Something that has continually frustrated me in discussions of homelessness is progressives’ seemingly willful conflation of two groups that the average person thinks of as being very different: There are people who are otherwise pretty normal aside from their lack of a place to live, and then there are those who are solidly asocial—often drug addled, schizophrenic, unwilling and perhaps genuinely unable to recognize the norms and laws of civilized society. In my experience, the average person has a lot more compassion and forbearance for the former group, and mostly wishes the latter group could be institutionalized, but progressives insist on lumping them together in their social taxonomy, and this ultimately prevents either group from being well served by the best of political intentions.

When I lived in San Francisco, there was a handful of unregulated parking spaces under the shade of some trees across the street from my apartment, and I remember a few weeks where there was a car parked there that never moved--in the mornings I saw a guy get out of the passenger side, swing open the door and stand behind it as a makeshift privacy wall, take a sort of towel bath, change his clothes, and then wait at the nearby bus stop to go wherever he went for the day before returning in the evening. It looked like he was going to work and trying his best to appear presentable while living out of his car. I admired his grit and felt a lot of sympathy for his circumstances, knowing that it would only take a few unlucky coincidences to put me in the same boat.

A month later, next to those same parking spaces, a rickety tent was erected and one afternoon I saw a man emerge, covered in cuts and abrasions, wearing nothing but moon boots and jean shorts stained with his own excrement. He would wander back and forth in the nearby crosswalk, going nowhere and screaming loudly at no one in particular. From the side of my bay window I could see my neighbors looking on with concern, and ultimately I called SFPD when he started throwing D batteries and cans of food at oncoming traffic.

I have no illusions that there is some uncrossable line between the situations of these two men. It’s entirely possible that the guy living out of his car might end up mentally ill and throwing soup at cars one of these days if his situation gets worse, and I concede that they are both subsumed under the spectrum of homelessness, but when my relatives from the east coast asked me about “the homeless situation” in the city, they were picturing Mr. Moon Boots, not the guy in his car just trying to get by. The same could be said of my neighbors’ conception of the problem, and mine too, because this is in fact how normal people conceive of the term. When Super Bowl 50 and its attendant influx of visitors came to the Bay Area, there wasn’t a sudden rush to purge struggling workers sleeping in their cars, but the crazies were hastily shuffled out of sight because that’s what bothers normal people.

But if you ask progressive minded folks about homelessness, or if you listen to some of the otherwise excellent Weeds episodes on the subject, there is almost no mention of this distinction. Rather, they are quick to point out that homelessness is a spectrum, and care is taken with language to describe those “experiencing homelessness” as mostly families whose needs could be met by providing subsidies and addressing zoning issues and other systemic problems in the housing market. This is all well and good (and true!) but it takes great pains to avoid the normal person’s complaints of people defecating on the sidewalk, screaming at nonexistent things, breaking into cars, using IV drugs in broad daylight, and otherwise roaming the streets stark raving mad. When normal people speak of homelessness they are really talking about *vagrancy* rather than housing insecurity, but that word (and indeed the very concept) has fallen out of fashion, and so the two are commingled under a single genus and spoken about in purely academic and economic terms. But they have very different underlying problems, and a lack of housing is one of the only common denominators between them. Both need shelter, of course, but car-dwelling families by and large don’t need institutionalized psychiatric care, and offering to help a can-thrower update his résumé and practice his interviewing skills won’t get you very far.

I think I know why progressives insist on the conflation, and it is a very reasonable one on its face. It’s the same reason that gay issues became gay and lesbian issues, then LGB, then LGBT, then LGBTQ, then LGBTQIA, and finally the usefully expansive LGBTQIA+. There is political power in the concatenation of identities, and where 10 stalks may be easily snapped individually, bundle them together and they are strong. I think progressives rightly recognize that voters are very sympathetic toward people like the guy living out of his car in my neighborhood and toward families struggling to get by in the face of absurd housing costs, but not so sympathetic to asocial vagrants. Progressives want the state to help *both* groups, and at the highest level of generality if you close one eye you can conceive of both as mere housing problems at their root, and so they are bundled together into a Hobson’s choice--bold and expansive programs are proposed in the hopes of making societal changes that are sweeping enough to address the problems of car-dwellers *and* can-throwers.

