New Book Argues that our Approach to Homelessness Won’t Work


By the time you read the subtitle, “Why Progressives Ruin Cities,” you know that author Michael Shellenberger pulls no punches as he explores a vexing, urgent question: Why have San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, Portland — wealthy, progressive cities each — experienced such intractable and rapidly-growing homelessness crises in the past decade? Why have each of these politically liberal, environmentally-conscious cities with enormous financial resources suffered worsening and intertwined crises of addiction, public encampment, needles and deteriorating public safety, and political gridlock — despite spending ever more?

It’s been more than six years since Seattle Mayor Ed Murray declared a state of emergency on homelessness. That year, the King County One Night Count found 3,772 individuals living outside and unsheltered. In 2020, it had risen to 11,751 people experiencing homelessness, with 47% of those unsheltered. And, despite more than $1 billion spent on homelessness every year regionally according to the Puget Sound Business Journal and even more donated in affordable housing pledges by Jeff Bezos, Microsoft, and others, we still don’t feel much closer toward a model which works.

Released in October, San Fransicko has broken into the top three reads on Amazon in the Civics & Citizenship category. Though it focuses on the Bay Area, policies in Seattle are similar. Shellenberger indirectly asks the Seattle reader to consider whether the progressive policy approach — harm reduction, housing first, affordable housing, and a victim-centric lexicon — leads toward measurable progress? If not, will it ever?

Two decades ago, the author was a conventional progressive on these topics. Today, Shellenberger is criticizing progressive orthodoxy in the environment and homelessness. His 2020 treatise, Apocalypse Never, is a broadside against what he considers “climate alarmism.” In that book, Shellenberger advocates for more nuclear power and more technological and pragmatic approaches to environmental challenges, bringing data to the argument about which forms of energy can most efficiently reduce CO2 emissions.

In San Fransicko Shellenberger takes on three of the most heavily-defended tenets of the west-coast approach toward homelessness.

First, he argues that homelessness is principally an addiction and mental health crisis masquerading as an affordability crisis. Put another way, and this is central to his thesis — it’s not primarily about affordability. To this assertion, he brings considerable data, showing how pure housing-only programs fail to reduce homelessness. He explains how public housing advocates have largely shut down much-needed investment in shelter.

He asks the reader to ponder whether growth in tents is at least in part because they’re the least-costly way to live with no rules, in proximity to drug markets and a community of users. And he names the ever-more addictive drugs doing increasing damage: first opioids, then heroin, fentanyl, and now a new and extremely addictive form of methamphetamine which brings with it much more frequent and lasting mental crises. Drug overdose deaths have hit a record high in the United States, with more than 100,000 dying in the past 12 months. Sam Quinones’ excellent piece in The Atlantic about this new methamphetamine echoes Shellenberger’s central thrust here.

Second, Shellenberger takes on “housing first,” the highly popular intervention policy in west coast cities which prioritizes secure housing and “barrier-free” (i.e., requirement-free) living. Once a fierce advocate for housing-first policies, the author is now convinced the policy momentum itself has overshadowed the ultimate goal. He walks the reader through Amsterdam’s history in policymaking, which once had similar barrier-free models, but has in the past decade adopted a much more empirically successful approach. The “Amsterdam Way” emphasizes earned housing and compassionate enforcement over the “housing first” model. Shellenberger dives in to study methodology to question several of the academic efforts which have claimed efficacy of housing-first.

In interviews subsequent to the book, he’s posed the thought exercise: “If someone who is addicted to methamphetamine is given $200, are they likely to voluntarily spend it on their own treatment, or more drugs?” Shellenberger’s point: if we believe it’s the latter, we’re saying the housing-first — which too often is housing-only — model won’t work.

Third, Shellenberger argues against city-only programs. He notes that in a mobile and free society, no city-specific approach would work in the absence of a broader regional or statewide strategy. He advocates the establishment of a new statewide agency, “Cal Psych,” to handle a broad range of mental wellness services.

