The progressive narrative on homelessness has always been wrong—and new data undermine it further.



By Christopher F. Rufo , City Journal


In recent years, discussion about homelessness has been circumscribed around a set of premises acceptable to progressive opinion. The homeless were thrown onto the streets, we’re told, because of rising rents, heartless landlords, and a lack of economic opportunity. Activists, journalists, and political leaders have perpetuated this line of reasoning and, following it to its conclusion, have proposed investing billions in subsidized housing to solve homelessness.

But new data are undermining this narrative. As residents of West Coast cities witness the disorder associated with homeless encampments, they have found it harder to accept the progressive consensus—especially in the context of the coronavirus epidemic, which has all Americans worried about contagion. An emerging body of evidence confirms what people see plainly on the streets: homelessness is deeply connected to addiction, mental illness, and crime.

Homeless advocates argue that substance abuse is a small contributor to the problem, and that no more than 20 percent of the homeless population abuses drugs. Last year, when I suggested that homelessness is primarily an addiction crisis—citing Seattle and King County data that suggested half of homeless individuals suffered from opioid addiction—activists denounced me on social media and wrote letters to the editor demanding a retraction. But according to a recent Los Angeles Times investigation, 46 percent of the homeless and 75 percent of the unsheltered homeless have a substance-abuse disorder—more than three times higher than official estimates from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

In the interest of preventing “stigmatization,” progressives downplay the connection between schizophrenia, severe bipolar disorder, and homelessness. In general, cities have claimed that roughly 25 percent to 39 percent of the homeless suffer from mental-health disorders. As new data from the California Policy Lab show, it’s likely that 50 percent of the homeless and 78 percent of the unsheltered homeless have a serious mental health condition. For residents of cities like San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle, this should come as no surprise. The people smashing up property and yelling in the streets are clearly suffering from mental illness. The numbers confirm the ground-level reality.

The relationship between homelessness and crime has been the strongest taboo in the public discourse. Activists and political leaders insist that the homeless are ordinary neighbors who commit crimes at rates comparable with that of the general population. Not so: according to new data from the Downtown Seattle Association, the homeless represent 45 percent of all bookings into the King County Jail system, which means that homeless individuals are nearly 100 times more likely to commit crimes and get booked into jail than the average citizen. Public fears about homeless encampments are not a symptom of “mean-world syndrome,” as some commentators suggest, then, but a rational response to the increased probability of crime.

Residents in the most progressive enclaves of West Coast cities have quietly begun to demand policy changes to address the obvious causes of the homelessness crisis. In San Francisco, city leaders have launched a new initiative to focus on the 4,000 individuals who suffer from the “perilous trifecta” of homelessness, addiction, and mental illness. Mayor London Breed has spoken frankly about the human causes of homelessness, and Anton Nigusse Bland, a physician and director of mental health reform for the city, has pledged to “develop a strategic approach to mental health and substance use services for people experiencing homelessness in San Francisco.”

This is a small but promising step. Especially now, with the threat of an infectious disease becoming a national crisis, it is imperative that city leaders come to grips with the dangers of letting people live in encampments that lack even rudimentary sanitation. We can only hope that this new awareness extends to other cities. For now, more than 100,000 people in California, Oregon, and Washington continue to languish in the streets.


Republished with Author’s Permission: Source

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Citizens Journal.

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Douglas Partello
Douglas Partello
7 months ago

This type of stereotyping ‘liberal’ mindset, and progressive opinion is a generalization, and oversimplification of a complex, and intractable societal problem, and human condition. Perhaps from the author’s perspective this fits a model imagined, partly on fact, partly on ideology and denial of any responsibility to address the human suffering that defunding mental health, community services, youth, and other investments in improving at risk and marginalized persons within or society. We put our money and time where our hearts are, and unfortunately we seem to value subsidizing those that need it the least, and diverting funding from those that suffer a panacopia of issues that lead to homelessness. Are we our brother’s keeper, or are we not? It boils down to this moral question, in the end.

William Hicks
William Hicks
11 months ago

Do any of those “politicians and media wonks” invite the homeless into their homes instead of putting the burden on taxpayers?

C E Voigtsberger
C E Voigtsberger
11 months ago

Well, duhh. I’ve been saying that for over thirty years. Any merchant who spends time in his business downtown can tell you that. Sorry, that’s not a big revelation to me.

It all started when the federal Supremes announced that the mentally ill could only be confined against their wishes if they were suicidal, homicidal or catatonic.

As a result of that ruling we had the Lanterman, Petris, Short Act, shorthanded to the LPS Act. Democrats like to blame Ronnie Reagan for signing that bill, but it was a bi-partisan effort that had such support in Zanymento that a veto would have been overridden. Lanterman was the republican who rode herd on it for that side of the aisle and Nick Petris and Al Short were the democrats who rode herd on it for that side of the aisle.

The republicans bought it because it would throw the cost of mental health on the feds and the counties and the democrats bought it because it would free the poor mentally ill from the clutches of the Nurse Rachets of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

All of this started in Ventura County in the case of Hop Louie vs. whoever was the director of mental health for the state. Dick Irwin, the Public Defender of Ventura County considered the Hop Louie case to be the crowning achievement of his career.

I have often wondered how he would feel today if he could see the result of his crowning achievement.

It’s not all Dick Irwin’s doing, however. Obama figured out if he could get some of the unemployed onto the disability roles, he could drive down that stubborn unemployment figure that refused to go down during his reign, as those folks would now be disabled and on disability and unemployable due to disability. So, lots of folks who before then didn’t qualify for disability suddenly were eligible for federal disability, approximately $880 a month, MediCal which equated to free medical; EBT cards which equated to free food, free cell phones so they could keep track of their investment portfolio, and all the other goodies that folks are “entitled” to. Shoot, that means all the money they earn tax free by panhandling or stealing or what have you can go to drugs and alcohol or both. Then you have all the folks who feel it is their duty to help the “less fortunate”. I don’t have a problem with that as long as the less fortunate are making an attempt to help themselves along the way. What we have happening, however, is folks who are perfectly happy with their way of life grifting off of well-meaning folk who seem unable to see that the emperor is buck nekked.

And to help matters along we again have the federal Surpremes stepping in with another ruling straight out of Oz that says the cities can do anything about folks camping on the streets unless the city provides suitable alternative living accommodations.

Another ruling illustrating why Supremes should have term limits too. When our country was founded folks didn’t live as long as they do now, so we weren’t saddled with ivory tower folks who were out of touch with real life.

As a result of that ruling we have the City of Los Angles rehabbing a building to house a couple hundred street people to the tune of 3/4 of a million dollars per apartment unit to be destroyed shortly after the street person has moved in. What an expensive boondoggle that is. How come we can build a whole house for less that 3/4 of a million here in Ventura County but 60 miles south of here it takes that much money to build an apartment?
Does something smell? Is it the odor of dead fish or something else, more sinister?

P W Robinson
P W Robinson
11 months ago

We are, each of us, victims of ‘mental healthcare for the poor’. We simply don’t receive the same treatment. And that is far and away the single largest factor, after unaffordable rent and housing shortages. ‘Addiction’, something that is usually cured in one visit by a professional hypnotherapist, is not a factor. Drug use comes from boredom and hopelessness.

William Hicks
William Hicks
11 months ago
Reply to  P W Robinson

Then there’s those who come from out of State/out of Country to live on California Streets because our politicians are so generous with other peoples money.