Culture & the Family

New-left urbanists and the homeless

October 14, 2019

Mike Brake

You may have seen Heather Mac Donald’s excellent essay earlier this month in The Wall Street Journal titled “The Streets of San Francisco.” She writes:

This city has been conducting a three-decade experiment in what happens when society stops enforcing bourgeois norms of behavior. It has done so in the name of compassion for the homeless. The result: Street squalor and misery have increased, while government expenditures have ballooned. Yet the principles guiding city policy remain inviolate: Homelessness is a housing problem, it is involuntary, and it persists because of inadequate public spending. These propositions are readily disproved by talking to people living on the streets.

It’s not just San Francisco. Los Angeles, parts of which have become virtually unlivable due to an explosion of homelessness, is building 72 new apartments costing $700,000 each for those lacking shelter. Oklahoma City is considering spending $50 million to build or rehabilitate hundreds of “affordable housing” units for the poor and homeless.       

Which raises the question: Can government housing and liberal policies fix the mess that liberal policies largely created?

I talked to William Voegeli, a senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books who has written two books on welfare policy (Never Enough: America's Limitless Welfare State and The Pity Party: A Mean-Spirited Diatribe Against Liberal Compassion). He is skeptical of government investment in housing and thinks policymakers too often attempt to solve deep-seated social problems by the old tactic of hurling more money at them. “They seldom ask questions like, ‘We’ve tried approach x, are we happy with the results, did we get good value for our dollars, and what are the unintended consequences of these actions?’” he said.

Liberals, he suggests, often get wrapped up in “the nobility of the intentions rather than the actual consequences of their actions.”

For example, when the American Civil Liberties Union sued to challenge an Oklahoma City ordinance that sought to limit panhandling on traffic medians as a violation of what the ACLU called free speech, the result was more traffic congestion, often-obnoxious incidents involving the homeless, and actual increased danger to those the suit was intended to help.

Voegeli says “the amount of local, state, and federal money invested in the homeless problem has been substantial,” yet homeless numbers continue to rise in most cities. He said that massive increases in homeless populations in San Francisco and Los Angeles, where he lives, can be attributed in part to the congenial climate and, ironically, to the efforts of local drug treatment centers to draw clients to the state. Many of them fail at treatment and wind up on the local streets.

Advocates for the homeless also operate under what he called “the Lady Bountiful liberal social-worker attitude that these are people just like you and me, that all they need is a warm place to stay at night and before you know it they’ll have a good job and settle down.”

The reality, he says, is that the homeless population in most cities consists of hard-core alcoholics and drug addicts, deinstitutionalized psychiatric patients (who were also supposed to benefit from a 1960s liberal compassion movement in favor of community-based treatment), and some who are simply lazy and slothful.

Homelessness, in short, is often the result of things one does. His doubts about Oklahoma City’s power to eradicate homelessness by building cheap houses are echoed by Christopher Rufo, writing in City Journal and the Wall Street Journal. Rufo, who has studied the failure of liberal policies in his native Seattle to do anything more than increase homelessness, notes the emergence of a new cadre of left-wing activists he calls “new left urbanists.” Their mission is to reshape cities into havens of left-liberal policies, with topics like public housing, mass transit, and bike lanes a “holy trinity.”            

Recent investigations by FOX News showed that the explosion of homelessness and the many social pathologies that accompany it has been at least in part prompted by policies ostensibly designed to address those problems.

In Seattle, local leaders embarked on a “compassion campaign” to suspend prosecution for offenses like drug possession, assault, and theft. The result was more of all three. Today Seattle spends $1 billion annually on the homeless problem—$100,000 for every homeless person in the city—yet large swaths of downtown are virtually uninhabitable because of trash, discarded needles, ratty homeless encampments, and crime.

In San Francisco, famous for its tolerance of virtually any behavior, FOX called much of the downtown area a “public toilet.” And Los Angeles gained infamy not long ago when its homeless encampments were determined to be so filthy that they were breeding populations of rats infected with medieval diseases like typhus. One doctor believes that “homeless areas are at risk for the reemergence of another deadly ancient disease—leprosy.”

Lest Oklahomans think they are immune from such social pathologies, drive by any of several areas in our cities where the homeless congregate to panhandle or live. Most state communities have reported alarming increases in the numbers and visibility of the homeless and the frequency of crimes associated with them. And each time policymakers or courts reduce legal barriers to activities like panhandling or ratchet down criminal penalties for quality-of-life offenses, the issues associated with homelessness seem to grow worse.

But can Oklahoma City’s proposed $50 million investment in building “affordable housing” pay dividends by actually helping the homeless?

In a 2012 article, Tracy Miller, a fellow of the Institute for Faith and Freedom, said flatly that “homelessness, like any other social problem, is influenced by incentives. Unfortunately, government policy may actually be making the problem worse, particularly government-subsidized housing for the poor.”

Since large percentages of the chronically homeless are addicted to alcohol or other drugs, various government subsidies can even do what substance-abuse treatment professionals call “enabling,” or making it easier for those individuals to continue drinking or using.

Changes in statutes that make simple drug possession a misdemeanor, while achieving the goal of reducing jail and prison populations, may also expand addiction issues if not coupled with aggressive treatment programs. Oklahoma City police officers I talked to for this article told of encountering addicts on the street who laugh at their enforcement efforts.

So do liberal policies beget more of the problems they seek to solve?

In 2015, Raymond Mariano, a liberal Democrat who managed the public housing agency in Worcester, Massachusetts, admitted in a Huffington Post article that “the traditional Democratic approach to public assistance has failed, because Democrats have seldom been willing to ask for anything in return for that assistance.”

Instead of helping the poor or homeless, Mariano said, giveaway programs which do not insist on the adoption of personal responsibility and changed behaviors by the recipients have “trapped residents in a spiral of intergenerational poverty from which few are able to find a path out.”

In short, as Voegeli and others note, because a large share of homelessness is the result of things people do, as long as government policies fail to hold them accountable for better behavior, they will remain homeless.