The book is at its best detailing the success stories of other cities. Shellenberger holds up Amsterdam, Lisbon, New York City, and Miami as cities to consider as much better models than the failed west-coast models. The chapter “Let’s Go Dutch” focuses on Amsterdam, a city not that much bigger than San Francisco (or Seattle, for that matter), and makes a very strong case for adopting their policy slate. This includes earned housing based on entering treatment programs if addicted, a crackdown on open-air drug dealing, an individualized and well-coordinated plan for every individual, and ample social services.

In the 1980s, Amsterdam had major problems with open-air drug-dealing and homelessness. Crucially, Shellenberger argues, Amsterdam’s courts, service providers, and families helped coordinate an individualized plan for everyone, and linked permanent housing benefits to milestones along the way. That is, rather than housing-first, those addicted first get less-desirable government shelter, but must earn permanent housing. They rely upon family support when available, enforced bans on public encampment, and ample counseling and psychiatric care services.

There are no signs yet that San Francisco will change course. In July, Mayor London Breed pledged $1 billion to house the homeless, after the city experienced a surprise windfall driven in part by federal stimulus spending. District Attorney Chesa Boudin has decriminalized many misdemeanors, and there’s a strong push to reduce police budgets.

Seattle features prominently in a chapter called “Legalize Crime.” Shellenberger recounts the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) in June of 2020 and the progressive wave of decriminalizing misdemeanor crimes. And he discusses the mismatch between progressive ideals and actual outcomes.

That people can and should be called upon to do more is central to Shellenberger’s thesis. A former progressive, Shellenberger describes a new, aggressively guarded belief system, which he calls “Victimology.” Such a doctrine plays a central role in discussion of the addiction and homelessness crises and the advancement and protection of failing dogmas. He argues that progressives have become far too invested in the idea that addicts are only victims with no obligation to a greater society, and that nothing can nor should be asked of any of them. In a related blog post, he explores this victimology through Moral Foundation Theory. Shellenberger argues that while espousing such a belief system may signal compassion, it rarely delivers it.

Does individual responsibility have a role in this urgent conversation? Do people experiencing homelessness and the larger community share mutual responsibilities? Shellenberger argues strongly: yes, they do.

The late neurologist, author and Holocaust survivor Dr. Viktor Frankl wrote compellingly about the need for responsibility to balance liberty in any functioning society. Before his death, Frankl called specifically for a “Statue of Responsibility” on the West Coast, to complement the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast. There’s even a campaign for it. After you read San Fransicko, you might be inclined to rethink our approach toward homeless policymaking.

Steve Murch
Steve Murch
Steve’s a Seattle-based entrepreneur and software leader and father of three. He’s half Canadian, and east-coast born and raised. Steve has made the Pacific Northwest his home since 1991, when he moved here to work for Microsoft. He’s started and sold multiple Internet companies. Politically independent, he writes on occasion about city politics and national issues, and created Alignvote in the 2019 election cycle. He holds a BS in Applied Math (Computer Science) and Business from Carnegie Mellon University, a Masters in Computer Science from Stanford University, and an MBA from the Harvard Business School. Steve volunteers when time allows with Habitat for Humanity, University District Food Bank, Technology Access Foundation (TAF) and other organizations in Seattle. More of his writings can be found at


  1. I tend to suspect that the more incendiary the title, the weaker the argument. This title (and even more, the subhead) plants its aspirations firmly in the camp of the Anne Coulters, Bill O’Reillys and countless other clickbait titles chasing after far-right dollars. Hard to imagine an argument the author wants reasonable people to take seriously under this banner. Let alone a convincing argument intended to persuade the progressives he calls out. Another quibble: you mention at least a couple of times that Shellenberger is an erstwhile progressive himself. This “fact” is used (by his publisher, by him, by this review) to suggest evidence of the author’s bona fides that his arguments should be taken seriously because he once dwelled in the enemy camp. Therefore, an “expose” as it were, from the other side, to reveal some real truth.

    If Shellenberger truly was once all in on the policies he now condemns and claims now to have discovered flaws in and is now offering solutions for, it’s difficult to imagine he would have unfurled his arguments under this incendiary flag.

