Getting into arguments with people on the internet about who the homeless are, why they became homeless, and what we need to do about the problem


Got sucked into this long — and futile — argument about “the homeless” on this Facebook group page. The general attitude of the people in the group is that “99% of the homeless are drug addicts, alcoholics, or mental cases.” Which is far from the truth. I’ll point out the LARGE number of homeless college students among the homeless ranks. Or that the elderly are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population — mostly people on fixed incomes who were priced out of their rentals, but otherwise completely normal people. To give but two obvious examples of the kind of homeless that don’t conform to their stereotype.. But it just goes in one ear and out the other. They have their preconceptions about the homeless based entirely from the fuck-ups they see flopped out on our city sidewalks. Who I point out (again and again) actually make up a small percentage of the overall homeless population. And that they’re completely unaware of all the normal-looking and normal-acting homeless — who they would walk right by and never guess they were homeless, because they don’t conform to their stereotypical view of the homeless. But again it goes in one ear and out the other.

I point out that since 1970 here in California, the population has been growing at virtually twice the rate that we’ve been producing new housing. And that the homeless issue is primarily a “housing” issue and not a “behavioral” issue. But again, they can’t see the connection — the OBVIOUS connection — between our shortage of housing, and an ever-growing number of people who are without housing (PS: uh duh).

Their solution to the homeless problem — endlessly repeated — is that the homeless should just move somewhere else, they should just pack up and go away. . . If only the homeless problem were that simple — we could solve it tomorrow. I point out the many reasons that many homeless are unable to just pack and move to another state. But again, in one ear and out the other.

The funniest thing — they all profess to know so much about who the homeless are and how they became homeless. Even as most of them don’t seem to have ever known a single homeless person personally. I point out that I’ve been homeless off and on for 15 years since 1976. And have spent over 40 years deeply connected to the homeless/street scene — documenting their lives in my art and writing. And have known THOUSANDS of homeless people over the years — many of them intimately. But the idea that I might actually know a little more about the subject than them, is — needless to say — hard for them to fathom.

They’re concluded that I’m a “troll.” Among many, many other unflattering descriptions of my personage. Ha ha.

It’s a pretty conservative group. They’re fans of the Armstrong & Getty radio show (I’m a fan myself). And they’re sort of an over-reaction to the liberal idea that the homeless are all a bunch of innocent victims who deserve endless compassion and endless social services. They believe it’s all the homeless’s fault for being homeless because they’re all worthless bums who deserve a kick in the ass before they’re run out of town. That bit.
 I’m not sure which attitude is worse. Demonizing the homeless or idealizing the homeless. But it’s probably getting more and more prevalent. People being sick of the homeless and just wanting them to go away.
The “behavioral” aspect is one of the most misunderstood aspects of the homeless issue. Is there a higher rate of mental illness and substance abuse in the homeless population than in the general population? Almost certainly (though it’s worth noting that a lot of the substance abuse isn’t the cause of them being homeless, but the result of being homeless — an attempt to self-medicate themselves from the miseries of homelessness).

Generally speaking, the homeless are weaker, slower, than the general population in most ways. They’re older, poorer, less educated, less competent, from more unstable backgrounds, more mentally and physically disabled, than the general population. But it’s like the game of Musical Chairs we used to play as kids. Where we had 5 kids competing for 4 chairs. With the slowest kid ending up chairless. But their slowness — they’re behavior — wasn’t the primary reason they ended up chairless. The primary reason was the 5-kids-to-4-chairs ratio.

Same too with our homeless crisis. Too many people, not enough housing. With the slower people ending up houseless.

And now what we desperately need to do is start building new housing as fast as we can. If we want to even slow down — let alone solve — our homeless crisis.

5 thoughts on “Getting into arguments with people on the internet about who the homeless are, why they became homeless, and what we need to do about the problem

  1. Thanks, Ace. I was homeless while getting my undergrad degree at the University of California in the 1980’s, and I’m sure the countless people I passed by in my daily travels had no idea that I was homeless, because I didn’t fit the “sprawled bum”‘ profile you so eloquently described above. I met a number of other homeless people in the same boat as I was during that time. We were presentable, no one would guess we were homeless, but we were, in fact, leading each our own version of what I came to call “public life”.

