Donald talks with Seth Barron about her latest essay for the magazine, titled “San Francisco, Hostage to the Homeless.” It’s a tour de force of reporting from Heather’s time in the Bay Area this past summer, and we’re thrilled to have her on the podcast to discuss it. The story was recently was recently adapted in the Wall Street Journal, and we’ll link to that and the full-length City Journal essay in the show description.

San Francisco, Hostage to the Homeless” is the first story released online from the new Autumn 2019 Issue, which will be available soon.

That’s it for me. The conversation between Heather Mac Donald and Seth Barron begins after the music.

Seth Barron: Welcome back to 10 Blocks, the podcast of City Journal. This is your host for today, Seth Barron, associate editor of City Journal. I'm joined today by Heather Mac Donald, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor at City Journal. Heather writes widely on crime, disorder, and free speech. Her most recent book is The Diversity Delusion. She's here today to discuss her latest article in the fall issue of City Journal, San Francisco: Hostage to Homelessness. Heather, thanks for joining us on 10 Blocks.

Heather Mac Donald: Well, thanks for having me on, Seth. It's great to be here.

Seth Barron: So you went to San Francisco and did some pretty intensive on-the-ground reporting. What did you see there?

Heather Mac Donald: I saw squalor, I saw chaos, I saw human degradation, and I saw a set of failed policies. San Francisco has done a real-life experiment of what it means to jettison any expectation of bourgeois norms for a favorite victim group, and they've done this in the name of compassion. They say, 'well, we can't expect the homeless to conform to our norms of civil behavior on city sidewalks. We're doing this because we think it's compassionate to exempt them from the expectations that everybody else lives by.' Instead, what you're creating is misery on the part of the so-called homeless themselves, which is really a complete branding triumph on the part of "Homelessness, Inc." because homelessness is the least of their problems. But you're also destroying cities. It is simply not acceptable to allow the sort of street squalor that has engulfed so many cities across the West Coast now. The law-abiding residents have an absolute right that they should not apologize for to expect to be able to walk on city streets without having to step over human feces, needles, drunken, raving people. That is simply not something that anybody should have to accept.

Seth Barron: So it sounds like you really embedded yourself in the squalid conditions of San Francisco. Can you tell our listeners what the experience was like?

Heather Mac Donald: Well, a lot of people were quite willing to talk about their lives, and what you hear again and again is that they've been offered services. The sense of drug addiction is absolutely ubiquitous. I guess what I was most struck by was just how flagrant the drug scene was. On every corner, you see 12 Hondurans congregated who are openly counting large wads of cash: the deals are going down right in front of your face. I was curious to see what their level of suspicion was and how shameless they were, and tried to score fentanyl, which is now the upcoming drug in San Francisco and so many other places. It's very lethal if it's pure and taken in large doses, and the problem is, it's hard for any user to know what this potency is. So I made inquiries all along Hyde Street, and was constantly directed, because I was offering too little in cash. But I finally struck a bargain at $16 and without any problem got a very large two-milligram dose of fentanyl, which I then got through the TSA at San Francisco airport. But it was an indication of how little these dealers fear law enforcement, that they were willing to sell to this girl lugging her luggage on the way to the airport. Now, maybe that's a frequent customer base for them. But I don't think so. Homelessness in San Francisco and elsewhere is heavily minority, and it stems above all from social breakdown, but people would tell you about the lifestyle that is so enabled, and tick off all the goodies that are available to them, and the fact that they have opportunities that are available but are simply not something that they're willing to accept at this point, because they want to stay on the streets where they can use drugs without getting harassed.

Seth Barron: Are you allowed to use drugs in the homeless shelters?

Heather Mac Donald: Probably not, but they use it outside, I'm sure. But I don't know how well the shelters are able to oversee that. I did manage to sneak into one of the newest models for homeless shelters, and of course to be in any social-services, social-welfare occupation and certainly in homelessness requires massive amnesia. You have to pretend that every latest initiative is the first time anybody has ever thought about this, and that these task forces haven't been preceded by a dozen similar task forces, and we're just coming up with these ideas for the first time. The new prototype shelter is something called navigation centers, which are very service intensive. Again, this is not a new idea. This has been around for a long time. But I snuck into one— actually, I will add this: that nobody within the San Francisco government was willing to work with me, not even the police department. They are so terrified about negative publicity that they are utterly non-transparent. So, I nevertheless got into one of these navigation centers, and it looked fairly well run to me. It looked clean. There was a guy screaming at the clerk that, 'how dare you serve me eggs again? I already told you I don't like eggs.' And a social worker came up and tried to quiet it down, quiet him down very politely. But the very fact that he was obviously mentally unbalanced, but still felt that he could quibble about being served eggs at his all-you-can-eat all-day-available buffet suggests that these are not people operating under the sharp lash of necessity.