    The example of Amsterdam is interesting, and may be instructive, but the Dutch social net is of an entirely different sort than we have in the US. Perhaps he allows in the book for those differences, but I’m skeptical given the meat-ax title. Dismissing critiques of systems that chew up those who have been unable to thrive or survive in them as “victimology” is facile branding intended to reject thoughtful consideration that a system may be unfair and un-equitable. “Personal responsibility” yes, but one person’s personal responsibility is another’s existential struggle. It’s not so simple as just “choosing it” as it might seem from the perch of those who are comfortable and can see obvious options.

    The “ActiRads” (as Post Alley writer Sandeep Kaushik labels them) are difficult to take for their moral certitude of their own solutions and condemnation and rejection of those who don’t agree with them ideologically. But this book trumpets its own moral certitude by labeling those that disagree as “ruining” cities. Now that’s really difficult to take seriously.

    • Please. Stop. Your mentality is ruining great cities. This isn’t about right or left – its about saving lives. Grow a pair, open your eyes, and join ones that care about their fellow citizens.

  2. No question the title and subhead are inflammatory. But give it a read, and you might find the author’s data and arguments more nuanced, and more important — loaded with data which back up his viewpoint.

    It is in the discussion of what has been empirically shown to work where this book is, in my view, most helpful. In addition to Amsterdam and Lisbon, he highlights Miami and New York City as much better models than ours here. (Amsterdam, contrary to popular thought, leans on private insurers for healthcare, much as we do here in the US. But they also coordinate their services much, much better, and have multiple levels of shelter and permanent housing, with earned stages which they enforce.)

    Shellenberger discusses how each of the “successful” cities approaches employ very a different policy slate than that being implemented, fiercely defended and advocated in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Portland.

    As any parent knows, true compassion often involves saying both yes and no. When we do say no, we need not shout it angrily or with divisive intent like, say, Coulter. But sometimes, we do need limits, and it is reasonable to ask that those who are publicly encamped, for instance, to abide by certain rules and laws, or no longer be able to do so.

    Societally, we need the ability to say both “yes” and “no.” Equal protection under the law should apply, and when we erode that, it tears at the fabric of society, making the teamwork necessary for investment in solutions much harder.

    Compassion also first begins with correct diagnosis of the problem. There is substantial evidence that addiction and mental illness are major keys at the root of the west coast homelessness crisis. It is a powerful indictment of our failure that there hasn’t been a single serious effort by City Council, the relatively new Regional Homelessness Authority and other policymakers to discuss treatment more seriously, even if treatment is not what those addicted particularly want.

    What is the strongest evidence we have that the west-coast approach to homelessness and addiction policymaking is actually effective? If we do not think it’s been effective, can we at least open our minds to treatises of different approaches, especially if they appear to work far better?

    • Though I have been several times to Amsterdam and Lisbon, I don’t know much about their homeless policies. But I have lived in NYC for extended periods and am there frequently, and have worked for an extended period in Miami. Again – not an expert on homeless policies in either place. But certainly by the number of people living on the streets in both places, I find it difficult to point to them as successful in dealing with the issue.

      I certainly agree we need to be able to have rules that mediate the needs and demands of people in public spaces. But have we really failed to diagnose the problem here? Is it really true there hasn’t been a “single serious effort” by local policy-makers to “discuss treatment more seriously”? That seems hard to believe, given the money and efforts and political capital expended. Or is it that addiction is one part, but it’s only part of a bigger, more complex and systemic issue that we haven’t yet faced up to?

      I have to say I’m wary it’s as simple as portrayed. I haven’t seen the stats and studies you say the book cites, but I do know that it’s pretty easy to distort same if one has an agenda. Of course I don’t know that’s what he’s doing here, but again, the inflammatory title doesn’t particularly suggest open-minded or thoughtful consideration.

      • If there’s been serious review of addiction and treatment options at City Council in the past five years as the addiction crisis has grown, I’ve missed it. The near-total rhetorical focus of homelessness is on affordability, housing and housing-first.

        If addiction ever does manage to sneak into the conversation, the only policy approach ever elaborated upon appears to be injection sites and/or vans, not treatment.

