deletedJun 23, 2022·edited Jun 23, 2022
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deletedJun 23, 2022·edited Jun 23, 2022
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deletedJun 23, 2022·edited Jun 23, 2022
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Substack says this is a "104-minute read." This is good value for the money.

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Want to get this out there early, rather than a couple hours later after I'm done reading: Scott, this review likely would have changed how I voted in the recent midterm elections. I didn't have the luxury of reading Shellenberger's book (retroactive campaign apologia?) before filling out the ballot, and casual perusal of commentariat characterizations were...not as trustworthy as I'd have liked. Thank you for this public service.

(For whatever it's worth, living in the same region, I do extra-appreciate your more local takes.)

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"a combination of law enforcement and social services" would solve a lot of America's problems

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So is the claim here that:

- Mental illness and drug abuse are not important contributors to the homeless being unable to follow shelter rules, find a job, rent a place and make payments on time?

- Concentration of homeless and attendant mental illness/public drug use/use of streets as toilets does not depress local economy and make even more people homeless through lack of opportunity?

Otherwise, it doesn't really matter if homelessness or addiction/mental illness came first, the point is that it's trapping the homeless and everyone else in vicious circle until these issues are addressed.

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Jun 23, 2022·edited Jun 23, 2022

Some thoughts on claim 1 (going to take quite a while to read through the rest):

As for why the rates of homeless are higher in dense/rich compared to sparse/rich, a dense and rich area provides more expected value for petty crime and panhandling, two major sources of income for the homeless. Higher general crime rates in the city also could cause the police to have less of an ability/will to persecute the petty crimes that the homeless usually commit, leading to an even higher risk-adjusted expected value.

Additionally, suburbs are probably going to have a higher rate of upper-middle class families with young children, and I suspect parents/police are going to be less tolerable of crazy homeless people yelling/chasing their kids around, which might explain why suburbs are also less tolerant.

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A few observations:

1. I don't see how we can have this conversation about homelessness in California without noting that San Francisco's budget for homeless services, in one year, is $676 million. LA's is apparently close a billion. This is why many of us are not sympathetic to pleas that we're 'not helping the homeless'.

2. Related to 1- this doesn't address allegations that many of California's homeless are from elsewhere, but deliberately moved to a few metro areas due to nice weather and generous social services. (Or, I've heard stories that their local town put them on a bus to SF). If .2% of the population everywhere is basically OK with a lifestyle of camping on the street and doing drugs, and then they all cluster in one area- that area will likely end up a mecca of homelessness.

3. In terms of law enforcement and comparisons with Europe, it's worth noting that they have vagrancy and loitering laws there, and we kinda really don't. US courts struck most of these down as unconstitutional in the 70s. If you want to camp or openly defecate on the streets of London, Paris, Berlin etc., the police will clear you out with force. I know Scott tackles law enforcement issues in this piece, but vagrancy is a pretty big one. You can't commit a crime if you're not physically present in the area to begin with! Europe combines social services with a firmer hand and less of a civil liberties culture than we have here.

4. Speaking of Europe's firmer hand, I'm fairly sure that they have a lower bar to forced institutionalization for the loudly mentally ill than we do. (Again, in cases like O'Connor v Donaldson in the 70s the SC raised the bar to lock someone away). Is 21st century Germany's asylums like Scott's dramatic description of 1950s America? I would lean towards no. There has to be some kind of middle ground to force treatment on the severely ill. Three different doctors who can't be in the same practice all have to sign off? A separate non-hospital employee doctor is required to check patients every few months and issue an opinion?

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Jun 23, 2022·edited Jun 23, 2022

One item I think is relevant to the end of 1: Suburbs are by and large designed for cars. If you don't have one it's hard to get to the suburbs, hard to leave them, and hard to buy food and etc.

The best way to avoid homeless may just be to move slightly further from public transportation. I would be very curious if there are any studies on the relationship between public transit access and homeless population within a metro area rather than between them.

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yet another book whose central premise is "_______________ is the fault of progressives / libs / environmentalists". the genre must make some serious $$$.

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What book would you recommend about the un-housed homeless issue on the US West Coast ?

From Youtube videos and from my partners recent experience in the US it seems that it has really changed for the worse recently.

I've read San Francsicko and as an outsider thought it was a really interesting book.

I don't live there, but again from reports it appears that Seattle has similar issues as San Francisco, Portland and LA but Bellevue does not despite having a substantial downtown.

Would anyone who lives in that area be able to comment ?

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A recurring theme in this post is problems caused by a sort of motte-and-bailey of mental illness definitions, where sometimes someone is implicitly talking about only the most extreme cases, but quotes statistics that include all cases of depression and anxiety.

It would be good to avoid this ambiguity. The term “severe mental illness” used here seems to do that but is still confusing if you don’t know it’s a term of art. I wish 1) there were a completely different phrase, and 2) there was consensus on where to draw the arbitrary line.

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Wow, 22,845 words including quotes. What does it all mean?

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Tldr; clearing out homeless people would be better for not-homeless people. Unclear if it helps or hurts homeless people. Also when people crap on your front yard your first principle becomes "no human feces."

Scott's conclusion: book is pretty dishonest, lots of words.

My conclusion: make this guy governor, I don't care if he sometimes misrepresents the science. He's way better than the alternative!

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The missing (?) data on shoplifting is incredibly spooky. How deep does this incongruity run? How disconnected is the world of legible data from the world of anecdote? And which one do I actually live in?

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Scott, how is it that every time you determine San Fransicko was wrong or misleading about something, you are absolutely sure about it, but every time it turns out to be right, you're "confused and not sure"? Care to do a follow-up self-analysis showing the correlation between these events and the likely causes thereof?

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Housing *is* actually the main cause of homelessness though. Seriously, go read "Homelessness is a Housing Issue".

Also, no, dense walkable neighbors are great. We don't have dense walkable areas with mixed middle housing in the states. Look at Amsterdam's great density and wonder if maybe the author missed something vital.

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Really really important point: all American crime statistics that come from police departments since at least the early 2000s are almost worthless. Since Bill Bratton and COMPSTAT revolutionized American policing, The careers and day-to-day not getting screamed at and belittled-by-their-bosses of police leadership have highly dependent on low crime statistics in the areas they control.

As we know, "when a metric becomes a goal it ceases to be a useful metric". Every time you see crime statistics from police reports bear in mind that they have been passed through at least one but usually several layers of handlers with intense and explicit personal incentives to downplay any crimes and no loyalty whatsoever to any ideal of scientific neutrality.

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"But a big reason we don’t build dense cities and walkable neighborhoods is that people (correctly) hate and fear them. They accurately predict that if their neighborhood got denser, it would start looking like the dense parts of San Francisco - litter-filled, decaying, disgusting, unsafe, and ambiently miserable to exist"

This seems like the one unexamined claim in the otherwise excellent review.

Like in the essay about high modernism, Scott Alexander wrote about how people don't like hard industrial designed cities like Brasilia and prefer dense, quirky neighborhoods.

Similarly, Europe is filled with dense cities and walkable neighborhoods and they are great! Same with parts of Asia.

It seems like the "accurate prediction" part of the above quote needs to be very heavily qualified.

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"The outlier below is DC"

It would be helpful if you would specify which outlier, given that there are several (and two obvious ones).

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Anyone who thinks you can compare SF and Houston/PHX weather, go to your airport, buy a SW ticket there and see how long you last in Downtown this week.

Apples and Winnebagos.

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One thing that jumped out at me: "Murders definitely rose a little after Boudin took office, but that’s because that was also when the Black Lives Matter protests happened, which demoralized police and led to a so-far-permanent spike in murders nationwide" -- the way that this is written implies causality between BLM protests and a spike in murders. Especially in a review that emphasizes being careful about causality, this goes a bit too far. While it's certainly possible that BLM protests led to a spike in murders, it's also possible that it is mainly due to pandemic-induced disruption of moderating influences of community.

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New York State is *required* by consent decree to provide shelter to all homeless New Yorkers. This originates with Callahan v. Carey (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Callahan_v._Carey brought in 1979, settled in 1981) plus a few follow-on cases ( https://www.coalitionforthehomeless.org/our-programs/advocacy/legal-victories/other-coalition-for-the-homeless-legal-victories/ ). The relevant law is Article XVII, Section 1 of the New York Constitution, which states that "The aid, care and support of the needy are public concerns and shall be provided by the state and by such of its subdivisions, and in such manner and by such means, as the legislature may from time to time determine." I don't really know much more about NY's system beyond that, but I would imagine this should be provided as background knowledge whenever anyone compares NY sheltered homeless rates to anywhere else -- of course New York has a higher rate of sheltered homeless than elsewhere if their Constitution mandates that the state provides shelter.

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"Murders definitely rose a little after Boudin took office, but that’s because that was also when the Black Lives Matter protests happened, which demoralized police and led to a so-far-permanent spike in murders nationwide."

Obviously it's difficult to attribute this to Boudin when there was a national spike, but attributing it to police demoralisation seems equally speculative. A priori, I find it unlikely that this was the cause. Police don't usually prevent murders, they help investigate them. It seems to me that murderers aren't usually rational actors to the degree that they'll reason "well I'm 20% less likely to be caught after the fact now, so I think I'll commit that murder".

A general sense of despair and anger seems like a more plausible explanation to me for the rise in murder. I grant that's pretty vague and speculative too. I could be wrong, you could be right. But your statement as is seems bald and bold.

It's also perhaps a little too charitable to say that police are "demoralised". It makes them seem like victims rather than perpetrators. After all, only in a handful of places have they actually lost resources. One could just as easily describe police as on an informal strike to punish their political enemies because they think people are being mean to them, especially in California.

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"In fact, if you’re a homeless person, why wouldn’t you want to live in a suburb?" -- Because panhandling is a numbers game, and if you sit on the sidewalk in the commuter suburbs, you might talk to one person an hour.

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One of your best articles in a while. Well researched, entertaining, contained some fact, did largely reinforce my priors. 10/10

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I think that the canonical reference when talking about a data driven approach to the homeless problem should be "Million Dollar Murray" by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell cites Dennis Culhane's research on homelessness that produced a surprising outcome: the most frequent period of homelessness is a single day. The second most frequent duration? Two days.

Why? Because when you're talking about homelessness you're talking about (at least) two different populations. The first are those individuals who are homeless only briefly--they are often employed and after a night or two of sleeping in a car or on a bench they find shelter on a friend's couch or in the basement of their parents home. In Gladwell's narrative they can be ignored because they can take care of themselves.

The other population is far more problematic. For this group of individuals the average stay on the streets isn't measured in days, it's years. Rates of drug abuse and mental illness are far higher for this group than for the general population, along with the concomitant issues of joblessness and familial isolation. (Culhane in another interview said that they tend to have "tenuous" relations with friends and family. Translation: they can't stay at Mom's house because they pawned the tv to buy crack and are now persona non grata.)

This is not a distinction without a difference. If homelessness has its roots in simple economics than providing housing vouchers or subsidies should be enough to make a difference. If the real issue is addiction and mental illness than those measures will be woefully inadequate.

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Hey Scott, I've read the book (I generally liked it), and one of the ideas in it that felt right to me that you didn't address was the magnet effect of generous aid programs in progressive west coast cities. As a Seattle resident, this feels like an important piece of the puzzle, making west coast cities with warmish weather and liberalized drug laws uniquely attractive to homeless addicts from all over the country, particularly when paired with greater tolerance of "camping" and property crime generally.

