Book Review:
Author skewers liberal cities


Michael Schellenberger, 2021

I just finished reading Michael Schellenberger's, SanFransicko, a provocative book with marked strengths and weaknesses. At least, Schellenberger argues from evidence much of the time, and he's transparent regarding his perspective and social values. The strongest parts of the book are his attacks on public policies in San Francisco and Seattle that have allowed open air drug markets and homelessness slums ( such as 3rd avenue in Seattle) to expand, and the willingness to allow chronically mentally ill and or drug addicted persons to live and die in degraded poverty on the streets while compromising quality of life for everyone else. He's right that there will have to be increased use of involuntary commitment for mentally ill homeless persons, and mandatory drug treatment (with carrots and sticks), though he is not realistic about the perils or costs of what's he's advocating. Currently, there are not psychiatric beds available to support this approach and increasing capacity will take years and cost billions of dollars. It's one thing to propose, or even fund, programs, another thing to implement.  However, for some mentally ill homeless people, there is no other way.  


Schellenberger cherry picks research to support his arguments, but who doesn't to some extent? His discussion of "homelessness first" programs is not balanced or accurate. For example, he cites Miami as a city that has reduced homelessness by more than 50% in recent years, but does not describe how Miami has achieved these results, i.e., by putting mentally ill persons in hotels through voluntary means, with an intent to make these placements permanent, and with daily case management for the chronically mentally ill.  He's unwilling to accept "homelessness first" policies for drug addicts because he's opposed on principle to subsidizing drug abuse. He wants services for drug addicts ( including food and shelter) to be conditional on their involvement in drug treatment. He has surprisingly little to say about how other US cities have addressed homelessness more effectively than the Bay area, LA, Portland or Seattle, except to praise their reduced tolerance for bad behavior. The model he admires most is Amsterdam with its carrots and sticks approach to drug addiction and homeless populations. I plan to read more about Amsterdam's approach before I comment on that city's policies and practices. 


The weakest parts of SanFransicko concern the influence of poverty, income inequality, housing costs, cost of living and economic booms on homelessness. Just about everything Schellenberger has to say regarding economic factors associated with homelessness is BS, for example: 


  • Poverty in recent decades has declined while homelessness has increased. He says nothing about the large increase in income inequality since 1980 ( the transfer of 1 trillion dollars annually to the top 1% of Americans). There is no analysis of extreme poverty, i.e. ,incomes less than 50% of the federal policy standard; or the disproportional representation of black and Native American adults among the extremely poor. There is no analysis of increase in home prices or rents in San Francisco, LA and Seattle; no explanation how low income persons can afford rents of $2000-3000 per month, no analysis of the structural connection between economic booms and increases in homelessness. This is clueless. 

  • Schellenberg argues that poverty cannot account for the size of  San Francisco's homeless population as smaller prosperous communities in the Bay area do not have the same levels of homelessness, just as Bellevue has far less homelessness than Seattle. It's true that San Francisco's and Seattle's homelessness problems have been caused in part by feckless and foolish public policies but wrong that the inability to afford housing is not a big factor. Currently, Bellevue is parasitic on Seattle just as Bay area communities depend on San Francisco to absorb homeless people who would otherwise live on the streets in their communities.  However, if homeless populations were shared more equally by communities in the Bay area and King County, that would not lead to a overall reduction in homelessness. Rather, homeless persons would not be as concentrated in Seattle downtown and San Francisco. 

  • Schellenberg dislikes the term "homeless" which he views as a term invented by advocates to focus attention on housing issues rather than mental illness and addiction. He believes (falsely) that homelessness is due either to mental illness and/ or drug addiction, or to poverty, or is a choice to live on the streets. He has zero interest in or understanding of the relationship between and among extreme poverty, mental illness and drug addiction. The psychological afflictions and economic deprivation of homeless persons are thoroughly enmeshed. A thought experiment: imagine that mandatory drug treatment turns out to be much more effective than it actually is, and persons newly clean and sober leave residential treatment or a shelter. Where would they live in San Francisco or Seattle even if they were able to find a job paying $15-20 per hour? If forced to live on the street or in shelters, how long would they last without relapse?

Schellenberg is concerned about only one type of degraded homelessness, i.e., living on the street or in encampments, defecating in public 

places, living through petty theft, subject to predators of all descriptions. But what about persons who become homeless due to unaffordable rents and who lack family support and who then gradually become seriously depressed, and who are attacked on the street, leading to trauma symptoms? This is how poverty, income inequality and trauma lead to chronic mental illness or addiction. It's how homeless populations are steadily replenished regardless of how many people in a city exit homelessness during a year. There are more people where they came from: lots of people receive help but homelessness still increases or remains the same due to economic factors. 


Schellenberg advocates for much larger investments in shelters, per New York City, and he describes these proposed shelter as safe, humane, cheap and temporary, which is laughable. Homeless shelter, safe, humane and cheap are oxymoronic.   Anyone who wants to know how New York City's shelters actually work should read, This Is All I Got  by Lauren Sandler. New York City's shelters are neither safe, humane, cheap or temporary. They are another form of degraded poverty necessary to keep low income people alive in a cold climate.  


Schellenberg wants California to create a new state agency responsible for chronically mentally ill and addicted homeless persons, with the legal authority to detain psychologically afflicted homeless persons in secure facilities, and to use carrots and sticks programs, per Amsterdam, with drug addicts. This would be re-institutionalization on a massive scale with all the pitfalls that involuntary detention entails. Schellenberg has some compelling things to say about the "homeless industrial complex" in California, lobbies that have resulted in costs of $500,000 per unit or more for homelessness housing. This is corruption however it is defended. However, it's hard to imagine what type of public private consortium would result from the  state run bureaucracy Schellenberg proposes creating in California. It would likely not be pretty. Still, Schellenberg is right that current policies in affluent West Coast cities are a proven failure, and that they are inhumane and ideologically driven. Something has to change. Schellenberg has written a gutsy book with major blind spots and a few important bottom lines. San Francisco, LA, Portland  and Seattle have to dramatically alter current policies and practices by seeking out more effective approaches to homelessness from around the world, not just Europe, for example Tokyo.  Contrary to Schellenberg's views, these approaches must include economic interventions, including income support, and must have a prevention focus, in addition to reducing the number of persons sleeping outside and living without stable housing.                    

-- Dee Wilson