      • It’s worth noting that NYC takes an opposite approach to the thrust of Seattle’s stated “prioritize housing over shelter” policies towards homelessness. The core difference is that NYC has a “right to shelter” law that obligates the City to provide indoor shelter for all homeless people.

        In practice, this means that New York spends more than $1 billion annually providing a network of mostly congregate shelters across the city. The quality of those shelters varies a lot, and to a large extent homeless people are semi-permanently warehoused in these less than ideal spaces because (due to the lack of much investment in affordable housing) they end up staying indefinitely. But it does also mean that New York doesn’t have the sorts of encampment and visible unsheltered homelessness problems that we do.

        We plow more of our money into things like Permanent Supportive Housing (PSP), which is costly to operate, but which provides seriously impaired people with a small apartment with addiction/mental health services provided on site. This is housing for people who aren’t likely to ever be able to hold down a normal job or pay market rate rent because of their condition(s), and unfortunately that describes a substantial segment of the homeless population currently on our streets. PSP, because of the ongoing high operating costs of providing these services, is expensive, and we don’t have nearly enough of it to address the need.

  3. To pick up Doug’s point about the title first, I think publishers often slant titles, subtitles, jacket design and blurbs toward true believers, because that how they can sell more books faster. Last year I read an excellent book by Nancy McLean about the long-term campaign by wealthy and powerful interests to empower themselves at the expense of our democratic system. The book is well-researched and well-argued, but the title (Democracy in Chains), the subtitle (The Deep History of the Radical Eight’s Stealth Plan for America) are calculated to signal to progressives “this book is for you,” and to signal to everyone else “this book is probably just another left-wing rant,” which was not true at all. The book sold well, but too few non-left readers picked it up. I think the same fate might await San Fransicko: progressives who should consider his arguments will be given permission to ignore them by the packaging. One data note: Amsterdam is smaller than Seattle and SF, not larger.

    • agree, thanks. The pop-marketing book “Purple Cow,” by Seth Godin, is all about standing out in the information age. With a deluge of information and things vying for our attention, he argues, the best way for people selling something is to be “remarkable” — in the literal sense, that you need something so breakthrough as to be worth remarking to someone else about it. Sadly this only plays into the polarization and keeps thoughtful folks from engaging in well-argued viewpoints from each tribe.

      Not to quibble about which is larger, but I was going on population, which in 2019 was San Francisco: 874,961; Amsterdam: 821,752 (2015) and Seattle (2019). But only now am I noticing that Google uses 2015 numbers for Amsterdam and 2019 for the American cities. Still, to me, these cities are each generally in the same ballpark.

  4. A few thoughts on this.

    One, I should prolly read this book, since it sounds like it is fatly argued, and I have some strongly held views on this topic that probably ought to get tested from time to time.

    That said, I do think there’s lots of evidence to show that housing prices are a huge — and perhaps the main — driver of homelessness, more so than rising rates of addiction (though that is a factor as well). I don’t agree with everything in this piece — — but the point the author here makes that West Virginia has high rates of drug use but low rates of homelessness (because housing costs are low) makes sense to me. Vancouver, Canada has a robust social safety net, much better than ours, but homelessness there is still a serious problem, also largely because housing prices are so high (though, admittedly, like us they’re also permissive about drug use).

    I also think it’s worth distinguishing between “harm reduction” done correctly and what I would call our increasing “radical permissiveness” towards the criminal and anti-social behaviors associated with high concentrations of drug addiction. For example, I believe Seattle would benefit overall — and our population of addicted people would benefit — from opening a safe consumption site or two where some of the open air drug use currently taking place in our streets, alleys and parks could be brought inside, overdoses could be reversed (saving lives), and where those who are ready could connect to treatment and services. I also don’t think it makes sense to lock people up for using drugs like heroin, fentanyl, and meth. Criminalizing addiction, which is really a medical and social problem, as the War on Drugs tried to do was a massive failure, imo.