    I wish this article you wrote here was required reading for anyone who decides they can just throw around the word “homeless” and pretend to know what they’re talking about. But, as you say, it would probably go in one ear and out the other.

    1. I appreciate your comment. It’s amazing how many people can’t grasp the very simple point I make regarding a common misconception about the homeless.

    2. I was homeless by choice for periods of time in my 20s. I would pack up my backpack with camping gear and my flute and hitchhike around the country. Usually I would have some money saved up, but one trip I supported myself singing and playing music for drinks and tips. I learned to save $5 for the next day because I could play for lunch or dinner but if I got out there early in the morning to play for my breakfast I just got weird looks and barely any tips. My fall back job was driving a taxi. Sometimes I would live out of the taxi, sometimes I would live in motels. When I was camping out or living out of the cab I would bathe in public restrooms or go swimming with shampoo and soap. I used to say “nobody likes a dirty hippie, but they don’t want you to use their restroom to clean up”.  I got a full time job dispatching taxis outside of Chicago and made the conscious choice to live in a tent so I’d have more money for drugs. I found an empty field near my job but it turned out to be a hangout for the local teens. They asked me if I’d buy alcohol for them and a beautiful friendship began. That lasted for a few weeks until someone stole my tent one day while I was gone. I spent a miserable night sleeping on the ground with no bedroll getting eaten by mosquitoes. Next I found an abandoned farm building and moved in there. I cleaned up from drugs and alcohol in 1986 and lived in “normal” housing up until the last couple years. Now I own an acre of land and an old fix me up trailer in the country outside Jacksonville FL. I drive Uber for a living and it’s a long drive to and from the trailer so I usually just sleep in the car, going back to the trailer once or twice a week. I am grateful to my ex-girlfriend because she talked me into buying a place. As long as I pay my property taxes I will have someplace to go when I get too old to work. Hopefully not for many years.

  2. This may be of interest – quite comprehensive by Heather Macdonald.

    For the last three decades, San Francisco has conducted a real-life experiment in what happens when a society stops enforcing bourgeois norms of behavior. The city has done so in the name of compassion toward the homeless. The results have been the opposite: street squalor and misery have increased, even as government expenditures have ballooned. Yet the principles that have guided the city’s homelessness policy remain inviolate: homelessness is a housing problem; it is involuntary; and its persistence is the result of inadequate public spending. These propositions are readily disproved by talking to people living on the streets.

    An inadequate supply of affordable housing is not the first thing that comes to mind when conversing with San Francisco’s street denizens. Their behavioral problems—above all, addiction and mental illness—are too obvious.
    Drug sellers are as shameless as drug users. Hondurans have dominated the drug trade in the Tenderloin and around Civic Center Plaza and Union Square since the 1990s. They congregate up to a dozen a corner, openly counting and recounting large wads of cash, completing transactions with no attempt at concealment. Most of the dealers are illegal aliens. One might think that city leaders would be only too happy to hand them off to federal immigration authorities, but the political imperative to safeguard illegal aliens against deportation takes precedence over public order. Local law enforcement greets any announced federal crackdown on criminal aliens with alarm.

    The brazenness of the narcotics scene has worsened since the passage of Proposition 47, another milestone in the ongoing effort to decriminalize attacks on civilized order. The 2014 state ballot initiative downgraded a host of drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. (See “The Decriminalization Delusion,” Autumn 2015.) Local prosecutors and judges, already disinclined to penalize the drug trade so as to avoid contributing to “mass incarceration,” are even less willing to initiate a case or see it through when it is presented as a misdemeanor rather than a felony. San Francisco officers complain that drug dealers are getting neither jail time nor probation. Drug courts have closed in some California cities, reports the Washington Post, because police have lost the threat of prison time to induce addicted sellers like the Seattle man into treatment. The number of clients in San Francisco drug court dropped from 296 in 2014 to 185 in 2018, a decline of over 37 percent.

