Michael Shellenberger for Governor
Some personal news
A few days ago, I talked to a guy named Tyler who once worked for the San Diego branch of a statewide homeless services provider called PATH. The mission of the organization was to put homeless people into housing. Tyler worked specifically with homeless veterans. Many of these vets were not just homeless, but addicted to narcotics, or afflicted with untreated mental illnesses, or both. But PATH’s leaders believed that without a roof over their heads, homeless people had little hope of tackling these other crises. Housing thus needed to be the first priority. This is the premise of an influential school of thought called “Housing First.”
Tyler assumed that once he got his clients into stable housing, they would be brought into programs to treat their addictions and psychological disorders. But this rarely happened. Often, he and the case managers assigned to his clients lost contact with them altogether; after being put into an apartment or an SRO hotel, they wouldn’t return calls for months. Tyler had no idea if they were still using drugs or whether they’d received any psychological counseling or had been stabilized on meds. All he knew was that they weren’t sleeping on the streets for the time being.
The apartments the vets were placed in were subsidized, but even below-market rents are often too much for people suffering from addiction, schizophrenia or psychosis to afford. Many of Tyler’s clients would default on their rent, and PATH would end up paying it for them for up to nine months. After that, they might get evicted, in which case they could just sign up with another Housing First-oriented group and get put back into another effectively rent-free unit downtown.
Tyler soon became disillusioned with the whole enterprise. It was good that people were able to obtain shelter, but sleeping outdoors was far from their only problem. By addressing that problem and that problem alone, PATH was just allowing people’s addictions and mental illnesses to fester. They would never become independent under this model. They would never get control over their lives, and enjoy the safety, health and dignity that comes with it. Their needs were greater than just their lack of housing; without addressing their other, harder afflictions, PATH was consigning them to a life of degradation and, likely, an early death.
Why are organizations like PATH so committed to the Housing First philosophy? There’s no doubt that PATH is staffed by compassionate people who care deeply about helping their cities’ most destitute. But even altruistic organizations have institutional interests, among them the basic imperatives of meeting their payrolls and raising operating budgets for the next fiscal year. For charities that depend on city contracts, that means making sure those contracts are renewed, which means demonstrating impact. Impact is measured in numbers, such as how many homeless people you’re able to place into housing. So inevitably, generating those numbers becomes the main priority of such charities, even if what they’re measuring is not actually solving the problem.
Staffers for charities like PATH don’t like to think of their work in those terms. People don’t go into the non-profit world to pursue city contracts; they go into it to help the needy and to transform society. If you’re a reform-minded activist and you go to work for an organization whose existence depends upon meeting certain quotas, and those quotas don’t actually appear to make any meaningful social impact, you might experience the kind of cognitive dissonance that Tyler did. You might seek to resolve that dissonance. You might then be inclined toward social justice philosophies that reconcile the altruistic aspirations that animate you with the prosaic institutional goals you actually spend your day pursuing by insisting that the two are actually one and the same thing.
Housing First does this quite nicely. It allows organizations to pursue the kinds of straightforward, relatively easy and scaleable goals that produce the kinds of big, impressive numbers that please elected officials who award city contracts. It’s a lot easier to put someone in an apartment than to get them off fentanyl, and you’re going to have a much higher success rate and generate much larger numbers doing it. At the same time, Housing First argues that doing so is not the mere pursuit of crude organizational self-interest, but a transformative, radical objective that all of the other, harder-to-solve problems like drug addiction and mental illness fundamentally depend upon. There is a perfect alignment between your organization’s bottom-line needs and your broader theory of social change. If you buy into it, you never have to question the efficacy of your work again.
Charity is a business; it fills a market gap between the private and the public sectors. Charities provide services that for whatever reason the free market cannot, and that the government chooses not to. In many cases, they’re services that were once provided directly by city, county or state employees — for instance, social work — that were outsourced to private non-profits in order to cut taxes or to balance budgets. The corpulent direct service non-profit sectors that inhabit every major American city are in large measure the products of privatization. They may regard themselves as politically radical, but they’re economically neoliberal.
