How to end San Francisco's homelessness epidemic
Updated: Apr 19
Why are the homeless homeless?
Every homeless plan starts with a hypothesis about the root causes of homelessness--the missing ingredients that left people on the street, such as lack of affordable housing. The plan explains how it would supply those ingredients, and then (the theory goes) the homeless would be off the street.
But why is never a productive question to ask about human beings. There are a thousand reasons any of us does anything. And our situation right now was decades in the making--a long, complex dance between a million environmental factors we didn’t control and a million decisions we did.
Nobody starts life sitting on a street corner with two kids and a heroin habit, no home, no job, and no other family. America’s 500,000 homeless people have 500,000 long, complicated, and unique life trajectories, just like the rest of us. A five-causes-of-homelessness list may make us feel like we comprehend a half-million strangers’ life stories and circumstances, but that’s hubris, not reality.
Rather than ask why, let’s ask how we help them. And to answer that, let’s consider how we help anyone.
What we know about helping people
By the time we reach adulthood, most of us have figured out how hard it is to help people change their lives. Whether it’s friends with addiction problems, or family members with weight issues, or a teenager who’s struggling in school, we can offer advice and maybe adjust some environmental factors, but our influence is very limited. And if the person isn’t himself committed to change, our chance of shifting his course is zero.
Because we know that’s how human beings work, deep down we also know the missing-ingredient plans to fix homelessness are an exercise in pretending. The bureaucrats crafting those plans, the politicians selling them, the voters approving them all know they can’t rewrite other people’s lives. They haven’t really forgotten this lesson, they just pretend to have forgotten. And when those plans fail, they will feign surprise.
So let’s recognize the real missing ingredients in the homeless crisis. The first is honesty with ourselves. We have to apply the same wisdom in the “public sphere” as we do in our private lives about how people change and how they don’t. We need to accept a dose of humility with respect to the homeless. They’re not characters in a play whose arcs we can shift by adding a few plot devices, they’re the authors of their own lives and need to be the main drivers of any change.
Most importantly, we need to enforce the proper boundaries. This is another bit of wisdom we all learn in our personal relationships and strategically forget when we enter public office or a voting booth. Society is millions of people constantly learning how to bounce off of each other. Both to help other people learn and to preserve your own space, you have to draw the lines in the right places and stick to them.
Setting Boundaries Properly
City, county, and state governments have made a horrifying mess of boundaries. Overly strict boundaries put housing markets in crisis and keep them there. You should have the right to build on land you own, so long as you don’t infringe your neighbors’ rights, but cities have long denied your rights. By default it’s illegal to build. To get an exception you have to make elaborate appeals to City Hall, conform your designs to officials’ whims, pay lots of money, and wait a long time.
Inconsistent boundaries make the problem even worse. San Francisco could simply write down what property rights your deed and your neighbor’s deed include. But instead that’s negotiated on a case-by-case basis. Your neighbor can appeal your building permit, and vice-versa, keeping you both in court for years while the city tries to decide what the boundaries should be this time.
Capricious boundaries have likewise caused San Francisco’s rental market to seize up. Adults should have the right to enter contracts to rent space from each other on whatever terms they agree to. Instead, City Hall dictates what lease contracts must say, and then rewrites them after the fact if it decides rents are getting too high or the wrong people are getting evicted. Renting out a room becomes legally burdensome and dangerous, so fewer people do. Meanwhile rent control ensures existing tenants never move and existing units stay off market.
You’ll find the same story in the job market. Again, government takes what should be a voluntary contract among adults and squeezes it and slices it with thousands of arbitrary boundaries. It’s illegal to hire someone, unless they have the right immigration paperwork and a Social Security number and you pay them at least this much and don’t speak to them like that. And of course you must pay us many thousands of dollars in payroll taxes, so be sure to bring lots of money.
These too-strict boundaries make it dramatically harder for anyone to get off or stay off the street. With so much overhead to employing someone, marginal workers have a hard time keeping a job. Meanwhile it’s illegal to build the sort of apartment a low-income person could actually afford. And then the ever-increasing taxes and restrictions drive up the cost of living generally, bleeding more and more residents into the red.
We may not know how to fix the people dimension of homelessness, but we certainly know how to alleviate the resource shortages that plague them. It doesn’t require billion-dollar bond measures, just liberal use of the delete key. Markets do a superb job of supplying needed resources to people at every income level, as well as creating large resource surpluses for charity and volunteer work, but only when they’re allowed to operate. Wherever large numbers of people are being priced out of life’s necessities, markets need to be set free. Politicians, start your paper shredders.
People will scream. “Of course we can’t repeal the minimum bike parking requirement on new construction!” they’ll insist. “We need to be ecologically responsible!” That’s another way of saying, “I prioritize this higher.” And a thousand other people will prioritize something else higher, pushing the homeless far down the list indeed.
