Saturday, December 29, 2018


Christopher Rufo at the New York Post has an interesting article on homeless problems in Seattle. The analysis rings true of many other areas, especially San Francisco. It is also  a good microcosm of how policy and law in so many social and economic areas stays so profoundly screwed up for so long.
The real battle isn’t being waged in the tents, under the bridges or in the corridors of City Hall, but in the realm of ideas, where, for now, four ideological power centers frame Seattle’s homelessness debate. I’ll identify them as the socialists, the compassion brigades, the homeless-industrial complex and the addiction evangelists.
My emphasis. And the political influence of groups organized around absurdly counterfactual narratives is the larger picture of this story.

Who are these people? "Socialist" is not an insult, it is how the new left-wing groups describe themselves:
Socialist Alternative City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant claims that the city’s homelessness crisis is the inevitable result of the Amazon boom, greedy landlords and rapidly increasing rents. 
The capitalists of Amazon, Starbucks, Microsoft and Boeing, in her Marxian optic, generate enormous wealth for themselves, drive up housing prices, and push the working class toward poverty and despair — and, too often, onto the streets. 
...According to King County’s point-in-time study, only 6 percent of homeless people surveyed cited “could not afford rent increase” as the precipitating cause of their situation, pointing instead to a wide range of other problems — domestic violence, incarceration, mental illness, family conflict, medical conditions, breakups, eviction, addiction and job loss — as bigger factors.
...the evidence suggests that higher rents alone don’t push people onto the streets. Even in a pricey city like Seattle, most working- and middle-class residents respond to economic incentives in logical ways: relocating to less expensive neighborhoods, downsizing to smaller apartments, taking in roommates, moving in with family or leaving the city altogether. King County is home to more than 1 million residents earning below the median income, and 99 percent of them manage to find a place to live and pay the rent on time. 
To be clear, that response does not imply everything is hunky-dory in Seattle's (or San Francisco's) housing market. The point is narrow -- high rents do not cause people to live on the streets.

The compassion brigades are the moral crusaders of homelessness policy. Their Seattle political champion is City Councilman Mike O’Brien,... O’Brien has become a leader in the campaign to legalize homelessness throughout the city. He has proposed ordinances to legalize street camping on 167 miles of public sidewalks, permit RV camping on city streets, and prevent the city’s homeless-outreach Navigation Teams (made up of cops and other workers) from cleaning up tent cities. 
O’Brien and his supporters have constructed an elaborate political vocabulary about the homeless, elevating three key myths to the status of conventional wisdom. The first is that many of the homeless are holding down jobs but can’t get ahead... 
But according to King County’s own survey data, only 7.5 percent of the homeless report working full-time, despite record-low unemployment, record job growth and Seattle’s record-high $15 minimum wage. The reality, obvious to anyone who spends any time in tent cities or emergency shelters, is that 80 percent of the homeless suffer from drug and alcohol addiction and 30 percent suffer from serious mental illness, including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Common sense suggests that the central conundrum of city policy to deal with homelessness is that people move. The "compassion brigades''  must deny this fact:
...Progressive publications like The Stranger insist that “most people experiencing homelessness in Seattle were already here when they became homeless.” This assertion, too, clashes with empirical evidence. More than half of Seattle’s homeless come from outside the city limits, according to the city’s own data. Even this number might be vastly inflated, as the survey asks only “where respondents were living at the time they most recently became homeless” — so, for example, a person could move to Seattle, check into a motel for a week, and then start living on the streets and be considered “from Seattle.”
More rigorous academic studies in San Francisco and Vancouver suggest that 40 percent to 50 percent of the homeless moved to those cities for their permissive culture and generous services. 
There's much more at the original. The next group are "addiction evangelists." I'm pretty libertarian about drugs, but there are certain externalities especially to policies that encourage drug use out doors and in concentrated areas. And again easy drugs in just one place forms  a magnet:
public consumption sites do tremendous damage to businesses, residents and cities at large. It also attracts more homeless to a city. 
In Seattle, the influx has already begun. According to survey data, approximately 9.5 percent of the city’s homeless say that they came “for legal marijuana,” 15.4 percent came “to access homeless services,” and 15.7 percent were “traveling or visiting” the region and decided that it was a good place to set up camp... Even King County’s former homelessness czar admits that the city’s policies have a “magnet effect.” 
Last time I was in San Francisco, as we were entering a restaurant a half-clothed man was shooting up heroin on the four foot wide sidewalk just in front of the restaurant. I feel for the problems this man must have been facing, and the terrible life he leads. But San Francisco's policies are not a functional response, either to his problems, or those of a city where this is a normal part of life.