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When getting the correlation between housing costs and homelessness what criteria was used to determine which cities were used? Why exclude Palo Alto or Beverly Hills?

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San Francisco seems to be in the exact same place as the rest of the country with regards to rising crime; a bad one. In particular the increase in gun violence from 2019 to 2021 is stunning to me.

"According to the numbers, the city had 56 homicides in 2021, up from 48 in 2020, and 41 in 2019."

"The data also revealed that citywide gun violence is on the rise, with 222 victims of gun violence in 2021, which includes murder victims killed in shootings. That number is up from 167 victims of gun violence in 2020, and 137 in 2019."


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Great and illuminating essay in general, wondering what you think of various system effects beyond outcomes of various approaches being offered to an isolated homeless person:

- At some point, overgenerous housing problems would lead to people reducing effort to pursue other alternatives to being government housed homeless. For example - work for a horrible boss, move to a place where one absolutely hates to live except for low living costs, beg a relative one is not on good terms with to sleep on the couch. I agree that this point has not been reached in the US, but seems to be a significant problem among immigrants in Sweden. Where do we draw the line.

- To help the most people using finite resources, it's essential for aid to be as small and brief and possible for each individual recipient, so that it can quickly become available again for others. This implies programs that work in a pinch but are not palatable for long term use, or are simply time limited. Permanent private rooms where some might choose to live long term may be too relatively comfortable to ensure that almost everyone who is able to move on does.

- Equity is not the only consideration here. Even among the homeless, there may be one who can become self-sufficient given expensive time limited intervention for each two who are likely to remain long term dependent no matter what. Is it really better to keep all 3 in long term government housing with no way out? Also each housing unit government fully pays for is one less unit available for someone on the verge of homelessness but able to rent the cheapest apartment in town. Also, government provides single occupancy units, but people voluntarily rent with roommates, and even cramped quarters is better than sleeping on the street.

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The charge that the only alternative to incarceration is a medieval asylum is an unfortunate straw man I think. Yes, the institutions of the early 20th century were horror shows. So were the prisons. The bulk of modern day prisons are much more humane institutions.

Locking up the mentally ill in jails is a hidden crisis. Not only does it lead to a deterioration in the capabilities of police but it results in great suffering for mentally ill inmates who often receive substandard care. Some intermediate option that includes involuntary confinement but in a setting dedicated to treatment would probably be a huge improvement.

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Thank you Scott! That was a really great article to read.

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Somewhat counterintuitively, I don't think there's a sensible mechanism by which high housing prices cause people to live on the streets.

The obvious mechanism doesn't seem to make sense. The sort of people you see living on the streets of San Francisco aren't the sort of people who can afford $1500 a month in rent but not $4500 a month. The people of San Francisco who got priced out of their $1500-a-month apartments didn't move onto the streets, they moved to Oakland or Sacramento or Cleveland or somewhere; moving to a new city may suck but it's vastly better than sleeping on the street.

The people who sleep on the street are clearly both unemployed and unemployable, so even if you could lower the cost of living in San Francisco to the cost of living in Memphis, it's not going to result in them finding houses.

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Cementing Scott as the granddaddy of all bloggers for eternity my God (Allah) you've got a insane talent like good Lord how do you do it

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"The main virtue I cannot ascribe to it is honesty" was more or less my take about Shellenberger the last go round. I notice you softened the language on the website compared to the newsletter version. "Using statistics like a drunk uses a streetlamp" gets it about right though.

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> The dream is to be so tough on crime that criminals pre-emptively give up and you never have to deploy your draconian punishments. But the history of the past few decades of mass incarceration show that, although this happens a little, enough people keep doing crime that you very much do have to deploy your draconian punishments and then you end up with millions of people in prison.

I would also like to take issue with this bit, because it seems to me that the US on the whole does _not_ on the whole have draconian punishments, and that its current high crime, high incarceration state is a result of being much too far on the "too lax" rather than "too draconian" side of the sweet spot.

The sweet spot is probably something closer to Singapore.

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As somebody somewhat familiar with the Portuguese situation, and who was born next door to Portugal and has lived in the neighborhood for a long time, let me clarify that Portugal is NOT a very conservative country, not even when it comes to drug use. In fact, it's so not conservative that the usual party switcheroo between conservatives and progressives there literally involves the "social-democratic party" running against the "socialist party" since the early 1970s. In fact, the only actual conservative who was ever president of Portugal in living memory was murdered by state security; they didn't even bother to cover the crime very much, and then the whole country has sort of ignored the matter for decades, as one of those things that sometimes happen https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francisco_de_S%C3%A1_Carneiro. Regarding the specific issue of drug use in Portugal: we should mention this study https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31808250/, and put it in whatever context. It looks into all hospitalizations that occurred in Portuguese public hospitals from 2000 to 2015, and finds that the number of hospitalizations with a primary diagnosis of psychotic disorders and schizophrenia associated with cannabis use rose 29.4 times during the study period, from 20 to 588 hospitalizations yearly (2000 and 2015, respectively) with a total of 3,233 hospitalizations.

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Curated GPT completions for "I've been homeless for three years. I prefer to camp in the densest part of the city because "

"it's easier to find food, shelter, and resources there."

"1) There are more opportunities for scavenging and finding food and resources.

2) There are more people around, which means more potential for begging or bartering for goods.

3) There are more places to hide and sleep without being disturbed."

"I can find more resources there."

"I can blend in more and people are more likely to help me out. I know all the best places to go to get food, clothes, and anything else I might need."

"I like being around people."

"I feel more safe when there are more people around."

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You wondered why statistics for shoplifting are going down while everyone with stores says that it is going up. The reason is that it isn't getting enforced. In addition to laws and policies which decriminalize small thefts, retail stores have less willing to confront thieves. I've worked retail once, and I assure you that this comic is totally accurate: https://forums.somethingawful.com/showthread.php?threadid=3964886

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It makes sense to me that the reported factors leading to homelessness add up to more than 100% In most cases there's not going to be a single factor, figuring out the relative weight of the factors is difficult but mental illness and drug addiction seem the most likely to be the "but for" casual factors where people might have avoided homelessness if not for them.

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I spent a couple of weeks in the summer of 2018 in Santa Monica and walked all over every day. I was struck by how very rich and very liberal Santa Monica seemed to have homelessness under control, which I believe was not always true in the past. Most of the homeless-looking people were solitary individuals doing something not too objectionable, like retrieving aluminum cans from garbage bins. They seemed to mostly be working, rather than socializing with each other. In Santa Monica, I didn't see homeless people harassing pedestrians, doing drugs outdoors, or monopolizing the best public places, the way they used to make the clifftop Ocean Blvd. Park unpleasant.

On the other hand, while walking south on the famous Venice Beach bikepath, the moment I crossed from Santa Monica into Los Angeles (Venice is part of Los Angeles), the density of homeless went up a couple of orders of magnitude. And the homeless were having a blast. One foot over the civic border into Los Angeles, the beachfront roller skating path became a giant homeless party.

The lesson I took from this was that policy matters. The government of Santa Monica was evidently doing things that the government of Los Angeles wasn't doing regarding the homeless.

But what? Unfortunately, I've never been able to find any articles about what Santa Monica was doing to keep its homeless under control. I happened to find myself sitting at lunch soon after with the city manager of Santa Monica, a very competent-appearing man in his 60s. I wanted to ask him what he was doing right, but didn't get around to it. Oh, well ...

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Based on these excerpts, I think you're wrong to describe his position as "supporting sweeping institutionalization" - he supports more institutionizing than we have now and thinks we've gone too far to the other side, but doesn't seem to support peak institutionalization (there's a pretty wide gap between what we have now and the my brother Tom era). When you say "sweeping institutionalization"

I imagine "immidiately rounding up all the homeless people and locking them up". His described preferred policy has the option for that for some people, but unless I'm significantly misunderstanding it it's not the default for everyone (I don't think the Netherlands has mass institutionalization?).

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Jun 23, 2022·edited Jun 23, 2022

> I would also note that “traumatizing the sorts of people who write popular books about politics, in a such a way that they feel compelled as a sort of self-therapy to write page after page telling readers how angry they should be at you and your whole coalition” isn’t great political praxis. I would like people to figure this out and stop doing it.

I dunno. Sounds like it works, to me. Most of the normies won't read the people being harassed complaining about it because they don't read anything, but the people being harassed will give up faster, or just never start, as the anecdotes he gives verify. It doesn't seem like crying is an effective counter to bullying, in general.

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Jun 23, 2022·edited Jun 23, 2022

This was probably too late to get in your article, but there was a NYT article last week on Houston's success in combatting homeless and it appears to be basically a massive housing first success


Which of course underscores the reason why Houston can have success with Housing First, while San Francisco can't do as well - a lack of available, cheap housing. Finding reasonably priced one bedroom apartments that the gov't can afford is remarkably easier. Now, obviously there are issues w/ Houston sprawl, but there's a way to build more without sprawling into infinity.

Again, I know people will say I'm overstating this, but I'd argue that about 50% of problems or more that appear to be specific policy issues on their own all go down to housing supply, and our decades long backlog of a lack of housing starts. If we'd had continued building housing all around the country at the same rate we had back in 2007, we'd be at somewhere around eight to ten million additional housing starts in the country.

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> The dream is to be so tough on crime that criminals pre-emptively give up and you never have to deploy your draconian punishments. But the history of the past few decades of mass incarceration show that, although this happens a little, enough people keep doing crime that you very much do have to deploy your draconian punishments and then you end up with millions of people in prison.

This ignores the fact that the clearance rate for many crimes in the US is very low, especially in high crime cities. In many high crime cities only 1/3 or less of homicides are solved. It's not surprising that harsh punishment doesn't deter all that much when the actual chance of being punished is fairly low.

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>Studies like these don’t show causation. Sure, mental illness can make people homeless. But homelessness can also cause mental illness. One SF study found psych diagnoses among the homeless to be evenly divided among depression, PTSD, and everything else. Homelessness is a depressing and traumatic environment. Just because someone who’s been on the streets for a year has depression or trauma, doesn’t mean that we should attribute their homelessness to mental illness.

This argument was a bit jarring right after you presented the house price - homelessness plot. Neither does showing a scatter plot and linear fit on house prices and homelessness prove causality! It is very well possible there is some third variable which explains *both*. Or maybe the causality runs the other way: average house prices are super high in SF because the rest of the populace is outbidding each other to get the super fancy apartments less affected by homeless camps. (Not super serious about this hypothesis, but if homelessness in SF affects only some districts, one really should look at the district level price data.)

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Regarding institutionalisation, I think describing mental hospitals up until mass deinstitutionalisation as "death camps" is firmly exaggeration.

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Jun 23, 2022·edited Jun 23, 2022

The abstract and slogans keep talking about "Housing First", and all the real-world attempts seem to be at best "Apartments First", and usually "Rooms First". Has giving homeless people actual *houses* en masse actually been tried? Not quarters in a larger complex: actual, free-standing houses — albeit small, cheap ones.

It seems to me like that would obviously be less prone to the failure mode of the "apartment building" devolving into basically being a shelter-slash-institution-slash-prison by another name. In addition to the power dynamics, I think this would also be less demoralizing for the homeless. Whether or not the people running it are actually authoritarian control-freaks, being assigned a room will make you *feel* like you're just in an institution — whereas surely part of the hope is that genuinely being given a home of your own will feel like getting control of your own destiny back, and put you back on the path to true independence.