Seth Barron: Well, hold on. Let's back up here. You said that homelessness is the least of the problems of homeless people, but that sounds totally contrary to reason. I've heard for years that housing is the problem, that we need to get housing for the homeless. But you're saying that's not the problem?

Heather Mac Donald: It is most definitely not the problem, but this was the explanation for street vagrancy that "Homelessness, Inc." developed in the '80s. They ran with it. Every media outlet picked it up. It is the gospel truth. What is the problem is drug addiction and mental illness and social disaffiliation. These are people who have cut their ties with the family, community, friends that could keep them off the streets, on their feet when things go wrong. And when you say that we are going to now tolerate street living, you destroy any incentives people might have to not act out, to not storm out of their mother's apartment if you're a single mother or scream at your employer or your manager and lose your job. These are people who have been offered housing many, many times by outreach workers and they turn it down because homelessness is a lifestyle.It allows unchecked drug use. There's free food everywhere. These cities that are the most notorious for their street vagrancy problems are known magnets across the country. In regards to skid row in L.A., which is, if anything even more brutal and phantasmagorical than San Francisco's Tenderloin district, but somebody there said, 'yeah, the word out in Iowa is you can come here and party without any checks from law enforcement.' And that's true. And that drives people to these environments that enable homelessness. It's not just free food: it's needle exchanges, tents, free smartphones, you name it—everything to keep people on the streets.

Seth Barron: But if you were to build homes for the homeless and give them a house wouldn't they occupy them? What do you think about the idea that there's a right to housing?

Heather Mac Donald: I think that's a very dangerous step to take: the right to housing. Create that right and believe me, it is going to be inflated into enormous proportions of demands. It's not just going to be housing, it's going to be two-bedroom housing, it's going to be housing with a swimming pool. But in any case it destroys a very important motivator for bourgeois behavior, which is to house yourself. The fact is, that people have such severe drug addiction and mental illness problems that they often cannot keep their housing. It's much more important to acknowledge those problems and deal with them. And I will say this: we can maybe argue about a right to shelter, and there is a proposal now in California to say, 'okay, we'll grant a right to shelter, but here's the catch. The quid pro quo is that you have to actually use it. You're not allowed to stay on the streets.' Now that's a quid pro quo that I would be willing to contemplate, although I still think it sets up a dangerous precedent. But you certainly do not have a right to live at tax payer expense in the most expensive housing markets in the country. Let's just say that the people on the streets in San Francisco have some right to housing that taxpayers have to supply. It should not be in San Francisco. It costs minimal $700,000 a unit to build affordable housing in San Francisco. With a population of 5,000, building housing for that number in San Francisco would be over a third of the city's budget. There would be no money left for anything else if they even were to want to support the police department at the levels necessary. What I advocate for is a regional solution. It's completely arbitrary where one vagrant ends up versus another. I frankly question the very idea that just because a vagrant ends up on your city's streets, that as a taxpayer you therefore become obligated to provide housing. I don't quite get that. Nobody's explained that to me. But assuming there's some right there, that all of a sudden I show up and taxpayers now are obligated to house me, I would say this should be done outside of cities, it should be done on a regional basis. Cities across a region should pitch in and create very bare-bones, clean, sober facilities where people can get back on their feet, get off drugs, get the mental treatment they need. But build it where you get the most bang for your money, and that is in abandoned industrial zones outside of cities or rural areas.

Seth Barron: Well, part of the reason that people think that we should have homeless shelters in cities is because then they can connect to social networks, job opportunities, and things like that. Putting them in concentration camps out in the boondocks, what are they supposed to do?