As I said above I think this is done with the best of intentions, but once the ballot initiatives are approved this conflation comes back to bite progressives, and they seem baffled that the same voters who say they want to address the problem don’t want new shelters built in their neighborhood. I often see this interpreted cynically to imply that kindhearted voters in liberal areas are in fact closet NIMBYs, and undoubtedly this is true for some subset of people, but I think the majority are just responding rationally to the conflation that has been sold to them. Of course they don’t want a building full of drug addled can-throwers moving in next to them. No one does! And the irony is that statistically this is not likely to happen, since most of the homeless population is much closer to car-dwellers than can-throwers, but by then it’s too late to make that case, and this is the other side of the conflation coin. You don’t get to conflate housing insecurity and vagrancy for the sake of political expediency, but then turn around and disaggregate the two when it comes time to convince residents of orderly neighborhoods that you aren’t about to unleash bedlam upon them.

If progressives disaggregated the two from the start (the way that normal people always have) they could probably get more initiatives passed and get more buy-in when it comes time to build. If you asked me whether I would mind having a shelter built in my district and stipulated that it would *only* be for car-dwelling type families who are trying their best to make it in a ruthless housing market, I would be on board, and I think a lot of my neighbors would be too. If you asked me whether I would commit to more local funding for getting asocial vagrants off the streets and institutionalized in a setting designed to address their unique problems, far away from me, I would definitely be on board. But progressives seem bent on putting both these populations in one big bag, and as long as that’s the case I don’t trust them to constructively address the problems of either group, and certainly not to try out their grand social experiments in my neighborhood.

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Matt is hopelessly naive on homelessness. First, you can’t trust the numbers because advocates conflate them. The Homeless consist of two distinct populations. People who lost her job, who are going through a temporary bit of hard luck; they are sleeping on their friends couch or use an emergency shelter for a few days or a week. And the visible homeless, who are chronically un-housed or permanently living in shelters.

The first group are usually in and out of homelessness pretty quickly. But there is a rotating population, so there is always someone, just not always the same people.

Then you have the chronic homeless, which is what everyone sees, who are there almost entirely because of drugs and mental health issues.

The average person goes to San Francisco and says hey why do we have so many homeless people, committing crimes, doing drugs, defecating on the street…

The advocates come back and say, don’t stereotype them, only 50% of the homeless I have these issues, which is obviously different from what people perceive.

So you have both groups of people talking past each other.

Affordable housing, is only going to help that portion of the homeless population that we don’t see.

Part of the reason why our visible homeless population has increased so much in Cities, is that our society has got more permissive of drug use and disruptive behavior. There are two aspects to recovery, one is having the facilities and resources to treat it, and the other is having penalties, to discourage it. A carrot and a stick.

So while I agree with mats tennis, that we need a lot more Housing, we also need to know that all the housing in the world wouldn’t solve the issue that the average city resident has to deal with.

Disclaimer. I have done a lot of research on homelessness because in my city they are trying to move an emergency shelter from valuable down town real estate to a lower income residential neighborhood in my city. While I will not be directly affected by it, the area they want to put it on is right for development. It’s on a major transportation Corridor, and was on its way to being developed.

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I think the housing debate would be more sensible of more people would understand that new housing is like new cars—it’s going to be aimed at customers of above-average means, while “used” stock fills in the rest of the market. Housing even has a much longer useful life than cars.

This recent increase in the price of used cars is bad, but imagine what would have happened to the market if people could stop manufacturers from making as many new cars as the market could bear.

(I do agree with many of the commenters that a housing-affordability strategy is more useful for the rent-burdened, those who are in crowded homes, and those who are transitionally homeless than the chronically, visibly homeless—but that’s a huge population. And if they are better able to help themselves social services can concentrate on people who couldn’t manage to make rent however cheap.)

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If you walk the streets of SF, the people living on the streets are not just people who can't make rent.