    That said, I do think it makes a lot of sense to lock up repeat offenders who are engaging in rampant criminal behaviors like shoplifting, property crimes, home break ins, assault, etc. There has to be some friction in the system somewhere to deter people whose addictions are driving them into socially destructive behaviors, and to hopefully get them to seek the help they need. We should be compassionate, and strive to help people suffering the scourge of addiction. But we need to draw the line between compassionate actions to help those in need and enabling actions and (misguided) benign neglect, where we look the other way as people suffering additions undercut the social order as they slowly kill themselves in tents.

  5. IF people have a drug problem, the solution CAN’T be the government providing the drugs.

    Lets open shelters and offer them to the encamped – remove the tenting in parks and qualify those who entered this program interested in taking on some self responsibility, vouchers for rentals at 125% of the rental value to entice landlords to take a chance.
    As far as the street campers, we need to enforce parking laws so that at least they move every 3 days to other locations (Keep Them Moving).

    • On the contrary, government providing the drugs is the ideal solution.

      Randomly select someone addicted to methamphetamines or opiates: what’s the prognosis for successful treatment, within a time limit of say one year? It’s long odds, isn’t it? We aren’t going to wave a treatment wand and cure addiction, and we aren’t going to chase them all away, so we are going to have addicts here, lots of them.

      Option 1: leave them the way they are, fending for themselves, paying for drugs and their other needs often via theft or prostitution, keeping drug dealers and fences in business.
      Option 2: invite them out to the farm, where they’ll live in modest quarters and eat a healthy diet, and get free drugs administered by a health professional who’s also able to work with them if and when they decide to go clean.

      Option 2 would be better for everyone. Cheaper – how much do we pay in catalytic converters? Likely more effective in cleaning them up – which works better, desperate misery or boredom?

      If only we had such an easy solution for our other problems, like mental illness and unsustainable regional growth.

      • Option 2 sounds like it would remove them from sight – sort of a drug farm prison with happy inmates. What’s not to like !!!! No downside .

  6. Sheesh. So frustrating to see yet another symptom-based, trope-infused book. The reason homelessness persists is because cities aren’t willing to take on the employers who underpay their staff and landlords/speculators who destroy the markets. These are natural outcomes of capitalistic greed without regulation/restraint (aka: cannibalistic capitalism).

    If addiction is the primary cause of homelessness, there would be very few people with addictions who are housed (some of them very well). Sheesh. My Queendom for serious critical thinking.

    • “If addiction is the primary cause of homelessness, there would be very few people with addictions who are housed (some of them very well).” No, the former certainly doesn’t imply the latter. No question that the housed have addiction issues too.

      Addiction and mental illness definitely do not always lead to homelessness. Nowhere is Shellenberger arguing that. But for those who are at risk, it greatly increases their chances. And recent synthetics to appear incredibly powerful and have been linked to increased incidents of psychoses.

      Note that a key stat you rely upon in your piece (as do city leaders, frequently) is based on entirely *self-reported* data. That is, when volunteers do the annual point in time count, they ask the individual whether they have a substance abuse problem. And in 2017, 35% of those asked said “yes.” Would a reasonable person expect an answer to a question about addiction to be accurate, a significant underestimate or an overestimate of reality?

      I wrote about why academic research suggests that self-reporting when it comes to addiction issues tends to find that the actual answer is much closer to about 2x the answer given: (links to studies)

      Indeed, Pete Holmes’ office noted that approximately 80% have some form of substance use issues in the city’s lawsuit against Purdue Pharma:

      “Seattle has seen its homeless population swell, with 4,505 living without shelter in
      the city and other select areas of King County in 2016 – a 19% increase over 2015. Researchers estimate that over 50% of people with opioid addictions in Seattle are homeless and Seattle’s Navigation Team – composed of outreach workers and police officers specially trained to interface with the homeless population – estimates that 80% of the homeless individuals they encounter in challenging encampments have substance abuse disorders.”