Heather Mac Donald: Well, they can focus on getting their lives together. As one addict, convict told me, he said he's been in every prison in California. He said sure, San Francisco has a lot of services, but when you get out of prison and you're put right back in these drug markets, which I had very close experience with in San Francisco, it's very hard to stay clean. So I think that's asking a lot of people, to try to conquer these terrible addictions in the middle of the most flagrant, open-air drug trade that I've ever seen. As far as services, that's true. There are services, but there can be services outside. As far as connecting with friends and family, I don't know. That is the claim, you're right, Seth. I don't know to what extent that actually happens. And jobs, they could be getting job skills. Really, what many people lack is the soft skills of being able to show up every day, not screaming at your manager. And I think these housing facilities that I would advocate would put everybody to work in maintenance

Seth Barron: And then people would presumably transition into some kind of self-sufficient living and maybe go back to a populated area like the city?

Heather Mac Donald: Right.

Seth Barron: Well, in New York City, which is a different place and has a different experience, Bill de Blasio wants to build homeless shelters in every community district. And people who become homeless from that area would be sheltered in the same neighborhood. There's been some push-back on that. Now, I understand that in San Francisco they've wanted to build a large shelter on the Embarcadero and people have gotten mad about it. But isn't it kind of elitist and sort of NIMBY-ist not to want a homeless shelter in your neighborhood?

Heather Mac Donald: No, it's perfectly rational. Again, I am pro-NIMBYism. I'm going to defend NIMBYism. Nobody has made that bargain, that by working his way up the housing ladder, he has therefore assumed the obligation of having mentally ill drug addicts in his backyard. It is perfectly defensible to say, 'no, this is a population that is potentially dangerous.' When you combine mental illness with chemical addiction, you increase an individual's rate of violence exponentially. No parent should have to put up with that. But besides that, it is simply economically irresponsible, just for the sake of sticking it in the eye of every neighborhood to build housing in some of the most expensive neighborhoods. If we want to help, we should make the taxpayer dollars that are allotted to this problem, which are massive—I mean, San Francisco is spending minimally, in the most narrowly defined set of agencies dealing with the problem, $300 million a year, but I can assure you it's double that and will be double that after this recent taxpayer initiative they just passed—you want to get the most for your money, and that is not in high-rent districts.

Seth Barron: So regarding drugs and say, free needles: this is done in the name of harm reduction, because if people don't get free needles, they might be more likely to use dirty needles and transmit diseases to each other. Similarly, opening up drug drop-in centers where people can safely use opioids and then be revived if they overdose. This is all in the name of being practical about the problem. Yes, it would be better if people weren't on drugs, but given that they are going use drugs, shouldn't society make it as safe as possible? How do you respond to this idea?

Heather Mac Donald: Well, it's a dilemma, and obviously there is a surface logic to that argument, but it's a question of the battle of two evils and which is worse. By these harm reduction methods, you are unequivocally normalizing this behavior. A former San Francisco police captain sent me the materials that the San Francisco public health department has put out to help addicts get the best high, to teach them how to shoot up, where to apply the tourniquet on your arm, how to look for blood in the needle to make sure that you've hit a vein. It's absolutely grotesque reading this thing. It is almost fiendishly wallowing in it's refusal to exercise any kind of normative judgment. Any effort to stigmatize that behavior after capitulating in that way is feudal. And so the problem is, time one: you've got the immediate need, the poverty, the single parenting, the drug addiction and you feel in time two, you have to come up with an immediate response. The problem is what preceded time one. And it is the decisions that went into that state in time one that is destructive individually and destructive socially, that you have to prevent. And that is the role of social norms and yes, stigma. And as a society now we are absolutely reluctant to impose stigma and to impose consequences for bad behavior, at least for certain favorite groups of victims. But without any kind of negative consequences, it's a moral hazard problem. You are not just enabling that bad behavior, but encouraging it.

Seth Barron: So London Breed, the current mayor of San Francisco—I believe she came to office promising some stricter enforcement of the law, that she was going to clean up the city. Has she done so? Have there been any moves to change what's going on in San Francisco? And can we expect any solutions from the political class there?