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Wouldn’t it be a interesting turn if events if “we should do as the Europeans do” started to become something people on the American right wing said as well?

The approach seems to be something like “ensure that each person’s local utility function consistently points out of a direction of them remaining homeless.” And that seems to require some real possibility of a nasty thing happening to a person (ie jail) or else the default may be totally workable.

I enjoyed this, thank you.

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Jun 23, 2022·edited Jun 23, 2022

Have you ever tried reporting a robbery or an assault in San Francisco? I have — tried, that is — twice. The third and fourth times I didn't bother trying. The fifth time I just got the hell out of San Francisco. I have a friend who got literally curb-stomped, has it on video and has the identity of the guy who did it, and eventually gave up on getting anyone to take his report after getting a jurisdictional runaround. The real crime rate is something much higher than the official statistics.

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The short conclusion is that there isnt much reliable data on homelessness. The clear anti-drug edge to the book was annoying, and the status of mental hospitald in the not too distant past sounds terifyiing

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Peter Thiel has a valid criticism of rationalists - he says they/we have had no impact. I think that's a valid criticism, for all the brainpower in the sphere, little world-changing has taken place.

With that in mind I am more charitable towards people like Shellenberger who arrive at likely beneficial policies, and then do whatever to push them through.

Maybe you can't impassion people to change things by only saying things like "update your priors on this claim by 10%".

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This was an absolutely phenomenal read. It felt well-balanced and very informative.

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The obvious reason homeless live in cities and not suburbs — the economy is powered by shoplifting, social services, or panhandling. More or less all 3 are more (only) successful in the city. Imagine having no car in the suburbs and shoplifting from the one shop you camp next to all the time. Not going to work, they will recognize you. And nowhere to buy drugs, if that’s your thing.

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What are the colored squares at the bottom of the DALL-E 2 statue image?

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I think Bill Maher recently cited this book on his show uncritically. I've noticed a recent habit of his repeating false or questionable claims as if they were uncontested fact recently. He certainly has repeated the "shoplifting in San farncisco" meme, specifically in the context of a "fact" the left are ignoring at their own electoral peril.

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I like the length. I had a 2-hour bus ride today and this article kept me entertained throughout.

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As a contrast to this book, I think it would be interesting to see Scott review Drug Use for Grown-Ups by Carl Hart next.

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Jun 23, 2022·edited Jun 23, 2022

"Suburban police departments might be less tolerant of homeless people, either harassing them until they leave or outright telling them to go to cities. Why would suburban departments be less tolerant than urban departments (especially when urban departments, eg the LAPD, are better known for their ruthlessness)? It might just be an entrenched norms thing; suburbs can get rid of their homeless populations, so they do. Or it might be politics; suburbs might be more conservative than cities."

Well, it certainly is a head-scratcher how a suburb of rich people might not have homeless encampments outside their houses. However might it be that this happens? Surely the police in the suburbs are not less tolerant than the inner-city ones?

Whatever about entrenched norms or more conservatism, the answer is probably more cynical and pragmatic; rich Josephine Smyth-Verres-Evans is a close personal friend of the local political and police big wigs and so if she rings up to complain about scruffy smelly bums hanging around the street, action gets taken immediately. The bums get escorted out of the posh parts and end up back in the "nobody gives a damn" parts, where it's easier anyway to beg and buy drugs and the police aren't going to intervene without a direct order to do so because the DA isn't prosecuting "lifestyle crimes".


As to the institutionalisation part, I think there may be a difference of definition; I imagine Shellenberger means "I don't want the cops to sweep up all the homeless and then they get locked up in the looney bin forever, this isn't Soviet Russia and the gulags! But I do think that the guy ranting about aliens eating his brain and dropping his trousers to shit in the middle of the street does need to be treated, and if he won't go voluntarily because that's where the aliens live, what good does it do anyone to leave him ranting and shitting in the streets? Sometimes you do need to involuntarily commit someone for their own good and the good of others, and if he can be succesfully treated, then of course he gets out of the pyschiatric ward (and hopefully gets help and support to get housing so he won't go off his meds and back onto the street)".

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"San Fransicko is the equivalent of that dim blue lighting you sometimes see in nightclub bathrooms: so focused on preventing injection drug use that it sacrifices the ability to illuminate anything at all."

HOW do you think of such clever analogies on such a frequent basis

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I thought the philosophical musings at the end about how many people's lives have to be improved to justify making homeless lives worse was maybe the most interesting part of the review... and also the part that people are least likely to make it to. But it also makes me think about if there are ways to mitigate the specific complaints of housed people in walkable cities without such drastic measures. If the number one problem is feces on streets and litter everywhere and homeless people yelling at you, maybe just bring back public restrooms and have a lot more public trash cans and crack down really hard on the specific instances of people yelling at passersby?

Regarding homelessness as an issue, I happen to have just listened to the first episode of "According to Need", a 6 part podcast about homelessness in Oakland. It definitely comes at it from a leftist point of view, but it was also helpful to reset how I think of homelessness as a binary. We're introduced to a woman and her child who are frequently able find a place to stay with friends or family for a while... but not permanently and then sooner or later they're back to sleeping in the car. Who had a psychotic episode... after the stress of being homeless for years, but that doesn't seem to be a primary reason she's homeless. It also does a bit of pushback (with a brief statistical cite) to the idea of homeless people migrating to California by pointing out how much you depend on a support network of friends and family when you're homeless, and how terrifying it is to catch a bus to another city where you don't know anyone or have anyone you can call on when things get very bad.

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"In fact, less than a fifth of prisoners are in for drug-related crimes."

Am I misunderstanding what Scott is saying here? The below government website cites national number of incarcerated for drug offenses accounts for 44.9% of US prison population.


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"I would simply not commit crimes."

I mean, in literally this piece, you certainly seem to confess to committing crimes? Unless using "substances I’m not supposed to" means something unusual?

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The changes in SF are indeed depressing to see. A book analyzing this honestly would be good to read. Other cities would learn from it, if nothing else. I hope SF fixes its problems, whatever be the cause/s.

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While it is likely to be the factoid the rest of you pass over without comment, the thing that I will remember from this essay is "six million needles a year".

Sometimes people like to play the game of "Imagine comprehending [such-or-other sentence filled with tech neologisms and slang] even just twenty-five years ago!"

For me, "gave out six million needles a year" would be the funny thing to try to explain to the average somebody even as late as the 80s.

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I don't think housing prices are the driving factor. Check statistics for Columbia, South Carolina. Very mild/warm weather, fairly cheap cost of living and housing, and a decent job market at the bottom end. Homelessness is a major problem. The city admits to there being several thousand homeless (City population is about 130,000). As typical in the Christian South, there are many "do-gooders" available to provide food, clothing and even shelter. Mental illness and substance abuse are the driving factors. Until we start institutionalizing the mentally ill again, this problem will continue to grow.

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>This thought experiment pushes me closer to Shellenberger’s side of the aisle. I still want to cling to the hope that there is some way to do this which lets the people who aren’t bothering anyone else be left alone.

Well... like your comment on harmless versus harmful quirks, aren't "those who aren't bothering anyone else" *already* left alone? They are, presumably, not even noticed! The drug-addled equivalent of a hikkikomori, living off their parent's largesse, isn't a "problem" in the way that someone occupying a public space, and often-if-not-always damaging that space, is.

It's an interesting reversal of "We are the 99%"/1% political sloganeering: public parks intended for the use of *everyone* are instead co-opted by a small but unusually powerful (... bear with the metaphor, please) group.

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Scott links to a Politico article that claimed that due to zoning obstacles, the state had only received one application for its $100 million program to convert hotels to housing for the homeless.

Turns out that was incorrect: the state had in fact received zero applications.


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The post asks why SF and other cities don't just rent apartments for homeless people, if they're so committed to Housing First. After all, the median SF apartment costs just ~$3,000 per month. That's almost *three times less* than what SF currently spends per homeless person per month, by my calculations.

Scott's proposed answer is that zoning makes building apartments for the homeless near-impossible. But this doesn't address the question: it seems like it would be way cheaper to house people by just renting apartments already on the market. It wouldn't take any new building. So why (genuinely) doesn't the city just do it?

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Plus with so many social services being tied to disability status, homeless patients have huge incentive to get diagnosed with serious mental disorders. Plenty of folks in my defense work days would tell me they were on disability for a "mental thing" and have no idea what it was. These were people with more-or-less working faculties, their doctors had just diagnosed them as disabled because that's the only way medicaid pays out.

That's anecdotal, and I'd be very very reluctant to make this case strongly. However, since I'm making a comment on the internet I can just insinuate things and assume other people are smart enough to figure out whether they're true or not. Seems a lot like the institutionalization plan (much like the prison plan) is:

1) Refuse benefits to folks we don't consider deserving due to lack of disability.

2) They get a diagnosis of debilitating mental disorder from a psychiatric complex mostly designed to hand out diagnoses.

3) Now use that diagnosis to declare them unfit to manage their own choices, either through coercing treatment on them with threats of prison time or by involuntary commitment.

4) We're still being a good civil liberties state because we only deny civil liberties to people with debilitating mental disorders, yet somehow we keep locking up all the inconvenient poor people in urban centers.

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You lost me at the first turn. Your analysis of the housing cost model is a perfect example of the limitations of correlation in policy analysis.

You could reject the hypothesis that housing costs cause homelessness if there were no correlation between housing costs and homelessness. But showing that there is one does not prove that the model is correct.

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I appreciate this review very much. My midsize midwestern city has a major homeless problem and learning more about the practical options for addressing it is a civic interest here. I bought and made my way partway through "San Fransicko," but became frustrated by the polemical tone and my own inability to assess the arguments, even though I was open to them and appreciate Shellenberger's personal activism. This review helps, and will lead me back into the book with a better sense of how to try to learn from it in a measured way.

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« My patients who work in loss prevention in SF stores are all lying to me? »

All... one? I'm confused.

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"But fine, these are also terrible, and they’re only medium-term solutions anyway. What about building real, long-term apartments for homeless people?"

Apart from the spiraling costs, which you correctly noted, have we forgotten so quickly what happened with the public housing projects built with Great Society money back in the '60s? To take one famous example:

Unlike many of the city's other public housing projects such as Rockwell Gardens or Robert Taylor Homes, Cabrini-Green was situated in an affluent part of the city. The poverty-stricken projects were actually constructed at the meeting point of Chicago's two wealthiest neighborhoods, Lincoln Park and the Gold Coast. Less than a mile to the east sat Michigan Avenue with its high-end shopping and expensive housing. Specific gangs "controlled" individual buildings, and residents felt pressure to ally with those gangs in order to protect themselves from escalating violence.

During the worst years of Cabrini-Green's problems, vandalism increased substantially. Gang members and miscreants covered interior walls with graffiti and damaged doors, windows, and elevators. Rat and cockroach infestations were commonplace, rotting garbage stacked up in clogged trash chutes (it once piled up to the 15th floor), and basic utilities (water, electricity, etc.) often malfunctioned and were left in disrepair.

On the exterior, boarded-up windows, burned-out areas of the façade, and pavement instead of green space—all in the name of economizing on maintenance—created an atmosphere of decay and government neglect. The balconies were fenced in to prevent residents from emptying garbage cans into the yard, and from falling or being thrown to their deaths. This created the appearance of a large prison tier, or of animal cages, which further enraged community leaders of the residents.