      Page 7, here:

  7. So much of homeless housing success elsewhere depends on “right to shelter” laws, which some states and cities have and we do not. This costs money, much provided in income taxes, state and city. Once again, we do not have income taxes, at least not yet.
    By the way, those who say that we haven’t had serious city discussions about homelessness are wrong. We have had, repeatedly. Altho it failed, the 10-year plan to end homeless provided and paid for the housing/shelter we have now. The system has been overwhelmed by the recent vast increases during the pandemic, exacerbated by housing costs and construction delays. What’s needed, as we’ve always known, is area-wide action — which we may be getting more of with King County’s involvement — coupled with more state and federal help. This isn’t a city-limit problem alone.

    • Indeed Shellenberger discusses “right to shelter” laws and the overall lessening of shelter-based options over the past decade in west-coast cities. He argues that advocates have really de-emphasized shelter in favor of housing first and permanent supportive housing options, taking needed resources away from more shelter. We’ve had serious discussions about homelessness. But in my view, we’ve had comparatively little hard discussion about addiction — i.e., the new even more dangerous methamphetamines, opioids, fentanyl, etc. — nor do Seattle-area policy discussions about homelessness talk much about treatment for those who are addicted. The Pacific Northwest’s civic discussion around homelessness primarily seems to emphasize affordability and affordable housing. Too often, it ends there.

      Regarding funding, as you probably know, in 2017, the Puget Sound Business Journal undertook an effort to try to tally-up the amount of money currently spent on homelessness, between public and private efforts:

      Regionally, they summed up at least $1 billion per year in resources invested in 2017 dollars, and that was before both Microsoft and Jeff Bezos pledged more than a billion more (total) in additional affordable housing loan guarantees. I think there’s a good argument for state income taxation, but I don’t see these issues tied. That is, we should have been able to make progress with a billion dollars in annual funding. Is there progress? I’m not sure there is. Seattle’s direct and indirect funding has been massive and growing. It shows our compassion and intent — but our policies don’t seem to be delivering effective results.

  8. The first comment here demonstrates why Seattle is so trapped in its current helpless cycle of dogma chasing dogma, with worsening results. Rather than listening with an open mind to the content summarized, the commenter immediately goes after the title, the cultural alliances suggested, and writes the whole enterprise off by associating it with extremists like Ann Coulter. Questioning the policies supported by Seattle’s Left becomes increasingly dangerous when one risks reputation and excommunication merely by association.

    Virtually every time I have raised the issue of addiction as a reason for homelessness I am attacked for saying “all homeless are addicts” and lectured on the humanity of the homeless and the evils of capitalism. Again and again advocates of housing-first simply won’t engage with evidence or narratives of complexity that don’t support their beliefs. Meanwhile in its own suit against the opioid manufacturers the City blames them for our homelessness crisis. Pete Holmes has publicly stated that at least 80% of the most anti social and intractable street population is addicted to drugs.

    The housing we are building en masse is primarily tiny isolated rooms in sterile dormitory-like compounds that can barely fit one person much less be shared. We are building the smallest apartments in the entire country. The large and often older “single family” homes that were torn down in this density mania could house many people, collectively, at far lower cost per foot. This is how everybody I knew got through the recession of the 1970’s and beyond. Communal living requires cooperation and accountability: an ideal boot camp for those in recovery.

    Re: Amsterdam, this just came in, with reports of situations that sound just like Seattle and Portland. I was dismayed and startled. I’d love to believe there was a working model out there.

    • What are you referring to?
      “The housing we are building en masse is primarily tiny isolated rooms in sterile dormitory-like compounds that can barely fit one person much less be shared. We are building the smallest apartments in the entire country.”

  9. Thanks for this book review. Those three points the author highlights ring true.

    In small parts of the Seattle metro region the unhoused and their behaviors are a growing problem. Some numbers might provide an appropriate context.

    In January 2020, there were 580,466 people experiencing homelessness in America, according to an outfit called endhomelessness dot org. King County’s last survey of homelessness was at the beginning of 2020, and it shows 11,751 people were homeless in King County. King County’s population is 2.25 million, which is less than seven-tenths of one percent of the country’s population, but we have 2 percent of the country’s homeless population – call it three times the per capita problem the rest of the country faces.

    It also is fair to say that there is far more public and non-profit supported housing here than in 95% of the US.

