We got a question in the mailbag thread about why high-cost European cities don’t have the same level of homelessness that we see in some of America’s most expensive cities.
This generated a wide-ranging discussion in the thread, but I didn’t see many people questioning the premise.
My experience of traveling in Europe is that I have seen a fair amount of homelessness in certain places, just not necessarily in cities’ core tourist centers. And with a little more reporting, I think that’s the answer — there’s a huge amount of country-to-country variation in homelessness in Europe, just as there is a lot of state-to-state variation in the U.S. But, at least some European countries have very acute homelessness problems.
I do think that San Francisco in particular has both a very serious homelessness problem and also has made the idiosyncratic decision to specifically concentrate the problem near many of its hotels and cultural amenities. That leads a lot of visitors to develop a negative impression of the city. And it’s a reminder that there are really two different issues facing governments — why do people struggle to find housing, and how should you manage the problem of homelessness once it exists? Americans seem to really want to debate the second question, with progressives tending to favor soft approaches and conservatives preferring tougher ones. I think European policy is generally more on the “tough” side.
But it’s actually very bad for people to not be able to find a place to live, and it’s a surprisingly fixable problem.
Defining the problem
When people say they are bothered by homelessness, there are really two different things that might be bothering them.
When I do a column on homelessness that shows the homelessness rate is not positively correlated with the housing vacancy rate (indeed, the relationship goes in the other direction), I am defining the problem as the share of the population that does not have a home to live in. In other words — homelessness is more severe where more people are homeless.
But if you read NextDoor posts, it’s clear that most people aren’t particularly interested in the question of how many people in their city or metro area have no housing. What they worry about is homeless people impacting their subjective experience of the city. So they worry about unhoused people being in their neighborhood and in places that they go. They worry about the visible signs of the unhoused like tents and other encampments in clear public view. They worry about aggressive panhandling in commercial corridors they frequent. And perhaps most of all, they worry about disorderly conduct by unhoused people that could impact them.
But these are actually different issues. I visited Austin a couple of times during the period when the City Council had legalized camping in public spaces and then again shortly after they passed Proposition B, re-banning camping and also cracking down on certain panhandling practices. These policy changes made a big difference to the experience of staying in a downtown hotel for a couple of days and walking around. In particular, the riverwalk just west of I-35 went from being a nice place to take a stroll, to a kind of alarming place full of disturbed people, back to being a nice place to take a stroll. Proposition B didn’t do anything at all to solve Austin’s problems of housing affordability or the severe toll that takes on the unhoused, but it did solve the problem of making a downtown park more pleasant.
Precisely because it doesn’t address the underlying issue of homelessness, this isn’t the sort of solution American progressives tend to favor. But it is similar to the approach in many European cities. I think Americans who broadly stereotype Europe as more left-wing than the United States underrate the extent to which that’s not really true except on the specific question of taxation levels.
Here are some links:
In other words, part of the reason you tend not to see large numbers of unhoused people while visiting major European cities is that major European cities invest time and resources in making sure that you don’t see them. European countries generally spend more than the United States on their police departments and have larger numbers of police officers per capita1 so plenty of personnel are available to enforce these orders, especially in high-profile areas. But homelessness does exist.