While Cabrini–Green was deteriorating during the postwar era, causing industry, investment, and residents to abandon its immediate surroundings, the rest of Chicago's Near North Side underwent equally dramatic upward changes in socioeconomic status. First, downtown employment shifted dramatically from manufacturing to professional services, spurring increased demand for middle-income housing; the resulting gentrification spread north along the lakefront from the Gold Coast, then pushed west and eventually crossed the river.


Someone want to point me to why something like this wouldn't happen again? Keep in mind that SF already spends a 100 million to clean feces off the streets (only semi-successfully, at that). Frankly, this seems to me like an marker of what Tyler Cowen calls The Great Forgetting.

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Good article - I shall devote some time to it.

On reading 1st 1/4 of it:

You assume Miami and Houston have moderate climates - they don't. Miami has very high summer heat and humidity. Today in Miami, the wet bulb temperature (that's the important measurement) is 82.9 and the high summer heat and daily rains haven't begun yet.

The high in Houston today is forecast to be 99 - feeling like 104, and the real summer heat hasn't begun there either.

Living on the streets in either city is almost intolerable for a large part of the year. San Francisco, with it's old-fashioned alleys, deep doorways, courtyards and hidden areas is far more livable for those without housing.

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Great review. The final four paragraphs of this review are perfect and representative of how clever Scott's writing can be.

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I assume someone has mentioned this, but I was surprised that Phoenix and Houston were used as cities with comparable weather, as both get dangerously hot during the summer. That would also have to explain some of the difference. It would be *much* more comfortable to be outside pretty much everywhere on the California coast year around, than in either Phoenix or Houston.

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It was late when I read this last night, and I'm sorry if I missed this, but there was a chunk of talk about Amsterdam reducing its homeless population, but Amsterdam is just a city in a country (inside a union that allows free transit). Is there any evidence that the interventions didn't just reallocate homelessness instead of reduce it?

A city doesn't have to be the harshest in its treatment of people, it just has to be harder than the alternatives, or at least less attractive. Of course if people catch on this creates a terrible spiral where each municipality gets slightly tougher than the others until someone says too much or there are summary executions (or something). If the stories of how the cops treat homeless people in suburbs/nicer neighborhoods are true, then something like this is already in play (where the suburbs defect and the cities just suck it up to various levels).

And this is also true on the flip-side. Just as homeless people are rational about choosing locations with good climate, they also choose locations with better support/legal climate. The first city who decides to buckle down and do 100% housing first, no waiting, cost be damned, should expect to see an increase in customers for said housing.

Austin saw that when it eliminated the camping ban. Suddenly the homeless who were already there became more visible, a larger percentage of the snow birds declined to leave as the weather warmed, and there was some new homeless immigration. Camping ban was reinstituted, and now they are seeing a slow migration away again.

Hawaii has a great climate. They are fairly lax in their treatment of homeless people (and drug use), they have a large homeless population for how rural many parts of it are. They start doing more round-ups and camp evictions over the last few years, people start looking for greener pastures.

So when we talk about solutions for San Francisco homlessness, or whether Amsterdam's programs solved its problems (even temporarily), the question that keeps running through my head is, "Did it actually solve any problems, or did it just move them around?" (at scale, of course, I'm sure there were individuals who benefited from housing and support and whose life was improved)

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How many free public toilets does SF have? Make everything from riveted sheet steel so it's hard to vandalise and use those horrible blue lights.

I think a number of aspects of American urban life (inner cities, public transport) have a kind of evaporative cooling vicious cycle where Respectable People don't live somewhere/use a service, therefore all the people there are 'Disrespectable' therefore Respectable people stay away. Thus they get stuck in suboptimal equilibria.

Do we have testimonies from anybody who's been both imprisoned and institutionalised regarding which is worse?

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Jun 23, 2022·edited Jun 23, 2022


That would actually be a hate crime, since California is one of four states in the U.S. where political affiliation is considered a protected category for the purposes of hate crime laws.

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"So as time goes on and more and more people try drugs but “un-trying” drugs isn’t a thing, the percent of the population who have tried drugs inevitably goes up."

Not sure how that works. At any given moment, a part of the population (who may or may not have tried drugs) is dying and therefore is no longer counted, and a part of the population (who haven't voluntarily tried drugs) is being born.

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afaik there's a very strong correlation between high housing costs and progressive policies so the strong correlation between the former and homelessness doesn't absolve the latter.

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Jun 23, 2022·edited Jun 23, 2022

"I do believe that people in LA jail have a higher rate of mental illness than the general population. But I’m less sure if they have a higher rate of mental illness than eg graduate students, who have depression at 6x the rate of the general population. And if someone argued that it was a waste to shut down the old mental institutions, because we’re just “trans-institutionalizing” all the mentally ill from psych wards to graduate schools, then people would notice the flaws in that argument right away."

Seriously? You don't see any difference between "mental difficulties but I'm in grad school" and "mental difficulties but I'm in jail"? If everyone who had mental problems was ending up in grad school and not the old looney bins (which were as terrible as everyone claims), we wouldn't be having this discussion at all. But people are not ending up in jail merely because "well doc, I'm depressed but I was told I didn't need anti-depressants because I wasn't suicidal and that's why I'm doing time instead of completing my PhD".

Scott, you've worked in hospitals. Coincidentally, I just had a family member telling me of their experiences in an institution (after a suicide attempt) and about the crisis care ward and the locked wards and being amongst bipolar people who when they were cycling between phases of mania and depression were VERY DAMN DISTURBED. That family member said "Honestly, I can see now why the male psych nurses were all big, tall, strong guys". EDIT: And these were people from respectable backgrounds with good jobs, not the street homeless. If they were threatening, imagine what the street crazies are like!

'Depressed' meaning you need therapy and a prescription for anti-depressants and you have periods where you want to do nothing but stay in bed all day is one thing.

'Depressed' meaning 'on the down cycle of bipolar' where you are literally screaming yourself hoarse at the (female) nurses about "don't come near me, don't touch me, you have no idea how I am suffering, you don't know how I feel" and then cycling back up to the mania stage where "I'm secretly married to that (male) nurse, I'm pregnant with his baby, and you (fellow patient) are my guardian angel", and then the in-between state of being zombified is another thing.

Modern psychiatric wards are *something* better than the old mental asylums. State-provision is probably terrible because nobody wants to pay public money to make them as good as the private insurance hospitals, but they're not entirely snakepits any more. And people that end up with screaming hallucinations about boxes of dead babies on their doorstep (another anecdote from fambly time in mental ward) are not going to stay in grad school very long unless they get treatment.

Would anyone say it was worse to put someone in a (locked) ward than to let them have screaming hallucinations on the street? That may be the problem here: the disconnect between lay people whose experience of the mentally troubled is "PhD student with depression" - and so "involuntary committment" sounds like the worst of the bad old days of the snakepits - and the lay people whose experience of the mentally troubled is "guy or gal with crazed zombie expression screaming in the street" - and so "the jail population aren't any worse than the grad school population for rates of mental illness" sounds like complete out-of-touch with reality.

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Suppose SF decided to pony up the $250 million/year to house 7,000 homeless people in free housing. Why are we forecasting that 7,000 number as static after the announcement of free SF apartments to any and all?

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Suppose you came upon a small town of 600 adults. The mayor tells you that while the large majority of the town's people are kind and decent, 6 of them are complete scumbags who just have to be locked up or else the town would be in flames. Everyone knows everyone, and he can personally vouch for this being true, he says. Does this seem like a mass incarceration crisis?

What if it were 2 million, in a nation of 200 million adults?

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Scott says the cause in the murder spike was the BLM protests demotivating the police. However, I would point out that the same summer was the first time since the start of the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns the weather was warm and people were going out, so the crime spike could be partially attributable to that.

I haven't seen any evidence that the protests had anything to do with crime spikes other then a pro police talking point that was uncritically accepted and repeated.

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I wish this were in the book review contest so I could vote for it. My one complaint is the opening, where you say "It builds off the kind of stories familiar to most Bay Area residents:", when even in your very review you point out that the homeless thing is primarily an issue in specific parts of SF, not even the whole city, let alone the bay area.

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This is a great review – thanks!

Some thoughts:

1. We really need to figure out a way to _allow cheaper housing_, but the details, e.g. where, how much, what's a good new 'minimum cheapness', etc., are Hell (where The Devil lives).

2. Could police departments just keep dedicate patrol officers at 'cheap housing buildings'? If there's no need or desire for policing, then they could be re-allocated. But a commitment to dedicated policing, if it's required/wanted, might assuage the (legitmate) concerns of existing residents where this housing is built/developed.

3. I think there's a *considerable* 'premium' to be had in NOT housing the homeless, or drug addicts (with a 'disorder'), or even just poor people, all together in very concetrated areas. I think making 'cheap housing' *legal*, for everyone basically, and cities/townse/etc. just buying/renting 'regular housing' as needed, would be WAY better than any other proposed policies I've encountered.

4. Can we *please* just sell drugs, manufactured by, e.g. Pfizer, in "would be banned" stores already? Black markets are just fucking terrible, for rule of law; as a consumer, they *can* be perfectly fine (if at least a *little* scary).

Policing thoughts this made me think of:

1. I think we should encourage police officers to *want* to be recorded.

2. I think 'resisting' the police, let alone fleeing, should be punished severely. Some people seem to get away with inflicting a LOT of at-any-one-time low-level misery on others around them, but any individual instance of bad behavior isn't 'profitable' to police. I'm thinking of things like the 'dirt bike gangs' in NYC.

3. I think 'being bad while fucked up' should result in both: (a) being charged/prosecuted/punished for 'being bad'; (b) a *short-term* mandatory 'detox'/'sobering-up' (that's also safe, e.g. includes careful, gradual cessation because of dangerous withdrawal effects). I would *happily* include alcohol among the substances that qualify, while under their influence, as someone being 'fucked up'.

This seems 'wrong':

> a so-far-permanent spike in murders nationwide

Wouldn't it be a so-far-permanent scaling of a steep cliff leading to a mostly flat plateau?

... and I've now read more of your review and noted that all of the above in the numbered lists are basically mentioned.

It does seem like 'political vocabulary' is (almost?) deliberately confusing, e.g. 'harm reduction, 'de-institutionalization', or "sweeping institutionalization". Bleh

> But on the Outside View, wanting to institute a law I fully intend to break, where I would get enraged if it were applied against me personally, seems somewhat hypocritical.

I think [policing-3] above is the way to square this circle: you're fine because you're NOT getting 'fucked up' in public (or really fucked up at all), or otherwise committing _victimful_ crimes while fucked up; the other people who ARE getting fucked in public, or committing crimes, are the ones for whom these laws should apply.

But I think there absolutely should be a clear, consistent, and as simple as possible, standard for being released from involuntary commitment. Not having this is horrifying.

And, sure, if some municipality _wants_ to allow 'long term camping', then sure, they should be able to go ahead and live with the consequences. (Maybe they should consider [thought-2] tho?) We seem to agree on this anyways.

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One knee-jerk comment:

Thanks very much for presenting the absolute numbers for the Portugal Opiate Deaths, and not just scaled numbers!

The absolute numbers are really small. If the deaths are independent, and presumably follow Poisson statistics, a _single_ standard deviation for a typical year with about 25 deaths is already 5. Very few of the year-to-year changes are statistically significant at the 3sigma level: The 26->10 drop from 2010->2011 and the 37->54 rise from 2014->2015. All else is plausibly noise.