    One argument is that government policies and the abandoned office areas of the four large West Coast cities now are an extremely attractive combination for the unhoused, narcotics buying and selling, and the mentally-disturbed. Discreet parts of Seattle, LA, SF and Portland now feature growing congregations of the unhoused and the social ills they externalize on the public. Most residents of those metro areas who have the financial means now can avoid those (fairly contained) locations now that large employers no longer require massive daily commutes to or through those areas. That new economic reality, coupled with “responsibility-free-handouts” is allowing growing populations of these needy/vagrants/criminals/unhoused folks to flourish in a relatively-unseen fashion.

  10. A big thank-you to Steve Murch for citing the necessity of linking addiction with homelessness. And the lack of serious discussion about the linkage. In my view there are three reasons for avoidance of the issue:
    1. The individuals most seriously impaired by behavioral illness (mental health and addiction )lack any constituency to help them. I was the only parent of a young adult with behavioral impairment present at mental health task force meetings in Olympia where budget recommendations were made.
    2. There is an absence of leadership at the state and local levels coming up with creative approaches to the most vexing behavioral health issues. At the same time legislators across the political spectrum support mental health initiatives.
    3. What constitutes appropriate treatment? Traditional treatment involves a client who desires help. The most seriously impaired individuals, like my son, who lives in a tent beneath a freeway, recoil from “talk therapy. On the other hand, my son has long begged to be able to work at a job. The Seattle Civilian Conservation Corps, formed in 1986, which provides construction work in Seattle Parks for homeless individuals, is appropriate “therapy.” Unfortunately, the Corps has been inactive because of Covid.
    The biggest obstacle would be compelling impaired individuals to take part in a remediation program, which I would support. But I don’t envision that enough others in Washington State would agree.

    • Thank you for adding your voice and your family’s story to this important issue. I’m sure you’ve heard of them, but Uplift Northwest and Fare Start Kitchen are terrific organizations to connect with regarding work opportunities, as are Mary’s Place and Plymouth Housing.

    • Dr Bergman
      Thank you for mentioning the Seattle Conservation Corp, which I assume must have been inspired by FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corp?

      It sounds like a terrific idea and I’d like to learn more & how it can be improved /resuscitated etc etc

      I don’t believe that I’d be the only other person in Washington State who would think that some sort of program like that might be absolutely essential and useful to all.

  11. This book proves that, for progressives who target their guns at other progressives, there will always be money in the banana stand. San Francisco is fun to beat up on, but if anything about the place (or region, or state) is in fact sick, it’s the terribly restrictive zoning laws and it’s inability to add housing anywhere close to meeting demand. If Schellenberger wants to get plaudits for going after his “own side”, he should consider that homelessness is as much a cause of addiction and disorder as it is a result of those things.

    • Yeah, Will, I mostly agree with your point, but I also think that — while addiction is less of a driver of homelessness than housing costs — it makes solving the problem of homelessness infinitely more difficult. I don’t think the left has sufficiently acknowledged, for example, how much the rising tide of methamphetamine use on our streets is making the problem much worse. As hard as it is to treat opioid addiction, we do have chemical interventions — bupe, methadone — that are proven to help many addicts stabilize and (hopefully) over time recover. There is nothing like that for treating serious meth addiction, and that’s a huge problem, particularly given the really negative self-destructive and anti-social behaviors that tend to occur when someone is constantly tweaked out of their gourd on meth. As far as I can tell, no one has a good answer for how effectively to help psychologically unstable heavy meth users living on our streets.

  12. Seattle has long had a population who has lived rough. Most cities have. What is different today is the loss of independent cheap housing: flophouses, rooming houses, somebody’s dead parents’ inherited home, trailer parks, and so on. They just don’t exist anymore – at least in these glitzy cities, often replaced by tiny stacked boxes or townhomes costing so much more than SSI, itinerant lawn mowing, day labor and many other hand to mouth revenue sources can possible provide. Outsiders used to be able to get by. They can’t anymore. There’s no room in the margins.