Here’s the answer to them: free markets are a human right. You don’t get a vote.
Setting Boundaries Properly, Part 2
Of course, boundaries can be too loose as well, and cities are woefully derelict in this respect too.
Here’s another bit of wisdom we all hold but pretend not to. We understand generally what sorts of behaviors lead to a productive, responsible life and what lead to dysfunction and downward spirals. Being on drugs all the time, for example, is a bad idea. Most of us not only refrain but wouldn’t tolerate it from other people in our lives.
Likewise you wouldn’t tolerate someone in your kitchen who pooped on the floor and left dirty needles scattered around. You’d eject him from the premises immediately, without troubling yourself over where he might go next. And if you failed to do so, your family wouldn’t say, “Wow, Mom, you’re so compassionate.” You have not only a right but a responsibility to keep your home in reasonable condition and free of gross misbehavior.
Every property owner recognizes this responsibility, except the government. San Francisco asserts ownership of its streets and sidewalks but then declines to enforce reasonable standards of behavior. Step off private property onto public streets, and you’re in a completely different world. What the city used to call “vagrancy” it now calls “camping.” Drug use is everywhere, petty crime is constant, health hazards and public nuisances abound.
Once again, voters and public officials are guilty of an appalling double standard. On the one hand we know we need to enforce basic behavioral standards to maintain a healthy, pleasant environment for each other. We know when we tolerate bad behavior, we tend to invite more of it. On the other, we’re pretending to forget both facts, as if the “public sphere” were some other dimension with entirely different biology and physics.
This can’t continue. Residents need and deserve a decent environment. The homeless can’t get on their feet if they’re doing drugs all the time, so “fixing homelessness” is completely inconsistent with looking the other way, much less actively enabling drug habits and other counterproductive behavior.
Most of us have figured out how to build stable lives for ourselves. If we’re trying to help other people find the path, we need to preach what we practice, preach it consistently, and enforce our boundaries around it. That means having laws about what’s okay to do on the streets, what isn’t, and enforcing them the same way we enforce every other law.
People scream about this too. “It’s not a crime to be poor!” No, it isn’t. But rights and responsibilities are two sides of the same coin. To deny someone responsibilities is equally to deny their rights.
Moreover, at some point negligence becomes a crime. Given how much human misery we’re seeing, it appears we’ve passed it.
When people talk about how “we” fix homelessness, they’re usually referring to government policy. That’s the end of my policy prescription, and it stops short of engineering the homeless away. That doesn’t work, hasn’t worked, and isn’t about to start working no matter how many social workers we hire.
But it’s not the end of the story, it’s just the beginning.
We all know how to help people, we do it every day of our lives. It starts with them charting their own course and seeking the help they need, and us cooperating with them in ways that make sense for us both. We cooperate through market exchange, by offering gifts, by donating to charity, and by giving them honest feedback based on our own values and needs, including objecting to objectionable behavior. Perhaps most important, we help people by getting out of their way, for example by not making it illegal to hire them or feed them.
What will happen to the homeless after we repair our public policy? It’s not an answerable question. Ten thousand different people will do ten thousand different things. Some will find newly-opened jobs and newly-available homes they couldn’t before. Some won’t shoulder the responsibilities we need them to and will end up in institutions or who-knows-where. We’ll have no idea who “they” are, much less what “they” ended up doing, nor how many other people never became homeless because we got our policies in order.
"What will everyone do?" is never a helpful question for evaluating any policy, because the only possible answers are mostly fiction. Would you like to believe that if we throw enough tax money at the homeless, they'll stop doing drugs, get job training, and go to work for Marc Benioff? You're probably right, at least for a few of them. But their numbers keep rising, so is that belief really serving anyone?
Sensible public policy cannot be based on unanswerable questions. It must be rooted in a clear understanding of human rights and responsibilities.
“We just have to start treating them like human beings” is usually offered as platitude, but that is the bottom line. That means respecting the dignity of homeless people as individuals to live outside our parental gaze: to direct their own lives, make their own decisions, assert their own rights, shoulder their own responsibilities, and live with whatever outcomes they end up negotiating with the rest of us operating under the same rules. And it means asserting with them the same boundaries we should be applying to everyone--tighter in a few respects, much looser in many others.
Mostly it means letting go. Letting go of our conviction that every job must pay $15 per hour and include dental coverage, or else whoever offered it should be thrown in jail. Letting go of our attachment to historical sidewalks and allowing people to create homes that other people desperately need. And most importantly, letting go of our need to believe we’re solving big problems for other adults. Even your two-year-old faces plenty of problems you can’t solve. That’s how it is with humans.
We can make our cities much more affordable. We can make it much easier for more people to build stable lives. We can also end homelessness our streets.