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One thing I've been wondering lately is whether there have been attempts to create rural homeless shelters, and if they would be any more effective. I don't have any strong reasons to think this would work better, and it's possible that it's really just manifesting an instinctive desire for out of sight out of mind. But urban concentration of the homeless seems very consistently to line up with bad outcomes, and I wonder if creating a separate space could help.

Certainly, it would be the wrong solution for anyone who's been reduced to homelessness solely or mostly due to poverty. But maybe better for the ones in that situation because of drugs or mental illness?

If anyone knows of something like this, I'd be really interested to read about how it turned out.

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Hi Scott,

You write:

"The researchers do not use the terms “local policy” or “social attitudes” in the paper itself."

But in the paper it states:

"To account for these unobserved local covariates, we include a CoC-level dynamic latent factor F 0 iβi,t, allowing for small departures from the cluster-level regression that may be due to local policies, cultural attitudes toward homelessness, affordable housing initiatives, and many other difficult to observe local factors."

Doesn't take away from your main point, but they do mention local policy, and "cultural" attitudes seems like a reasonable proxy for "social" attitudes.

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"This probably means Shellenberger and I agree on most real-world cases, but I remain invested in the tiny sliver of moral difference between our positions."

This is such a beautiful description of most political arguments.

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So I'll have to come back to this read. But as it begins with a lot of agonizing over why rich cities have homeless but not so much the suburbs, let me share some rather simple insights:

1. Pre-pandemic, I once debated with someone who asserted San Fran. was seeing a rise in homeless because they had passed a min. wage increase. I spent quite some time getting the data, homeless reports love to say things like "40% increase from last year" but never tell you what the base was in actual numbers. But when the dust settled, I found for each new homeless person, the city had added about 60 jobs. Keep that ratio in mind, 1 homeless person per 60 new jobs.

2. My mother-in-law supposedly once did 30 jobs in 30 days in Newark NJ. How does one do that? Well you waitress one night, bar tend another, check coats at a nightclub, help a store doing its inventory. This story was no doubt exaggerated and the 60's was no doubt a less formal time, these weren't let's set you up on direct deposit and a 401K type jobs, but you can still do this sort of thing.

3. Why no homeless in the suburbs? Because they are a social desert. Cities generate a lot of interaction which means a lot of opportunities, esp. if all you're asking is pocket money, some food, etc.

60 formal, on the books, here's your 401K, select your health insurance plan, you made it through 3 interviews, types of jobs seem about right to generate 1 informal job. By informal job, though, I mean a homeless person can support themselves. Maybe it's a series of small cash jobs, maybe it's collecting bottles and cashing them in, maybe its begging or stealing, but that can work. It can work even if you have mental or drug problems.

In contrast in the suburbs, 60 new jobs doesn't yield that sort of dynamic. Everyone is locked in their homes. What that might yield, though, is your kids moving their friends into your basement. Various types of couch surfers. But when that wears out or just doesn't work, the city is where it can assuming you are able to tolerate adjustments to your social dignity.

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Ha! Unsurprisingly we see yet another cheap ideologue trying to claim the victories of the 'other side' as their own victories. First famous openly gay politician Harvey Milk does something...decades later some conservative hack will pretend like that was a win for 'his side'.

Then he made the incredible mistake of challenging Scott to a statistics and sociological phenomenon argument...bad move Shellenberger, bad move. A few cherry picked highly specific numbers and folksy stories is almost always a sign of a poorly formed narrative whose goal is to manipulate rather than inform or understand.

Not to mention the highly diverse and historically broad set of policies to run city governments are not well suited to being shoved into the tiny boxes of currently trending political baskets.

What has been done and by whom in various local governments in diverse states, climates, and nations will vary too greatly to fit into anything other than 'good polices that work are good and bad policies that don't work are bad'.

A point I often make is 'anything can be done badly'. This covers most problems in most places when people want to assert that some specific thing that isn't working well is very easy to globalise into a broad principle. This sort of intentional attribution and correlations processes are usually done intentionally in the political arena and are classic tools of manipulators.

The sometimes fun Bret Weinstein on a recent episode of his podcast had a line "Conservatives celebrate and defend the victories of the progressives of the prior era as their own".

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Claim 3 and the Interlude seem to be very poorly performed/tried seriously by cities and fall into the 'anything can be done badly' camp of approaches.

Hotels are obviously dumb and are the opposite of 'Housing First' in that they come with lots of conditions to the point that people felt like they were in prison being there. That sure sounds like conditional help to me if you have to accept prison like conditions before you accept housing. Housing First is said often, but they are empty hollow words almost everywhere. Shelters and hotels and other prison like environments are highly highly conditional and nothing like the free conditions which those in regular housing experience.

Building new buildings or finding ways to concentrate the homeless into hotels and such are all really bad ideas that are obviously bad and had bad outcomes. No surprises there. Newsome tried nothing and now he's all out of ideas! Go figure!

Taking approaches like trying a long term plan to solve 1/3 of the problem and never finishing it due to what was probably corruption and cost disease in construction...is also a really bad idea with obviously bad outcomes. Again, another non-surprise bad faith attempt which succeed in loading up their corrupt construction friends. Help the poor? How about a handout to the rich instead? It didn't work? Colour me surprised.

The label on the sticker might say 'Housing First' but as you noted...none of these cities have tried you know... ACTUALLY provided housing for all of the homeless people at the same time and in an immediate sense with no conditions which did not concentrate them in their own ghetto. Who knew it was tough to get to sleep in a hotel room or a shelter or a crappy apartment when all of your neighbours are crazy and howling and screaming all night every night?

The clearcut and obvious easy solution of just renting large numbers of apartments which are NOT clustered together idiotically to create horrible high concentration brand new sudden ghettos around hotels or housing developments....is the obvious thing everyone says they want to do which somehow has NEVER happened!!!?!?!?

We had one idea, so we tried it out badly in half-baked ways over and over again for 30 years and it didn't' work. So the original idea was never actually tried? Yep!

It makes me think...all those bad people who want to do bad things to set goals, barriers, and whatever are real and the NIMBY triggering dumb concentration ideas and half-measures don't even begin to count as real Housing First initiatives.

Does housing solve why someone became homeless or what happened to them while they were homeless or their health or drug problems? Of course not, we don't need studies for this! How can smart people talk themselves soo stupid that they think 4 walls and a roof might impact health or addiction? Those are their own problems with their own solutions, but stable housing and getting people fed and off the streets is a LOT better than having them on the streets!

Do we want to solve homelessness or not? The answer is staring us in the face, everyone pretends they are doing it already, and yet in no place has it actually been tried on 100% of the entire homeless population in an even halfway decent attempt.

I really hope one of those mayors wins and uses 3% of the city budget to end homelessness overnight. Or at least give the real housing first approach a fair go.

When I see 7,000 flats rented for 7,000 formerly homeless people in SF, then we'll see if housing solves homelessness....or at least the crisis aspect of it being really bad, obvious, and annoyingly in the fact of CBD workers and Tourists. Spoiler! It does work and very few people will choose to sleep on the street if they have an apartment, though a small number will or will some of the time as their transportation and pan handling tactics are not solved by housing either.

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Claim 5 on drug use - this seems very strange to me and is a highly narrow way of viewing the issue. Granted the original topic is homelessness and indeed drug use is higher in the homeless population than the general population and is obviously not a great thing if one is trying to get their life in order.

But if we talk about the criminality of drug use and the difficulty in getting jobs when one has a prison record in the USA....how would putting drug addict homeless people in actual prisons help? I guess that is one way to give them housing? But it makes life harder for them forevermore? Though many of them will have already been in prison for other reasons or have criminal records, so it may be neither here nor there as their lives are hard and fallen apart for many other reasons already.

But the humane aspect of the argument should have a place and is a glaring omission. Cost, cost, cost, money, money, money....is that realllllly how we should think of government like some kind of business? Or do whatever is the cheapest thing always without any other considerations?

Is it not a higher moral goal and outcome to see homeless people put into rented homes and offered treatment rather than measuring policing costs and throwing them in jail from time to time?

We can look at these on paper and in dollars...but are they in any way equivalent outcomes?

Not to mention, there is a very strong argument drug use should not be criminalised for anyone and the half-assed attempt in Portugal failed to solve the violence and QUAITY problem by leaving the supply of drugs in the hands of criminals! Many overdoses and drug deaths are due to low quality and variable quality drugs causing accidental deaths.

Portugal is yet another half-measure and you see people dying on accident from drugs which might be 3 times stronger or weaker at any given time or might contain more or less fentanyl. Full legalisation and a clean reliable supply would avoid many deaths, but certainly not all.

But the moral and humane choices seem completely absent when we talk about what kind of society we want to be and how we treat each other.

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Interesting review. But did Shellenberger check (or has anyone else checked) if San Francisco’s homeless-problem might be due to a Tiebout effect? You can get a rough check on that, if you can find data on the percentage of the Bay Area homeless that are native to the area and how many that have moved in from other parts of the US, compared to (say) New York, or Huston, or Des Moines, or wherever. My hunch is that not only the percentage of the homeless, but also their composition (how many who have mental health problems for example) might at least partly be due to Tiebout-effect.

Tiebout suggested that the population in a country sort themselves into different local communities by “voting with their feet” (digression: a phrase first used by Lenin). This results in a Tiebout equilibrium (Wiki it). In that equilibrium, everyone has sorted themselves into communities which corresponds to their cultural, local-political, and other preferences (digression II: libertarians tend to like that idea).

When I was at UC Berkeley back in the days, I noticed the saying “everything that has a screw loose, rolls down to California”. Sayings often have some empirical backing, otherwise they would not be sayings. That could be a sign of a Tiebout effect, but real data is needed of course.

The old hippie/cult/any odd behavior goes/ image of the Bay Area, combined with a left-activist public welfare system & liberal drug policy, should attract not only homeless people as such, but homeless people of a particular type. (Side note: If that image of the Bay Area is correct, is not important. The important thing is if mentally frail homeless people in the rest of the US believe it is. “If people believe that a situation is real, then it is real, in its consequences” - the good old sociological Thomas-theorem; I am in quoting mode.)

A further digression/thought on US welfare politics, while at it: A major difference between the US and the EU is that in the US, people can move across state borders, while in the EU only labor can. In the EU, EU citizens can be forced to go back to where they came from, if they are found to represent an “unacceptable burden on the national welfare system”. (For those with an interest in comparative welfare policies, check out the European Court in Luxembourg, the closest EU equivalent to the US supreme court, Case C-333/13, 2014, for the legal bite of this principle.)

If my memory does not fail me (it has been some years since I studied US welfare policy history), the US had a similar practice until the 1930s, when the US supreme court ruled that it violated the constitution if states denied tax-financed state welfare to US citizens migrating from other states.

…before that Supreme Court ruling (undoubtedly hailed by progressives at the time), some US states had something akin to European-style, tax-financed bottom-floor universal welfare systems. If I remember correctly, some US historians have argued that this court ruling led to a race to the bottom between states, and these state systems were watered down or abandoned. They could otherwise have been the embryos of a federal social welfare system for everybody; one of the main pieces of federal US welfare legislation missing compared to other high-income countries, if not counting federal food stamps and federal welfare for poor parents with children. (Well, ok, other historians – Jill Quadagno at least- has argued that a US federal tax-financed universal social welfare system would probably not have arrived in the US anyway, thanks to opposition in the Southern States for federal provision for people of all colors. But that is another story.)