    It is also true that there has been a loss of institutional housing. The promise of dignity and independent living for people with seriously challenging mental health issues was a pipe dream that never materialized in the years of deinstitutionalization followed by the starvation of social services. There are clearly people living outside who are significantly and sometimes dangerously disassociated from reality.

    Many outsiders also either don’t want or are just fundamentally incapable of living under the management and control of a surveillance system, a government housing authority, a rules and regs nonprofit even if such housing was actually available. Some are broken, some wounded, and most are damaged one way or another. In spite of this many still want to hang onto their personhood, their independence, the last vestiges of their freedom, even if that is the freedom to mess themselves up. Now these frequently desperate, sad, tormented, lost and troubled souls – who in the past were often able to survive in relative seclusion and anonymity – are literally out in the open for all to see.

    The number of people who live rough is growing. They truly have nowhere to go. People are bunching together in unsanitary, unhealthy and drug addled concentrations. Mix in some scary predators, drug dealers, pimps and organized crime profiteers and this combustible environment extends far beyond the tents. Our parks and green spaces, our sidewalks and alleyways, our doorways and bus benches and commons are overrun, abused, and essentially privatized. Do we cage them? Do we fix them? What does it mean to treat people with dignity? How do we establish the lines between competence and incapacity? How do we maintain the rule of law while recognizing the agonizing living condition of so many people? How do we protect both them and ourselves from the creeping criminality that grows from despair and desperation?

    It is true that there is an affordable housing crisis. But as we can observe every day in Seattle, there are plenty of apartments and townhomes and efficiency units available. They just aren’t affordable. It is also true that there is an addiction crisis and a mental illness crisis, in large part because the services and treatments that are supposed to address them are shockingly inadequate and ineffective. Most significantly, there is a poverty crisis. More and more of us just can’t afford to live humanely anymore. We are traveling on a road of increasing economic disparity, and have been for some time. No good will come of this.

  13. The Atlantic article closely follows a veteran who gets clean from the dreaded “super meth” by accessing housing and rehab services from the VA.

    Perhaps we should be looking towards what happened there instead of listening to yet another author trying to cash in by dunking on Seattle’s problems.

    • Yes, veteran Berrera in the Atlantic piece absolutely got better thanks to services. And Shellenberger absolutely agrees that treatment is key; indeed it’s central to his book. He advocates for a statewide agency, CalPsych, which would offer treatment services, and he advocates tying community largesse (like permanent, paid-for housing) to getting and staying well. Shellenberger merely argues that the emphasis on affordability alone tends to take people’s attention away from things like treatment. Give it a read and you will quite likely think it’s far from “trying to cash in by dunking on Seattle’s problems.”

  14. A brief comment on the correlation between homelessness and addiction/behavioral health issues, from someone who has spent long hours reading the reports and examining the evidence: it is true that a large number of homeless individuals in Seattle (and elsewhere) suffer from substance abuse addiction and/or other behavioral health problems. But the data also shows clearly that most of those people become homeless and then develop addiction/behavioral health issues, not the other way around. It is a natural and in some ways expected outcome of both coping with the trauma of being homeless in a big city, and trying to navigate those who prey on the homeless by selling them drugs.

    I am not saying that there are no cases of someone with a drug addiction problem who became homeless as a result; those people certainly do exist. But the causation generally runs in the other direction. Blaming the homeless crisis on drug addiction is not supported by the evidence. To Sandeep’s (and others’) earlier comment, there is substantial evidence that increased homelessness is closely tied to increased housing prices.

    However, regardless of the direction of causation, the evidence also shows that the capacity of behavioral health treatment services in King County is far below the need. This is a dramatic failure of King County government, which is responsible for funding and provisioning such services. And of course the state government has fumbled the ball repeatedly on behavioral health treatment facilities as well. The reality is that we have a large population — many homeless — who need behavioral health treatment, and we simply don’t have enough providers available to treat them.

  15. We are never going to solve the issue here and in other liberally run cities. Could we PLEASE spend $100,000 pd cleaning up the trash, picking up the garbage at the camps, providing sanicans at all the camps, and put beat cops back on the streets allowing we other citizens to at least be able to live here.


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