    When the mentally ill abuse drugs, their risk of violence increases. But assault seems to have been normalized in San Francisco, at least when committed by the homeless. Wallace Lee is part of a neighborhood coalition trying to stop the placement of a shelter on the Embarcadero, the city’s tourist-friendly waterfront. “Anyone who has lived in San Francisco for five years has either been attacked by a homeless person or has a friend who has been attacked,” he says. Members of his protest group have stopped mentioning such assaults in public hearings, however, since doing so brings on accusations that they are “criminalizing homelessness.”

    The city enables the entire homeless lifestyle, not just drug use. Free food is everywhere. Outreach workers roam the city, handing out beef jerky, crackers, and other snacks. At the encampment across from Glide Memorial Church, a wiry man in a blue denim jacket announces that day’s lunch selection at the church’s feeding line, to general approbation: fried chicken.

    The city’s biannual homeless survey claims that “food insecurity” is a pressing problem, but the homeless don’t act like food-deprived people. Uneaten comestibles litter the sidewalks and gutters. A typical deposit of detritus outside an office building on Turk and Market includes an unopened one-pound bag of California walnuts, a box of uneaten pastries, an empty brandy bottle, a huge black lace bra, a dirty yellow teddy bear, one high-heeled red suede boot, and a brown suede jacket.

    The combination of maximal tolerance for antisocial behavior, on the one hand, and free services and food, on the other, acts as a magnet. “San Francisco is the place to go if you live on the streets,” observes Jeff, the 50-year-old wino and drug addict. “There are more resources—showers, yeah, and housing.” A 31-year-old named Rose arrived in San Francisco from Martinez, northeast of the city, four years ago, trailing a long criminal record. She came for the benefits, including Vivitrol to dull the effect of opiates, she says woozily, standing outside a huge green tent and pink bike at Golden Gate and Hyde, surrounded by the Hondurans.

    Actually, it’s the homeless themselves who suggest that their condition has a large voluntary component. Jeff has been offered housing by numerous outreach workers and could come off the streets if he wanted to, he says. A man standing outside the city’s latest shelter prototype, known as a Navigation Center, says that he was offered housing four times but always turned it down. “I don’t know if I didn’t want to give up drugs, but I could’ve went in way before now.”

    It is not for the people destroying the social compact, however, to decide whether they will deign to accept the help that taxpayers are offering, when refusing that help destroys everyone else’s quality of life. Up and down the West Coast, Third World diseases associated with lack of sanitation—including typhoid, typhus, and hepatitis A—are breaking out in and around encampments. In 2018, San Francisco officials received more than 80 calls a day reporting human feces on sidewalks and thoroughfares. The city’s encampments generate up to six tons of trash daily, including needles still loaded with heroin and blood. The stench of the streets lingers in the nostrils for hours.

    Is it lack of city-created affordable housing, as the advocates and politicians maintain? No other American city has built as much affordable housing per capita, according to the Bay Area Council Economic Institute. From 2004 to 2014, the city spent $2 billion on nearly 3,000 new units of permanent supportive housing, which comes with drug counseling and social workers. More have been constructed since then, and thousands more are in the works, along with more shelter beds.

    Is San Francisco not spending enough generally, as the advocates and politicians maintain? Its main homelessness agency—currently dubbed the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing and dedicated to an allegedly novel mission: “helping homeless residents permanently exit the streets”—commands a $285 million budget. Add health services and sanitation, and you get a $380 million annual tab for homelessness, according to the city’s budget analyst. That figure is wildly under the mark, leaving out criminal-justice costs, welfare payments, and repairing infrastructure deterioration, among other expenditures. But even assuming the conservative $380 million, that works out to $47,500 a year per homeless person.

    Yet evidence has been abundant that law enforcement restores civic order. Before the 2016 Super Bowl, then-mayor Ed Lee announced that the homeless were simply “going to have to leave. . . . We’ll give you an alternative. We are always going to be supportive. But you are going to have to leave the streets.” And for the relevant period, the streets downtown were markedly cleaner. In spring 2018, a viral video of flagrant drug use in the Powell Street subway station prompted the authorities to increase police patrols there. The monthly tally of needles picked up by BART cleaners in the station dropped from 1,519 in July 2018 to 166 in May 2019, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, and the drug scene there has abated.