Chris doesn't offer easy solutions, nor do I.
The best way to prevent homelessness isn’t to build new apartment complexes or pass new tax levies but to rebuild the family, community, and social bonds that once held communities together.
That's nice, but let's put it mildly a large project. And neighborhoods where the vast majority of children are born to and raised by single women, with few fathers or working men in sight, seems like a larger goal of such a policy. (Another great topic for fanciful narratives is political discussion of "inequality" in which this screaming impediment to economic advancement is as unmentionable as is nuclear power at a climate-change rally.)

More realistically,
Homelessness should be seen not as a problem to be solved but one to be contained.
Cities must stop ceding their parks, schools and sidewalks to homeless encampments. In San Diego, for instance, city officials and the private sector worked together to build three barracks-style shelters that house nearly 1,000 people for only $4.5 million. 
They’ve moved 700 individuals off the streets and into the emergency shelter, allowing the police and city crews to remove and clean up illegal encampments. 
In Houston, local leaders have reduced homelessness by 60 percent through a combination of providing services and enforcing a zero-tolerance policy for street camping, panhandling, trespassing and property crimes. There’s nothing compassionate about letting addicts, the mentally ill and the poor die in the streets. The first order of business must be to clean up public spaces, move people into shelters and maintain public order.
The latter is the heart of Chris's point. The former seems sensible, and I have heard good superficial reports of similar programs. Still, I'm skeptical. One trip to a public toilet is enough to convince you of the difficulties of renting any kind of apartment to people who are struggling with mental illness and drug addictions. Didn't we just close down housing projects all over the country? Plus, we are infatuated with building new housing. The easiest way to get cheap housing is to move wealthy people out of older houses by letting them build new. And this too is the sort of thing that really has to be done at the state level. If one city does too good a job, it will only attract people to move there and make its job harder.

Today's post though is not about exactly what policy is best to solve this tough problem. Most of all, I am struck by Chris' insight about how really dysfunctional policies persist through the repetition of these fairy-tale narratives.

The current policy dysfunction is pretty clear.
the Seattle metro area spends more than $1 billion fighting homelessness every year. That’s nearly $100,000 for every homeless man, woman and child in King County, yet the crisis seems only to have deepened,... By any measure, the city’s efforts are not working
Now let's talk about job training programs, disability, food stamps, agricultural subsidies, trade, tax laws...


  1. Sad but true commentary.

    Probably the market perversion of property zoning should be mentioned as radically increasing the cost of housing, yet even with cheaper housing I suspect most of the homeless would remain homeless due to their own behavior.

    All in all, policies that tighten labor markets and loosen housing markets are probably salubrious.

  2. Well, there's a lot to say on this. But, I'll try to summarize my thoughts.

    Like Dr. Cochrane emphasized, the realm of ideas is a place where in my mind the real battle is what to do what wealth. This is a resource allocation problem, a normative problem. Idealism always looks good intellectually. Positive analysis can generate all these statistics, but the question always emerges about what to do about it all.

    Since we're on the subject of homelessness and mental health, a great read is Foucault's "Madness and Civilization." It's an exposition about the forces throughout different cultural epochs about what to do with those that did not fit in to recognizable society. The mentally ill were an easy target. At first they were put on boats to sail endlessly on the waters, "Stultifera Navis," or "The Ship of Fools." Later they were exploited as a source of cheap labor, causing all kinds of havoc in markets. It wasn't until the late 19th century that an element of compassion emerged to actually treat them. However, they were still largely isolated from the whole of society.

    So, see, not much has changed in 500 years.


  3. I sold my condo in Seattle this spring and moved a few towns away, I had finally had it with the politicians, the regularly scheduled waves of property crime upon our building, etc.

    I attended a "community meeting" about a homeless "village" proposed in my neighborhood, and this was of course after years of the propaganda described above... most of the homeless were good local folk, pushed out by greedy landlords, etc. We in fact were going to be introduced to a success story of all the intervention efforts, one of these neighbors of ours... the first sentence out of the gentleman's mouth was, "my wife and I came to Seattle in 2016, homeless".... wait, what? #NarrativeViolation

    As stated in the article (and was also told to us at the community meeting), the % of "homeless" who flat out refuse help is quite high. Then that gets painted as "mental illness", but, it sure looks like a lot of it is just good, old-fashioned bad people, who want to engage in nightly sprees of property crime for a living, and cannot have the slightest scrutiny.

  4. I see a number of unfortunate parallels with immigration policies here. Liberals, leftists and self-styled progressives are very generous in their willingness to give away the commons that quite frankly do not belong just to them.

    At the same time, this homeless debate reminds me of the Vietnam War where much of the debate centred around good versus evil from all sides. In the end, US policy makers and voters did not understand the Vietnamese nationalists just as contemporary policy makers appear to not understand folks who live on the street -- the so-called homeless-- simply because they have never spent any time on the street or in shelters actually talking to these people.