Sorry for all the digressions, but comparative health & welfare policy is my field of research, making it hard not to go off on tangents... To get back to the main point: Did Shellenberger (or has anyone else) investigated the percentage of native versus non-native homeless people in the Bay Area, compared to elsewhere in the US? If not, that is a major piece missing from the book.

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Great review. I don't that it would be remotely possible, but what I think needs to be done is:

1. Raise billions of of public and private dollars to build high-rise market-rate housing in all of the industrial waterfront areas of the State from north to south. Like serious high-rises, 50,000 people a square mile, with new parks along the water and new transit stops on the inland side, along the SF Bay shoreline, along the LA river, etc. There are hundreds of square miles of that kind of waterfront, a hundred square miles of high-rise neighborhoods would house 5 million people. Stop arguing over whether to bulid 4-plexes and stumpy wood-frame apartments in single-family neighborhods, it doesn't fucking matter.

2. Set up tent camps out in the Central Valley and Deserts, maybe on military bases, and hire thousands of drug counselers, psychiatric professionals, nurses, job trainers, etc. Use the minimal coercion possible to remove homeless drug addicts and mentally ill people from city streets to these places, dry 'em out, heal them, train them, provide them a path to a productive and meaningful role in society. Accept that some of them might stay there for a very long time, make them decent enough that that is not a horrific outcome.

Both of those solutions are very expensive, but would also bring very high returns (revenue from the market-rate high rise rents and savings from avoided urban social services and policing costs). The currnet budget surplus in California would be more than sufficient to go a long ways towards funding these two efforts.

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"This is the question many of the California gubernatorial candidates asked. California has lots of money. There aren’t that many homeless people. Everyone is already committed to Housing First. So why don’t they have houses already?"

If California ever starts giving $3000/month housing to all homeless people, no questions asked, the first thing I'm doing is declaring myself homeless. That way I'll save myself $3000/month, which I'll use to take expensive vacations every month.

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This was great.

I am an AI hardliner who believes we're all doomed.

But it's still nice to read about other things.

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One small thing we could do to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place is giving people an attorney at housing court. Right now landlords hold a lot of power over their tenants since a lot of them simply can't afford to fight injustices in court (and since court battles are publicly registered going to court could cause you to have trouble renting new homes, even if you win).

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Outstanding. Thank you for your research!!!

I am still reading. Stopped to write a comment. I appreciate your trust of in-person reports about shoplifting. We live part-time in Seattle. We do see flagrant, open shoplifting, where the thieves just wheel out carts of stuff in front of security guards. This is a new thing. We asked why the guards don't stop it and they say a combination of the risk of crazy, violent response combined with no legal consequence is why. I guarantee most of it is not being reported. The remaining police are overwhelmed. Unless one is filing an insurance claim and a case number is required, there is no point in calling them to report theft. It is a waste of time.

Lots of people living in tents in public spaces. Appalling for a first world country. Impression here, anecdotal: lots of these folks seem to be post-incarceration. No social security income, no resumés, no ability to work or interest in it. Definitely in need of a more structured environment.

Back to reading.

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Brilliant article.

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OK. I subscribed for money, and I pitched on Twitter. Fantastic article. How does Alexander do it all? Amazing.

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Great post scott, read all of it even though I live on the other side of the world. My only problem is the book's name: it always makes me think about that meme with the "sicko" standing next to a window going "ha ha ha! yes! yes!". It was kind of distracting.

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To be fair, it's not just progressives or only progressives who ruin cities. I don't like a lot of the stuff that has been done to the capital city of my county, and we're not particularly 'progressive' politically. Conservatives and liberals can muck up cities, too.

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Jun 24, 2022·edited Jun 24, 2022

Portland Oregon is generally acknowledged to have a significant homeless population. The cities Joint Office of Homeless Services 2021 - 2022 Budget Review is interesting reading: https://www.portlandoregon.gov/cbo/article/781913.

"Portland City Council first declared a State of Emergency on Housing and Homelessness in October 2015. Since that time, the City has spent over half a billion dollars on housing and homeless services..."

500 million dollars in 5 years (the total is for 2015 -2016 through 2019 - 2020). It's good to understand how much money is involved.

The chart on Page 3 shows that the "HUD-defined houseless population" has been relatively constant over that time period at about 4000. I think the HUD definition is widely criticized as undercounting the homeless population, but I think the rate of change is what's important. We can probably trust the HUD definition for that, and what it shows is that spending half a billion dollars has had no significant effect on the homeless population.

Where does the money go? Part of the answer is in the same chart: "The total number of people provided with homeless services annually has increased by 40% since 2016." This number is approximately 8X the number counted in the HUD census. An uncharitable conclusion is JOHS has expanded the definition of homeless to include people suffering from "housing anxiety" so they can show a need to expand their budget.

It could be argued that if Portland had not spent that 500 million, the problem would be even worse. On the other hand, I suspect few Portlanders would agree with the statement "Portland is doing a good job of addressing homelessness." From this recent LA Times article, it seems that even a few homeless people would agree: https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2022-06-21/portland-liberal-support-lags-homeless-services-drugs.

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"San Francisco has about 7,000 homeless people. The median SF apartment costs about $3,000 per month (presumably the government officials in charge would be trying to buy cheaper-than-median apartments for this project, but they seem bad at that, so let’s stick with median as a high-end estimate). So that’s $250 million/year to rent every homeless person an apartment. "

That's $250 million *this year*.

But the 7,000 homeless people San Francisco has this year, aren't the same 7,000 homeless people it had last year or the 7,000 it will have next year. If the mean turnover time for a "homeless" person is one year, then you pay $250 million this year, and $500 million next year, and $750 million the year after that. And, OK, you probably reach a stable equilibrium where the number of new homeless people every year is balanced by the number of formerly-homeless people who age out and die every year, before you're spending *all* of SF's $14 billion annual budget on free apartments, but I think it's still going to be intolerably expensive. Maybe the mean turnover time for homeless people is two years rather than one; would be interesting to know but I really doubt it's going to be long enough to make this plan affordable.

If you're assuming the formerly-homeless people in the free apartments, who would have moved from the streets to a cheap rented apartment next year when they got their life semi-straightened out, will just as quickly move from a free apartment to a cheap rented apartment just because they can, then I think probably not. The marginal homeless person who finally gets a job and can barely manage to afford an apartment, is probably spending half their pay on rent. Which is probably better than sleeping on the street. But if it's a choice between free apartment and keep all your money, or spend half your money for an apartment that's probably no better than the free one...

Is the plan for the free apartments to be *really really crappy*, substantially worse than the cheapest apartments on the market right now? If so, you kind of need to make that part explicit. If the plan is to automatically throw people out of the free apartments as soon as they get a decent job, that's an obvious perverse incentive. And "...as soon as the bureaucracy determines that they no longer need it" is going to have a whole lot of perverse incentives.

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As someone who has, on occasion, been homeless (and being 195 cm and 125 kg and sleeping in a '99 Camry is not an experience I can recommend) and also only having read the first section, I have a feeling that there may very well be different "classes" (?) of homeless.

I will admit that I was fortunate enough to not be faced with the prospect, and fair warning, this is basically just "gut feeling" levels of rigor, but I simply feel that there is likely a distinction to be made between "people who are currently homeless because they lost their housing due to recent misfortune or price increases" and "people who are currently homeless and shoot drugs and defecate on the sidewalk". To call back a few weeks, just describing all of these people as "homeless" strikes me as akin to (and likely as effective for "solving the problem") as calling everyone from the person with mild Aspergers and the truly severely 24/7 care require disabled person with autism, "Autistic".

"Homelessness is a spectrum", etc.

And perhaps I am absolutely, completely wrong, and I might well have also ended up using the sidewalk as a restroom and doing hard drugs if it had gone on longer than it did. I'm also probably significantly more able to quickly find *some* job doing *something* that pays decently than your average homeless person, and thus that may also color my views on the topic.

I don't know, and hell, maybe you even address all of this in the, uh, 90% of the article I haven't actually read yet, but it seems as though simply trying to treat this as a monolithic problem isn't going to actually be effective.

I dunno. I understand that you disagree with Shellenberger about the "drugs and mental illness" driving factor versus housing costs, but... why couldn't it be *both* in this case?

That is to say, yes, the general levels of homelessness in SF may well be primarily driven by housing prices. But perhaps the thing that makes SF seem so particularly bad is the proportion of the homeless population there with a serious addiction and / or mental health issue. (Epistemological status: Total ass-pull. I have no research or numbers to back any of that up, I'm basically just brainstorming at this point.)

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The lot next to my house had a giant three story tree which formed a dome around its base. Shortly after moving into my house a camp of 5 - 15 homeless people (depending on the day) moved into the tree. They yelled, fought, had fires, used power tools, and behaved in various undesirable ways. I called the police on them for various offenses ~5 times without ever having even a single officer or official appear on site. About 8 months after they had moved in (I found the backstory out in retrospect) the lot was purchased by a developer. Construction workers came and told the homeless people they should leave because the tree was being cut down tomorrow. Per said construction workers the response was "over our dead bodies, we will burn it down first!" to which the construction workers, who were planning to cut the tree down anyways, responded with a shrug. Mind you the edge of this giant tree was ~15 feet from my house. That day/night the homeless people gathered >20 propane tanks and strapped them to the tree, then lit it on fire.

I woke at ~2 am to rattling bangs shaking my house, a weird bright red glow shining through my kitchen window, baking heat emanating from the windows, and my wife and six day old child screaming. We fled the house naked with our child, injuring my wife who had just given birth. I went back in once for some documents and clothes after determining the house was not actively on fire. After maybe 5 minutes the fire department showed up and put out the fire. The next day the construction workers cut down a sooty and much reduced tree. One cop spoke to me on the phone once and never followed up. All the same homeless people still roam the area and now live in a wash ~150 feet away.

I've now moved to a fancy expansive HOA community that costs more than twice as much. I used to think homelessness was a hard problem with no good solutions. I no longer think that, I'm now in favor of basically anything that results in fewer homeless people.

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"Shellenberger hits all the right beats here. Like many people, he tries to undo the damage done by The New Jim Crow, a book which convinced millions of people that mass incarceration was driven by a racist War On Drugs. In fact, less than a fifth of prisoners are in for drug-related crimes."

I'll expand on this a bit.

First, in the USA, we have our system divided into state prisons (about 55% of the prison population), local jails (about 30%), federal prisons & jails (about 10%), and other (about 5%). These systems hold quite different sorts of prisoners, who are in for different types of crimes. The DOJ source you cited shows that 16% of the 5x larger state prison is in for drugs, while almost 50% of the much smaller federal system is in for drugs as their most serious offense.

Many of the racism claims are not that drug crimes make up an overwhelming percentage of the total US incarcerated population, but rather that drug enforcement is a force that is biased to move Black, Asian, and Hispanic people. It puts them into prison at higher rates than white people.

This is complex. Only 14% of the 5x larger *state* prison population is in for drugs, and whites are actually disproportionately in for drugs here. 16.6% of whites, 12.2% of Blacks, 11.7% of Hispanics, 10.9% of American Indian/Alaska Natives, and 11% of Asians are in for drugs as their most serious offense (table 14).

By contrast, 46.7% of the 5x smaller *federal* prison population is in for drugs, mostly drug trafficking, and here the pattern is somewhat reversed. 39.2% of whites are in for drugs, as compared to 42.1% of Blacks, 62% of Hispanics, 16.3% of American Indian/Alaska Natives, and 45.7% of Asians.