There's definitely a large number of people with drug problems, or mental health problems, or some other unknown problem that causes them to be passed out in the middle of the day on the sidewalk with no shoes on.

This article needs to answer the question "What fraction of these homeless people have drug problems or mental health problems?"

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I think part of the reason we don't tend to see it as a housing problem is the disconnect between the average homeless person we actually see and the overall homeless population. The homeless guy lying on the sidewalk on 9 am who smells strongly of booze and other less pleasant things - you identify him as homeless. The homeless guy sleeping in his car or the woods and showering at the gym, or in the shelter line early every night so he gets a slot, and working a full-time job - you would probably never know he was homeless. Not to say there's not a large number in the first category, but it's lower than the 90% most people would estimate, simply because of the homelessness they can actually "see".

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I agree with all of your points, and the anecdote I present below is simply that, an anecdote.

Around 20 years ago when I had my first job out of college, I worked with a guy who had previously been homeless. He was the kind of guy that had played in a rock band and did some drugs, generally getting into trouble but nothing too serious (he was white). By the time I had met him, he had cleaned himself up, gotten a degree, job, wife, kids, the whole deal.

One thing that always stuck with me was his claim that his homelessness was a choice. He told me that there is an entire subculture of people like him who actively chose to be homeless and exist on the fringes of society. Notably, he pointed out that in the Bay Area (where we were at the time), there was a much higher proportion of what he called "crazy people."

Now I obviously don't think that the experiences of one person should set policy for all of our homeless, and I agree with Matt's prescriptions above. But the episode reminded me that (a) I didn't actually know any people who were homeless at the time (and still don't) and (b) have no idea what life situations got them to that point.

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Completely off topic from homelessness and housing, but I recently saw The Day the Earth Stood Still and was struck by something else. To quote ikipedia:

"When Helen and her boyfriend Tom Stevens go out, Klaatu babysits Bobby. The boy takes Klaatu on a tour of the city, including a visit to his father's grave in Arlington National Cemetery; Klaatu learns that most of the deceased are soldiers killed in wars. They also visit the Lincoln Memorial."

I was struck that the movie would have it be perfectly fine for a single mom to leave her son in the care of a strange man who just showed up at the boarding house. Who would be willing to do that now except in grave emergency? And I don't know if we simply know more now, the world has actually changed that much, or most likely we're simply more risk averse, but it made me sad to think we've lost so much trust.

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Oo, boarding houses! One of my weird little hobby-horses! There was a tremendous range boarding houses back in the day. Some were flophouses, some were a step up from flophouses, some were solidly middle-class, and some were quite elegant indeed. Sometimes entire middle-class families lived for years in a nice boarding house. Young women striking out on their own could move into a "respectable" boarding house with less social opprobrium than living on their own. Romances sometimes flourished. Friendships often did. Naturally sometimes there were enmities and ongoing fights.

My father, a Palo Alto native, moved into a boarding house in Palo Alto when he came home from WWII and was working for awhile before resuming college. He was working nights, so he missed the daily dinner, and his landlady would pack him a meal to take to work. He appreciated that.

Impoverished widows would sometimes open their homes to boarders. I know three divorced women, each in a different part of the country, who rent out a room or two in their homes on AirBnB to help make ends meet. I see a certain similarity there, though the owners/managers of old boarding houses were also expected to provide at least one daily meal. Oh, and complaints about the food were as common as complaints about dorm food back when I was in college.

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I had the interesting experience of actually living in what was in effect a nicer SRO in East Lansing, MI while I was an undergrad at Michigan State. It was "nicer" because while the kitchen was shared for the whole building, I only shared a bathroom with my neighbor, a good friend, and I could afford to rent a room to myself rather than having roommates. (The rent was just over $300, which is insanely cheap even ten years ago in East Lansing--and it was especially so given that the building was close to campus and near the major bar streets.) It was my first place I could call my own and I really appreciated it. (I learned to cook there--though not in the kitchen, I used a slow cooker in my room.) It also kept me from going in with some other guys to rent out a house. I'm sure that a lot of the people in the building (it was pretty big, probably about 100 units) were in the same situation, so I suspect the building freed up some actual houses for families to rent and marginally cut the cost of housing in the area.