Heather Mac Donald: Well, she wants to build a lot more housing. She has said that we need more ability to get people mental treatment. The bills that I've seen with regards to a involuntary commitment, however, are virtually toothless. I have not heard her say that enforcement of laws on the books is nothing to apologize for, that people who are violating basic public order laws should be cited and arrested and prosecutors should take their cases. Because again, when you give up on entire categories of criminal enforcement, you are inviting more of that behavior. The test for me to know whether San Francisco is actually serious—and this is obviously wildly utopian, Seth—but the drug trade in San Francisco around the Tenderloin, Civic Center Plaza, Union Square, is dominated, almost monopolized exclusively by Hondurans, most of whom are illegal. It is insane for the San Francisco sheriff and police departments to refuse to cooperate at all with ICE in deporting known criminals. If San Francisco wanted to get rid of its dealers, it's a lot easier to make a case that a dealer is in the country illegally than it is to make a case for illegal drug dealing, which is carefully choreographed so that the usable evidence in court is distributed among a whole variety of actors—these guys have it down—whereas proving that somebody is in the country illegally is a straightforward matter. They should be using every tool available to them, including the immigration laws, to get these guys out of there, where they are preying not just on the vagrants on the street. The secondary consequences of that—I talked to a manager of a senior single room occupancy hotel that houses poor seniors and also people with mental problems. It was right across from the major homeless advocacy organization in San Francisco, the Coalition on Homelessness, which has outside of it—I've got to give them credit. They live by their principals. It's not as if they require enforcement. It has one of the most squalid mini-encampments that I've seen outside of the coalition headquarters. But the manager said that his seniors are terrified to go out on the street because everybody's shooting up in plain view. The seniors have no idea when somebody is going act out violently. And so they're virtual prisoners in their little SRO units. So this unchecked drug use and drug sales, drug trade affects a large number of people and destroys their quality of life unjustly.

Seth Barron: Well, that being the case, the political class in San Francisco, obviously they're very progressive liberals and they have a certain ethic that they have to follow, but the business community in San Francisco, this is a region of the country that has—I don't know—$1 trillion in equity, who knows how much? Aren't they perturbed about what's happening? Say the Facebooks, the Googles, Apple: all of these companies are in the area. How could they not be disturbed by what's happening?

Heather Mac Donald: The need to virtue signal is absolutely boundless. There was an interesting division that occurred over the last election cycle. San Francisco's biggest employer, Marc Benioff, who's the CEO of Salesforce, which is a cloud-based human resources, personnel, management company, has been over the years a very vocal supporter of the Coalition on Homelessness, this radical advocacy group, and of spending ever more money on homelessness, which he blames on stingy taxpayers. And he, in conjunction with the Coalition on Homelessness, put a ballot measure on the San Francisco ballot that would raise taxes on companies with over $50 million in revenues. And this would raise the money to double the budget of just one agency on homelessness alone by another $300 million. But some of the other big tech CEOs, like Jack Dorsey of Twitter wrote on Twitter—appropriately enough—that this Proposition C was very poorly thought out, that it was merely throwing money at a bureaucracy that has shown absolutely no success. And before we double its budget, we should actually have meaningful outcome measures, and proof that that raising more tax dollars is actually going to make a difference. Well, Benioff went on a rampage and accused Dorsey and a few other tech leaders of heartlessness, of not caring about the children—he played the inevitable child card—and basically used the equation that your compassion should be measured on how much money you're willing to spend on a problem, preferably other people's money, and the proposition did pass. I'm sure it will have no effect whatsoever. But there have been little rumblings before that. There were lesser-known tech guys who wrote recklessly, on their Facebook pages or Twitters, diatribes against these street-squalor appeals to then-mayor Ed Lee, saying this is unacceptable for a city to go with this. And they used rather uninhibited language about the bums on the streets. They were so naive as to say, 'look, I made my money. I'm paying my rent. I should have, I have a right to expect, walkable streets,' which is not, frankly, a preposterous point of view. They were hounded. One guy was hounded out of the city. He now lives in Nashville. Another fellow had to just prostrate himself before the Coalition on Homelessness harpies. So it's a very difficult thing. But it's delicious to watch, because these are people who are self-righteously leftist, who believe that they're superior to the rest of the country in their progressive politics, and so there is at least some fiendish satisfaction in knowing that they have to walk out of their apartments and navigate the feces and syringes themselves.

Seth Barron: Delicious to watch, perhaps not so delicious to smell. We would also love to hear your comments about today's episode on Twitter @CityJournal #10blocks. Lastly, 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. Heather McDonald, thanks so much for joining us.

Heather Mac Donald: Thank you Seth.

Photo by spfoto/iStock

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