Based on these numbers, there's not an obvious case to be made that drug crimes function to incarcerate people of color at higher rates than white people.

However, another story about how drug crimes fuel the prison system is what we might call the Drug Gateway. They expose people to their first arrests and shorter prison stints, leading to an escalation into more serious offenses later.

The VOX article you cited does show that drug crimes are the largest fraction of share of inmates admitted from 1993-2011 in federal and state systems combined. This doesn't show that the Drug Gateway hypothesis is true, but it is consistent with it. If we're skeptical about "gateway drugs," then we might also want to be skeptical of the Drug Gateway.

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Maybe he supports sweeping institutionalization of the homeless, not the mentally ill?

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Some thoughts below. My background: SF Bay Area resident for 20 years, frequent visitor for 10 years before that. Spent 3-4 years from 1998-2003 doing weekly food distribution to homeless in southern California.

There are (at least) three "sub-classes" of homeless and confusing or conflating them results in total confusion regarding solutions.

A. Subclass A are the "lifestyle homeless". Vagabonds, drifters, gutter punks, street musicians, beach bums, craft stall vendors, "van lifers". A number of these folks I know by name, and consider to be friends. They could hold straight jobs in theory, and often come from more conventional backgrounds. The tradeoffs inherent in living the straight-and-narrow are too much, and they cannot or will not do it. Sometimes drugs and mental illness are an issue, but not overwhelmingly so.

B. Subclass B are the "down on their luck homeless". Living in car, van, or RV temporarily due to job loss, bills, bad luck, or poor choices coupled to above. Will actively seek out shelter, come to social services and adhere to plans to improve the situation. Aiming to get back on their feet. Overwhelmingly working class and not happy or proud of their current condition.

C. Subclass C are the "wretched homeless". Sorry about the moniker but it fits. Extreme mental illness or drug addiction. Limited ability or agency. Suffering in many dimensions. Selling body for drugs. Crime and violence -- both perpetrators and victims. Passed out on street in own fluids. These cases are extremely sad, and my heart breaks for them. A test: if you ask them their name or their story, you most often cannot get any kind of comprehensible reply.

The wretched homeless are the ones that are most obvious in many ways, and seemingly what the book focuses on. They will not be helped by marginal changes in housing markets: rents dropping from $1500/mo to $1250/mo are not their issue. On the other hand, the "down on their luck" *WILL* be helped, and mightily so, by more affordable housing and/or social programs. NIMBY and 30 years of working class job offshoring are reasonable causes.

Class C cannot be divorced, in any way, from changes in mental health policies, nor from the flood of ever-stronger drugs in the last decade. Drug induced psychosis and/or willingness to do almost anything for the next hit create a massive hole that is very very very hard to pull out of. Many (most?) die in that condition. Jail seems to be the only circuit breaker we have in the current system, and it does a poor job of interrupting the cycle.

In the 30 years of my experience, the problem in SF Bay has gotten much worse. Some areas have improved (as I recall Mission district was very intense with heroin on the street in the 90s). Both classes B and C seem to be much larger overall.

A major concern is preventing lifestyle and down-on-their-luck from becoming wretched. That is, how can we stop class A and B from becoming class C? Another major concern is tailoring programs and help to fit the person. A wretched homeless selling their body and dignity for the next hit is NOT going to fill out your paperwork, and will scare or harm others in a shelter.

I think this review is too hard on Shellenberger. He seems to grasp realities of the problem that are glossed over by the homeless-industrial-complex.

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Very good review!

Interesting that the “facts” cited in the book Scott (it looks rightly) disputes, but the *conclusions* of what-is-to-be-done it looks like Scott mostly agrees with.

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On "Interlude: Why Can’t We Just House All The Homeless?"

Am I missing something obvious, is this not just downward sloping demand curves?

If SF currently has 7,000 homeless people, that's the number of homeless at the current price of being homeless (which seems to me quite high, though not paid in dollars, obviously). But if you give homeless people apartments, the price of being homeless goes down, demand goes up, and all of a sudden you have far more than 7,000 homeless.

The linked capradio article basically says as much, highlighting how the Roomkey motel "has drawn family and friends of Roomkey residents who haven’t been housed but 'camp close to that hotel,' some with the goal of gaining a room."

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Are you including San Francisco in the model (in-sample) and then using the mode to say how much that explains about San Francisco (should be an out-of-sample)?

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Really enjoyed this. To say I appreciate the depth Scott went into here is an understatement; I have a hard time reading other articles on topics like this because there’s so little rigor, I have to wonder if I’m wasting my time.

Shellenberger, I hope, is the kind of guy who will appreciate it, too. If someone with a platform like ACX put this kind of earnest effort into dissecting a book I wrote, I’d find that quite an honor.

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"In the spring of 2021, a team of Harvard medical experts published the results of a fourteen-year-long study of chronic homeless placed into permanent supportive housing in Boston. Most studies of permanent supportive housing, including the Kushel study conducted in Santa Clara, only study the newly housed homeless for a span of around two years. The study found that 86 percent of the homeless, who were referred based on length of time living on the streets, suffered from “trimorbidity”—a combination of medical illness, mental illness, and substance abuse. The authors found that after ten years, just 12 percent of the homeless remained housed. During the study period, 45 percent died. "

I saw that there was no control group for the study :-(

Is there an analysis of mortality in at least an age-matched group?

Having a 14 year study where almost half the people died seems alarming to me.

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Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood is historically gay, not historically black. (The nearby Central District neighborhood, one of several neighborhoods located on the hill named Capitol Hill, is historically black, as are a few other neighborhoods.)

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Hi Scott, one strange thing that stood out to me was the section on NIMBYism (quoted below). You mentioned elsewhere in the comments that you live in the East Bay, so you must have a certain amount of familiarity with BART stations outside of San Francisco. While there is no doubt that “litter-filled, decaying, disgusting, unsafe, and ambiently miserable to exist in” does describe the very worst areas of San Francisco, do you really believe that it accurately describes the area around, for example, North Berkeley BART, or El Cerrito Plaza BART? And since you mentioned this in the context of NIMBYs protesting new BART stations, it’s relevant to look at some of the newer expansions. Have you been to Dublin-Pleasanton or West Dublin-Pleasanton BART? Your description bears no resemblance to reality. If BART was expanded to, say, Livermore (to take one specific proposal), the new BART station would surely look more like Dublin-Pleasanton than Civic Center. This is an argument that proceeds by picking the very worst, most extreme example of something, and then pretending it’s not only representative, but an inevitable (or at least very likely) outcome. In a different comment, you said that you didn’t enjoy living in dense, walkable neighborhoods in Europe or Japan — that’s fine, it’s your personal preference, not everybody needs to like dense areas, and density does of course come with its trade-offs. But it would be a huge stretch to conclude that it is therefore “correct” for people to “hate and fear” walkable neighborhoods.

Quoting Scott’s review: “But a big reason we don’t build dense cities and walkable neighborhoods is that people (correctly) hate and fear them. They accurately predict that if their neighborhood got denser, it would start looking like the dense parts of San Francisco - litter-filled, decaying, disgusting, unsafe, and ambiently miserable to exist in. The reason we don’t have better public transportation in the Bay Area is that people protest every time someone tries to build a BART station in their area - and the reason people protest every time someone tries to build a BART station in their area is that they weren’t born yesterday, and they’ve seen what other BART stations and the areas around them are like.”

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An idea that I'll posit related to CA Prop 47 and shoplifting in San Francisco:

California's threshold for misdemeanor vs. felony theft (including shoplifting) isn't particularly low compared to other states. As of 2017, the national range was ~$300 to ~$2,500 - https://www.themarshallproject.org/2017/08/09/what-s-the-punishment-for-theft-depends-on-what-state-you-re-in . (These thresholds also don't, by the way, intuitively line up with what people might expect based on states' political reputations. The two highest are TX and WI - both $2,500 - and the 4 lowest - $300 or less - are FL, MA, VA, and NJ.)

And, from what I can tell, the statutory punishment for misdemeanor theft in CA similarly isn't wildly out of line with other states: up to 6 months in county jail and a fine of up to $1,000 ( https://www.shouselaw.com/ca/defense/penal-code/459-5/ ). Based on a non-exhaustive search, the penalty for misdemeanor shoplifting in other states is (by statute) similar or in some cases incarceration for up to 1 year.

Even taking into account other comments (from people outside San Francisco / CA) that observed shoplifters are far from always apprehended by store personnel and then arrested/prosecuted, I'll submit a hypothesis that a key difference in San Francisco could be that arrests/prosecutions essentially *never* happen. And that, unsurprisingly, repeat offenders plus induced crime become an issue as this lack of arrest/prosecution becomes widely known.

In short, there are two separate questions. One is whether the theft in question is a felony or misdemeanor. But the other - probably more meaningful one - is whether it leads to arrest or prosecution at all. That includes repeat offenders observed at particular stores.

I admittedly don't claim to be broadly knowledgeable about this subject, in San Francisco or elsewhere. The anecdotal reports about shoplifting in San Francisco, however, suggest that this is less a question of "felony vs. misdemeanor" vs. "arrest at all or not". Because, of course, people can be (and regularly are) arrested and prosecuted for misdemeanors (e.g., DUI/DWI in the vast majority of places in the US).

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I have told my left-wing friends for years that fixing American urban dysfunction (crime, public nuisance, garbage everywhere, etc.) would be a big step forwards in fighting climate change.

Why would people take public transit when people are consistently disruptive?

In this context, San Fransicko strikes me as an immensely useful and mostly accurate corrective, and any minor factual issues are unimportant.

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I think that's a fair point. The authors of the paper attempt to adjust for this selection effect (i.e. people who live more dangerous neighborhoods, are younger, black, etc being potentially less likely to stay inside) and they say their results are robust to these effects. But they choose what adjustments to make based on victimization risk not perpetration risk - in practice these are almost synonymous wrt violent crime but not quite. So the criticism that they didn't adjust for perpetrators being outside more makes sense.

Ultimately the reason I bring up this study is that it implies an interesting theory about the murder surge. Which is that the propensity of people to commit violent crimes rose at the start of the pandemic, but because they were inside more (leading to fewer opportunities to kill) this higher propensity was not fully reflected in official murder stats (murder was up a lot in the first months of 2020 but not as much as in later months). Then, the lockdowns start to formally and informally lift, huge numbers of people (disproportionately black and in big cities) start pouring into the streets to protest, and suddenly people are interacting with each other and getting the chance to kill more than they would before. Even if police behavior was totally unchanged, I think you could still see a rise in murders in summer 2020 due to this effect.

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I'm always somewhat confused when people talk about "mental illness" in the context of homelessness.

I have PTSD and am on the autism spectrum. If I ever become homeless, I will be counted among the mentally-ill homeless, and my mental health conditions will undoubtedly be a contributing factor in my situation. They will also be the main reason I'll refuse to stay in a shelter (I can't sleep in a room with other people).

I can see some ways that the existence of people like me on the streets is relevant to public policy. For example, we shouldn't expect everyone to sleep in congregate shelters, and we shouldn't penalize people just because they can't. We *definitely* shouldn't forcibly institutionalize them without at least some kind of individualized evaluation to see whether it's more likely to help or harm them. (Long-term forced institutionalization would be disastrous for someone like me, even in a nice humane modern facility.) If you wanted to get someone like me off the streets without driving them to suicide, you would offer them the kind of private, secure, sanitary, autonomy-respecting housing that you yourself would prefer to camping.