    In the meantime, the ugly, crime-filled, drug-saturated infamous Downtown Eastside in Vancouver, British Columbia is nothing more, nothing less than a creation of the Canadian welfare state. Without it, the neighbourhood would not exist.

    Think of the choices from the perspective of the individuals making them: Why party on the reservation when you can party in downtown Vancouver? The tax payer footing the bill is the same in both cases except public amenities are far more abundant in downtown Vancouver. Aggressive panhandling works in the Downtown Eastside (especially on small Asian women) whereas there is no scope for it on the reservation or in small towns.


  5. Mental illness and addiction were mentioned repeatedly as better explanations than the various narratives. It sound like universal health care is they key. Homelessness is not a uniquely American issue, however anyone who has spent time in other western democracies with national health insurance systems can immediately see the problem is of a much smaller magnitude where everyone has access to health care.

  6. "spends more than $1 billion fighting homelessness every year. That’s nearly $100,000 for every homeless man, woman and child in King County"


  7. Here is the link to Russo's full article at City Journal.

  8. We always say that homelessness is what happens when everything else fails. I feel like this post, while not explicitly, does alluded to the truth that no one perspective is fully correct, no one is fully wrong, and no simple solution will solve the problem (housing first....). Two minor points: the Point in Time count data referenced to counter the first arguement is deeply flawed. There is nothing systematic or scientific about the data gathering. Once the bad data is collected local authorities apply "statistical methods" (I have yet to see them) to get their final number. Garbage ing garbage out, and doubt most COCs even bother imputing responses for the survey questions becase there are so few responses. PIT counts will take place next month around the county and you may be interested to volunteer and see the methods in action. It is a vast opportunity area for improvement.
    Second, while family and community coherence is almost the only common problem, community adherence is greatly undermined by gentrification (socialists aren't always fully wrong!). I also have to say, single mothers are a bad proxy for this big problem. Research is pretty clear that everyone is better off when a bad relationship is eneded and as an economist the base assumption is that even a single mother has behaved rationally.

    1. Yes, the socialists are wrong about gentrification. I've lived in traditional urban neighborhoods, the slums those turned into, and gentrified neighborhoods (where I live now). Believe me, gentrified is best. In the traditional neighborhood, the Italians talk to Italians, Poles talk to Poles, Irish talk to Irish, and everybody hates the Jews. In the slums you get mugged. In a gentrified neighborhood anyone with a decent job can live there, black people can walk through (or even buy a house) without getting beaten up or worse, and if somebody hates the Jews I can't tell. It's what America is supposed to be about.


  9. Well you know what they say - "Reality is what continues to exist, even when you don't believe in it."

    Funny how the author compares Seattle's failure to Houston's success. I'm personally quite annoyed by the recent trend of converting public libraries into de-facto homeless shelters.

  10. Didn't Seattle passed several ordinances that restricted the number and type of dwellings that could be built? I'm trying to find the articles that wrote about no multi-storied housing, neighbors that had to small compared to the area of woods it was built in, etc. I could be wrong.

  11. Very interesting post.

    Regarding the line, "the best way to prevent homelessness isn’t to build new apartment complexes or pass new tax levies but to rebuild the family, community, and social bonds that once held communities together," how much of this boils down to being a challenge/consequence of living in a society increasingly focused on individuality, particularly with regard to ‘making your own way, choice & responsibility?
    There are many people who purport to value “community”, but this seems to hold only when “community” includes a very select type of people. Putting members of the “compassion brigade” aside (while they outwardly express sympathy, I’m guessing that most aren’t advocating for use sites or encampments to spring up in THEIR neighborhoods, and that they would be up in arms if they did), I’m going to make an assumption members of most other groups view the homeless as “not their responsibility”, which of course they aren’t, but so how do you then encourage community and compassion for others who may see the homeless as ‘not like them’ and who have made choices which they would ‘never have the bad sense to make’? I think this presents a large challenge in terms of caring about, much less identifying with, the homeless, and maybe constrains our sense of what the available remedies are. Our historical approach to "caring what people do with their lives" has been paternalistic / punitive, but is it the case that prevailing attitudes about responsibility and individuality dictate that the best approach is sweeping the problem under the rug? Not that I have have good answers myself; given the risk for unintended consequences, maybe containment is the best option.

  12. Just curious. Any empirical work on non-marital births and taxpayer funded programs for young mothers with few marketable skills? If benefits to single mothers are $25,000 per year, a person in the 25% tax bracket would earn $33,333 pretax. An hourly wage of sixteen dollars. Why would a person with skills that command less than that have an incentive enter the labor market?


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