    San Francisco is not going to solve its street squalor unless it commits to a foundational principle: street living is not allowed, period. Set up camp, conduct your bodily functions in public, litter, loiter, use and sell drugs—all these illegal behaviors will result in a law-enforcement response, if only just moving someone along. Establishing that principle focuses the mind, bringing urgency to the task of creating places where people can get the help they need. The chimerical goal of building more affordable housing in the city for the “unsheltered” population would have to be discarded; its primary usefulness was to guarantee that the homeless remain on the streets, serving as a fund-raising bonanza for the activists and as a tool of the political Left. A unit of affordable housing in San Francisco costs between $600,000 and $800,000, depending on the materials used; building housing for all 8,000 homeless individuals would cost up to $6.4 billion, a third of the city’s budget. Permanent supportive housing for the entire homeless population would cost another $200 million annually. Yet according to a 2018 study by the National Academy of Sciences, such service-rich housing decreases the time that recipients spend homeless by only one to two months a year.

    Providing the mentally ill with the “liberty” to decompose on the streets is cruelty, not compassion. Several California state legislators have introduced legislation to make involuntary treatment and commitment easier. Yet the draft law is estimated to cover a mere eight individuals in San Francisco, by requiring, over the previous year, eight previous emergency visits to a hospital, as well as the patient’s refusal of voluntary outpatient services. Another proposed bill that dispenses with the voluntary-outpatient service requirement would cover only 35 individuals. The standard for getting the mentally ill into treatment must be rationally related to the need. More facilities for reinstitutionalization should be constructed; they, too, should be built where land is cheapest and taxpayer resources can provide the most care for the dollar.

    If San Francisco wanted to give its homeless addicts their best shot at stability, it would go after the open-air drug trade with every possible tool, including immigration law, however unlikely such a change of course is. The San Francisco Police Department should send information regarding drug-trafficking suspects to Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, so that ICE can arrest illegal-alien dealers for deportation. Proving illegal status is easier than busting a drug-trafficking operation. Though California law bans state law-enforcement officials from honoring ICE requests to deliver illegal-alien convicts to ICE custody, the Los Angeles and Orange County Sheriff Departments have created workarounds that San Francisco should use. If advocates insist that the main driver of homelessness is insufficient housing, they should stop trying to increase the state’s huge illegal-alien population—currently somewhere between 2.2 million and 2.6 million—which competes for housing and drives up costs. At a Board of Supervisor hearing in June 2019, single mothers organized by the Coalition on Homelessness demanded in Spanish that they be given federal Section 8 housing vouchers, rather than the shelter apartments they were currently occupying. Some of those single mothers were undoubtedly in the country illegally. Taxpayer subsidies should go to citizens, not individuals who are defying the rule of law.

    The stories that the homeless tell about their lives reveal that something far more complex than a housing shortage is at work. The tales veer from one confused and improbable situation to the next, against a backdrop of drug use, petty crime, and chaotic child-rearing. Behind this chaos lies the dissolution of those traditional social structures that once gave individuals across the economic spectrum the ability to withstand setbacks and lead sober, self-disciplined lives: marriage, parents who know how to parent, and conventional life scripts that create purpose and meaning. There are few policy levers to change this crisis of meaning in American culture. What is certain is that the ongoing crusade to normalize drug use, along with the absence of any public encouragement of temperance, will further handicap this unmoored population.

    The viability of cities should not be held hostage to solving social breakdown. Carving out a zone of immunity from the law and bourgeois norms for a perceived victim class destroys the quality of urban existence. As important, that immunity consigns its alleged beneficiaries to lives of self-abasement and marginality. Tolerating street vagrancy is a choice that cities make; for the public good, in San Francisco and elsewhere, that choice should be unmade.

  3. Comment on Macdonald’s observation.

    In my opinion, McDonald and her unwokeitarian ilk should butt out. We went through all this in the 60’s and 70’s, when geographically distributed mental institutions were shut down. Cities and towns across America were burdened by legions of newly released loons. California is a perfect new approach to housing the insane – it’s run by a group of inmates calling themselves The Assembly, and inmates frolic in a mild Mediterranean climate, get plenty of fresh air, unsupervised social interaction, and free drugs.

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