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The Death of the Public
The addiction crisis is costing California the little that holds it together.
Discovery Park hugs the northern bank of Sacramento’s bucolic American River. A hiking trail, accessible from the Garden Highway, meanders around gullies and thickets, before crossing through a sprawling homeless encampment by the water. When Michael Shellenberger and I visited its residents, they were friendly and welcoming at first; we spent about a half hour getting to know several of them. Eventually, though, some of the other residents asked us to leave. The people who lived there, they explained to us, had chosen that remote site to be left alone — they weren’t like the homeless who had set up shop in the middle of busy sidewalks downtown. They politely requested that we respect their choice.
The quiet, picturesque location is, indeed, an excellent place for solitude. But it’s also a public park. The homeless residents’ choice to establish a permanent community there has effectively barred anyone else from seeking a few moments of peace in the same location. It’s not just that this scenic refuge is now guarded by dogs and littered with trash, including an entire car, crashed into an embankment and left to rot. It’s that the camp is dangerous. The residents we interviewed told us of domestic violence, and of a homeless woman who was raped and stabbed to death just up the trail, in the same camp. Last February, further upriver, a young autistic woman went for a stroll one day along the same trail. Her body was found in a tree in a homeless encampment days later; she’d been kidnapped, raped and murdered.
It’s one thing to drop out of society by building an intentional community out in the wilderness. It’s another thing entirely to do so in the middle of a city. But that’s what’s happening in California. A parallel society is emerging in the interstices of our urban landscapes: not just freeway verges and underpasses, but trails, parks, alleys and cul-de-sacs. In some cities, like San Francisco, Los Angeles and Sacramento, it competes for dominance over our central downtown districts.
As homelessness has increased in Sacramento and the rest of the state, public space has effectively grown scarcer. In Bay Area cities, 65 percent of residents simply don’t go downtown anymore for fear of crime, including public drug use and panhandling. Los Angeles’ Venice Beach has essentially become one vast homeless encampment and, increasingly, a danger zone for local residents. A young mother we interviewed told us about an attempted baby snatching of her infant daughter last January by a homeless woman on the Venice Boardwalk. It wasn’t the first time that exact crime had taken place on the same promenade.
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This degradation of our public spaces would be a problem anywhere, but in California, it’s a social disaster. With our sprawling cities and suburbs, our car culture and our dysfunctional public transit, California is already a civilization defined by our atomization. Unlike older, denser cities like New York, where citizens are forced into proximity with each other through the flow and churn of their daily lives, in California we retreat into our cars, our single family homes, our subdivisions and our gated communities. Over the last two years, our alienation from one another has become only more pronounced by the Covid lockdowns. Now, we find ourselves exiled from what few public spaces we have left by the ostentatious blight of the meth and opioid addiction crisis.
In downtown Sacramento, in the blocks surrounding the State Capitol, the sidewalks are congested with tents. In the middle of the afternoon, half the pedestrians are office workers walking briskly to their cars. The other half are homeless addicts, many of them visibly psychotic. In San Francisco’s Tenderloin, if you’re not openly selling, seeking, or consuming drugs, it’s you who’s out of place — like someone wearing a three-piece suit to the beach. Unlike L.A.’s Skid Row, the Tenderloin is a densely populated neighborhood, full of poor working families. There are more children per capita in the Tenderloin than in any other district in the city. Most San Franciscans can simply steer clear of the dystopian blight of the district, but these families have to live in it.
More and more Californians are finding themselves in the same predicament, as the wreckage of the addiction crisis seeps into every corner of the landscape. In San Francisco’s Mission District, one elementary school teacher told me that at the height of Covid, despite the state’s recommendations, his school had to keep their classroom windows shut tight. There was a tent encampment on the sidewalk right outside, and marijuana smoke would waft inside open windows, kids would be distracted by the sounds of street fights, and psychotic people would occasionally expose themselves in full view of the kids. The woman whose baby was nearly snatched on the Venice Boardwalk can’t just go home to escape the mayhem. A trailer is parked across the street from her apartment, right outside an elementary school, out of which the owner sells meth. When neighbors confront him, he retaliates by turning his club-sized speakers at their apartments and blasting music at 3 in the morning. Drugs are dealt in the alley outside her bedroom, and one time, dealers burned down the neighbor’s house.
As the addiction crisis claims more and more of our cities, those who can afford to will retreat into guarded enclaves, or just move out of state altogether. The rest of us will have to navigate our way through a broken society — most likely, by hunkering down in our homes as if the pandemic had never ended, and availing ourselves of the growing number of online services that have emerged to replace a life lived in public. The state of California will remain a place, but it will no longer be a society.
Those who will suffer most from this dismal state of affairs are, of course, homeless addicts themselves. These are our brothers, sisters, parents and children, both figuratively and, for many, literally. The activists and politicians who defend the status quo in their name are telling a cynical lie. By tolerating the metastasis of the open drug scene, they’re abandoning them to the near inevitability of prolonged misery and early death. Theirs is a vision not of freedom but of nihilism. We cannot leave our future in their hands.