But that's never the conclusion people want you to draw when they point out the prevalence of mental illness in the homeless population. They always seem to be arguing for the exact opposite: these people need to be forced into shelters, and if they won't go, we should involuntarily institutionalize them, and offering permanent independent housing in the community is a waste of time and money.

Which might make sense if "mental illness" were a synonym for "severe, treatment-resistant psychotic disorder." But it's not. 20% of Americans have a history of mental illness. The prevalence of severe treatment-resistant psychotic disorders is vanishingly small. They might be overrepresented in the homeless population, but they're still a small minority.

I don't think most of the people making this argument are unaware of that reality, so I've never understood why they tend to ignore it.

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Thank you for writing this excellent piece. It pulled me over the edge to finally become a paid subscriber.

The part of the book that resulted in the biggest change to my worldview was the discussion of the scope of drug addiction in the USA. You mention briefly that it seems like mandatory drug treatment doesn't work. I would be very interested in an article on the topic of the problem and possible solutions.

Thanks again!

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'The main virtue I cannot ascribe it is evenness. The old saying talks about the man who “uses statistics the way a drunk uses a streetlight; for support rather than illumination”. San Fransicko is the equivalent of that dim blue lighting you sometimes see in nightclub bathrooms: so focused on preventing injection drug use that it sacrifices the ability to illuminate anything at all.'

This analogy is beautiful and made me chuckle.

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> The government often announces plans to buy defunct regular hotels and convert them into these structures, which would indeed be a medium-term solution for housing the homeless, except that they usually get bogged down in fights about code.

Gosh. How could anyone ever turn to libertarianism or even anarchism in despair over the potential of the government being able to solve everything. I just can't possibly imagine.

Other than, even the government won't get out of the government's way to let the government solve a problem the government created.

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Scott, you admit that the data used to refute claims 1 and 2 is not good quality, so why is this crappy data alone enough to refute MS’s claims? Do you really believe that a drug/psychiatric test given to a random group of SF homeless would find over half sober and mentally healthy?

If we all know the data sucks, then anecdotes and common sense have to get more consideration. Why not more heavily weight the many anecdotes such as Tom Wolf’s on the hotel where nearly 100 percent of occupants are on hard drugs?

And common sense: Why would the number of mentally well, sober individuals living on the streets be rising during a time of massive unskilled job demand and rising wages? You could say friction to move where the jobs are, but I doubt it (when the alternative to moving is sleeping on the streets).

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Favourite quote from this article.

"but I remain invested in the tiny sliver of moral difference between our positions."

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May not? I am not a social scientist, just happen to be living in Columbia and aware of our situation.

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"But a big reason we don’t build dense cities and walkable neighborhoods is that people (correctly) hate and fear them."

I think you probably know this, but I want to emphasise that the world doesn't have to be like this. I currently live in a dense, car-free neighbourhood in inner London, close to a tube station and it's very pleasant. It is clean almost to the point of sterility. Nobody steals my packages because the building has package lockers, but I doubt they would if it didn't.

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I've read the book too, and Scott was wrong to characterize it as supporting "sweeping institutionalization of the mentally ill." That phrase implies institutionalizing all or at least a lot of mentally ill people. Shellenberger clearly thinks there should be MORE institutionalization, and in particular more people given lengthy treatment, as opposed to the standard 7 days in the psych ward, 30 days in rehab. But the population he is targeting is not mentally ill people in general, it's the small fraction of them who are so dysfunctional that they live on the streets with no income source other than shoplifting and breaking into cars. He is convincing enough that I shifted my view on involuntary institutionalization *for this population.* I agree with Scott that Shellenberger should have said more on how to ensure that his proposed forced treatment would only apply to this population, instead of spilling over to the much greater proportion of mentally ill people who can basically take care of themselves. But Shellenberger never advocates for institutionalization of more than a small fraction of mentally ill people.

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I submit that it is hardly possible for sweeping institutionalization to happen. Everyone is aware as part of the deep culture that institutionalization was a mass tragedy in terms of like the Top 10 list of things we are historically ashamed of

Any system of increased institutionalizing would have say three professionals signing off on it. All would be aware of the history and - at least in California - systematically tend towards not institutionalizing where it seems feasible. No matter how easy it were made to make someone a candidate the sign off process would be a tight filter under the cultural conditions that are endemic in Blue America at least

Shellenberger would have to be advocating for a process with no checkpoint like that or a very weak one for the results to approach sweeping institutionalization. I think he's aware of this and supports increased institutionalization with plenty of confidence that it is unlikely to ever swing back too far except under some kind of intentionally poorly designed process

I don't know if I agree with substantially increasing the ability to do so as your comments are very persuasive. Just as it was once easy to look at institutions and say 'they're better off out of there no matter what' it is now easy to look at encampments and say 'they're better off out of there no matter what'. But your description of the past reminds me of the fact that there can be no happy solution that involves using force against someone indefinitely. I would say I do support Schellenberger's position in general but would be wary of that in particular, and update to thinking NIMBYism may be a bigger priority than his main solutions

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This was great- my mother is utterly in love with this man and now I can go back to reading science papers instead of the badly written gladwellian books she insists I read.

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Can someone provide me with the data from the "That regression line looks suspicious, but I hear computers are never wrong." figure, I would like to write a short LW post about "how to regression" and use it as an example.

the TLDR for why it looks weird is the regression y~x means all the y's are perfect, use the x'es to explain them, thus the errors are only measured vertically not horizontally, the regression x~y gives the opposite line where you only measure horizontal errors, you can try to put your fingers at a random point and see that most likely it is closer to the line if you travel horizontally instead of vertically, the "correct solution" is to model the errors jointly, but nobody does that, so for mortals the second best thing is drawing both lines (will look like a butterfly) and say the real best line is somewhere between them.

of course sometimes you want to predict one variable from another and then simple regression is (mostly) the correct thing to do, but when you simply want to understand their relationship between two variables then it is not :), and you should instead fit a 2D gausian :)

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The thing is, there's actually a much more obvious reason why cities with very high cost of living have such a huge homelessness problem.

What do DC, Boston, New York City, and San Francisco all have in common?

They're leftist cities with massive services for the homeless and pro-homeless policies.

Overall in the US, homelessness has been going *down*, not up, even as housing prices have gone up.

The actual cause of the homelessness problems in these big cities is that they *attract* homeless people.

Moreover, it should be remembered that the homeless people who are the biggest problem are specifically the chronically homeless. Most homeless people are not chronically homeless, and looking at the homeless population as a whole will give you misleading results.

This makes most arguments over homeless populations pretty much worthless, because as it turns out, the entire notion of "the homeless" is actually wrong.

The homeless population is really composed of a number of groups. Two groups' problems are basically solved by housing first policies:

1) Temporarily displaced persons as a result of their house being destroyed by some sort of disaster (wildfire victims, earthquake victims, hurricane victims, etc.). These people are basically like everyone else, just unlucky enough to be in the way of a disaster. Housing first policies are basically 100% effective on these people because their problem is literally that their house was destroyed.

2) People who go somewhere to seek out work without having a permanent dwelling place set up there. Housing first programs solves almost all of this problem, too.

There's another group whose problems are mostly solved by housing first:

3) People who are marginally indigent, who lost their houses because they fell on economic hard times. Housing first programs solves a lot of these problems with housing.

Then you have these groups:

4) Drug addicts.

5) Mentally ill homeless.

6) People with wanderlust who literally just walk off.

These groups' problems are rarely if ever solved by Housing First.

As the chronically homeless are the people who cause most of the worst problems, you can thus effectively treat the first three groups and look like things are working really really well, and indeed, the temporarily unhoused make up the vast majority of the homeless population, and yet these policies will utterly fail to adequately deal with the chronically homeless and people will continue to poop on the sidewalks.

This explains why both the abstinence enforced housing efforts and the housing first efforts give similar results - both of these programs will house pretty much all of the first two groups, a lot of the third group, and basically not work on the chronically homeless.

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> "In fact, if you’re a homeless person, why wouldn’t you want to live in a suburb? Quieter (so probably easier to sleep at night) more places out of sight to pitch tents, less crime (important if you’re living on the street!), and potentially lower cost of living in terms of food and good"

I suspect there are many, potentially better explanations to consider. Eg - what about the cost of transportation to/from downtown, combined w density and availability and quality of services for homeless folk? Including informal (eg. access to cheap or free food, incidence of cash only or black market materials and jobs to be done, etc...).

I suspect it makes more sense for homeless folk to concentrate somewhere central, and go to suburbs occasionally as warranted by eg. access to food, shelter or temporary employment.

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Jul 9, 2022·edited Jul 9, 2022

Scott -

Obviously not much chance you'll see this... but...


> Like many people, he tries to undo the damage done by The New Jim Crow, a book which convinced millions of people that mass incarceration was driven by a racist War On Drugs.

Might be excused as hyperbole but I'd say it's just silly. Millions of people convinced of a great sociological misconception by one book?

More likely, imo, is that (1) many people think that racism plays a part and (2) they think that for a variety of reasons such as discrepancies in crack vs. powder cocaine sentencing and factors such as John Ehrlichman's statements about the "design" of the ear in drugs to have a particular impact in the black community.

Clearly you have a bone to pick with The New Jim Crow, in which case you should make your argument in a more comprehensive manner.

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A very deep dive, I appreciate, regarding the actual complexities of current socioeconomic crises, as opposed to the strident stances advocacy groups take - often, neither camp shows earnest concern for the human beings involved, instead seeking advantage in the abstract world of political strategy.

Fresh out of college, but full of indecision, I moved to Boulder, CO fifty years ago, and spent a few years working odd jobs, never related to my education; I lived for many months out of my car, hand to mouth, and in that era the State Employment offices had a sign-up list for day labor jobs. Vets had first priority, and every day a group would hang out, socializing, and mostly derisively rejecting each listing as it came up, for a stock set of excuses. I usually lucked out. A young man showed up one day, and after the vets passed, he'd jump to the job, regardless of how menial or bad it sounded. Around the third day, he jumped, and never came in again; I believe he'd landed an offer, because he seemed so eager and gung ho.

Other vets also passed through, but the hardcore cynics who thought they deserved more, played their game, mostly passed on work prospects, and that attitude is too apparent in the homeless ranks, I fear. One thinks of "entitlement" in terms of privileged, but the vets I watched were victims of that same delusion.

Most people make many poor decisions, along the timeline before being chronically homeless, and very few suffer a single immediate loss that is so large they directly end up on the streets. And even fewer then take to substance abuse to ameliorate their pain, physical or emotional. Abuse is likely the cause, for lost jobs, lost housing, not the result; sober homeless have priorities, and getting off the streets and employed is imperative.

The underappreciated factor, as I witnessed, is one of basic self-respect, and the social pressure, that makes some refuse to live with feeling the ostracism of a community. Disrespecting the community is a terribly dysfunctional coping strategy, and at the same time, having the community enable the homeless as victims of modern society does them a serious disservice. Just like the vets I watched, prolonged victimhood becomes a terminal condition.

For better or worse, the reality is that the world owes no one a living; interestingly, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes a right to work, and own property, but no guarantee of a job or shelter. Assisting those who are unable to be responsible for themselves is a fair and benevolent action; those who are, need to be fairly held accountable for their situation. Progressive attitudes that conflate the significantly different scenarios actually confuse efforts to remedy problems, while impinging on other basic Human Rights, of those living responsibly.

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