Just as woke antiracism feigns subversiveness while providing the managerial class with new tools with which to discipline workers, the rhetoric of “Housing First” and its sibling ideology, “Harm Reduction,” assumes the posture of political radicalism while turning the administration of human misery into an industry. That’s not to say that its practitioners are cynics: on the contrary, they’re the ones with the most to lose by abandoning the earnest conviction that their profession is driven by heroism rather than self-interest. The entire machine depends on maintaining that illusion.
The homeless themselves don’t share that psychological need; they see things more clearly. When Michael Shellenberger and I went out to interview homeless addicts in San Francisco, they told us straight up that being on the street was “literally by choice,” that “they pay you to be homeless here,” that “if you give them housing, you’re just going to have a homeless person with a house. It’s a lot more than not having a roof over your head — it’s a lifestyle.” Some of them seemed more astonished than anyone at the lack of enforcement against drug use, drug dealing, public camping and defecation in San Francisco, and indeed the city’s active encouragement of homelessness. We saw the same thing in L.A., where homeless people told us about local charities pitching tents in parks to encourage the establishment of tent encampments. No less than us, they found it ridiculous.
Whether they acknowledge it or not, the non-profits that advocate Housing First and Harm Reduction have a business model. That business model depends upon the continuing existence of a client population: homeless drug addicts. These organizations are staffed and led by highly ethical people who genuinely want to help those they purport to serve. They believe with the force of religious faith that that’s exactly what they’re doing. But their training has taught them to assume a simple equation between the organizational success of the charities they work for and the improved well-being of their clients — and the two are not in fact the same, and their clients know it. In fact, they’re in direct opposition.
Housing First groups like PATH and Harm Reduction non-profits like HealthRight 360 are in the business of farming homeless addicts. No amount of radical ideology or humanitarian good will on the part of these groups’ leaders will change the simple fact that without this population, their organizations would cease to exist. So they adopt an approach that sustains and expands it. They advocate for permanent housing, which makes their clients’ highly visible crises invisible to the public, which pleases voters and thus city officials more than it actually helps addicts. They advocate against shelters, because shelters have abstinence rules, which contradicts the Harm Reduction philosophy of accepting, normalizing, and effectively encouraging drug consumption. They advocate against arresting and prosecuting users who commit crimes, which is the only tool the public has to force addicts into mandatory treatment that could save their lives. They even advocate against prosecuting drug dealers. And they advocate for safe consumption sites, where they can prolong their clients’ drug addictions but under the paid supervision of their employees. This stuff is a significant driver of the perpetuation of the homelessness crisis in America, but we rarely talk about it. That’s because the organizations that benefit most from the status quo control the discourse, and jealously protect it against dissent. They won’t even talk to you about it.
Michael Shellenberger wrote a whole book on the topic, so naturally, these same groups despise him. But others who have seen the failures of Housing First and Harm Reduction are enthusiastic backers of Mike’s newly announced gubernatorial run. That includes former addicts like Tom Wolf and Gina McDonald, mothers of addicts like Gina and Jacqui Berlinn, and former Housing First and Harm Reduction practitioners like Tyler, who’s now a volunteer for the campaign.
I don’t have the first hand experience that they have, but having reported on the subject, I, too, don’t see much hope in California fixing this problem unless Mike is elected. Stretching all the way back to when he was Mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom has shown time and again that he cannot or will not do anything but talk, and occasionally implement cosmetic reforms that only exacerbate the crisis. That’s because Newsom’s constituency are those who benefit from things as they are, whether it’s party leaders, donors, other politicians, non-profit service providers or homelessness activists. Newsom’s single-minded objective is not to fix a broken state. It’s to become President.
I’ve already signed up as part of Mike’s campaign staff. I’ll be traveling throughout the state with him, talking to Californians from L.A. to San Francisco, from San Ysidro to Crescent City, from the beach to the Owens Valley. I’ll be writing and making videos along the way. If you’re in California, shoot me a note and tell me where you are, and I’ll let you know when we roll through your town. You can leave a comment here, or reach me at email@example.com.
☝️ (I made this.)
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