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The flaw in your argument is that there are two kinds of homeless. Homeless includes people living in their cars, couch surfing, homeless for several days or even weeks, etc. And then there are the long term chronically homeless. This is the group with the most serious drug and mental health problems.

To fix the first group you need more housing. To fix the second you need serious intervention in their lives. Mandated treatment, confinement, etc. Now you might say that's terrible. Well...if a little old lady with dementia thinks it's still 1978 and she has to get to her job at the phone company - we put her in a memory care unit. If someone is equally disabled by mental illness we just let them wander the streets. That's not right.

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HCOLAs definitely need to build more housing, but the homeless crises in major cities isn’t about housing costs. It’s mainly mental health and drug addiction and relaxed enforcement of laws. The people of Austin just voted on an initiative to ban encampments. Great decision! It is one of the most progressive cities in the country. They saw what happened in. SF, Seattle, LA and NYC and said no.

More housing is necessary for families living in two bedroom apartments that can’t afford to live near the city they work. Progressives will lose the battle, as they are, if they pretend that the people living in encampments are just healthy people down on their luck. They’re not. No sane person would agree to more housing if it just going to be filled with mentally unhealthy people.

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This is an ignorant question, but to what extent would homeless people in high-cost areas be willing or able to relocate to lower-cost areas with financial assistance from the government? It's currently a moot point because homelessness policy is made at the local level, but perhaps that's an argument for a larger federal role.

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I volunteered at a local shelter several years ago and it was a real eyeopener. The experience changed my entire conception of homelessness and convinced me that the availability of affordable housing is a relatively small part of the overall problem.

From my limited and anecdotal experience, it seemed to me that the biggest contributing factors by far are addiction and mental health issues. I know some people can present data that says that it's mostly about economics, but that wasn't what I saw at all.

Sure, economics often plays a role, as a lost job can often be the precipitating event, but overall economics was much less of an issue than I expected it to be. Most of the people I interacted with would not make it through any job interview, even if they were given housing and an opportunity to present as well as possible at the interview.

If you haven't met any actual unhoused people, I'd suggest going over to youtube and searching on "homeless interviews." Some of these are uncomfortably voyeuristic and perhaps a bit exploitive, but spending an hour or two with these interviews can shed some light on what we're dealing with in terms of the typical challenges that unhoused people are struggling with.

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What do we think about the theory that generous benefits for the homeless, relaxed law enforcement & nice weather attract non-local homeless folks to places like the Bay Area & LA? I.e. they're not all locals displaced by expensive housing. (This is in addition to the arguments in Matt's piece, not against them). With an emphasis on the first one. Some of these cities fork out an incredible amount of services to the homeless- San Francisco alone seems to spend at least $300 million annually on them (the true number may be higher, I found different sources).

How people end up homeless is sort of like 'what causes car crashes'- obviously a lot of totally different causes mixed in there. But there seems to be a decent chunk of folks who voluntarily choose the homeless/drug-using lifestyle because they simply enjoy it. If they only make up say .1% of the US population, but then all of that .1% from all over the country is attracted to a few cities with great weather that will basically fund their lifestyle choices.... That adds up to a large number of people who are frequently not displaced locals. Sorry to sound heartless

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I wish this was unlocked. I’ve been a housing advocate for years (essentially since I read “The Rent Is Too Damn High”) and serve on the board of our big local shelter. I really didn’t put those two things together until recently listening to a weeds episode. They seemed liked 2 distinct policy issues tangentially related to “housing” but not really interconnected. I wish I could share this article around to people.

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Boarding houses still exist. In the DC sub where I live, about 1/3 of my neighbors are recent immigrants, and about 1/3 of them rent out rooms to landsmen. Gossip is that the doc's office/residence around the corner was sold to an immigrant who's converting it into a boarding house, and 15 years ago my son managed a boarding house when he was a student at UMCP (it was owned by a local dentist, eight people in a three bedroom house at $500 a head). Of course, all of these arrangements are illegal, but no one bothers to enforce the law.

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