Drugs, Crime, Mental Illness, and the Homeless: Can We Solve the Crisis in Our Cities?

Homelessness and drug abuse issues have been conflated, according to Michael Shellenberger
By Thought Leaders
Thought Leaders
Thought Leaders
December 4, 2021 Updated: December 4, 2021

Americans living in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco see first-hand on their streets the results of ideology and failed policies: the homeless encampments, skyrocketing crime, and open-air drug markets.

In a recent episode of “American Thought Leaders,” host Jan Jekielek discusses the causes and possible solutions to this ongoing ruination with Michael Shellenberger, author of “San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities.”

Jan Jekielek: Today, we’re going to talk about “San Fransicko.” This is something you’ve been working on for a long time, the issue of mental health and homelessness and the intersection of this. What is really happening out there?

Michael Shellenberger: In the late 1990s, I did work on the decriminalization of drugs.

When I stopped doing that work around 2000, my understanding was that we were advocating drug rehabilitation as an alternative to prison.

Around 2017, when drug overdose deaths reached 73,000 a year, up from 17,000 in the year 2000, I remember thinking something has gone horribly wrong.

Last year, we had 93,000 deaths from illicit drugs, overdoses, and poisonings. I knew this was something I needed to come back to.

Mr. Jekielek: One of the things that comes through in “San Fransicko” is the homeless problem. It’s a misnomer. It’s not a homeless issue. It is a drug abuse issue, but somehow these things are conflated.

Mr. Shellenberger: Homeless is a propaganda word. It was used in the 1980s by progressive activists to demand more subsidized housing.

They used people who were on the street suffering from drug addiction or untreated mental illness as reasons for more housing. The word homeless suggests that the underlying problem is lack of housing, expensive rents, or poverty. And that’s not the case.

The problem is they’re combining groups of people that should not be combined. The two groups in the biggest trouble living on the street are people suffering from untreated mental illness and people suffering from drug addiction.

To mix up those people with, say, the mother escaping an abusive husband, is irresponsible. We do a pretty good job of helping those people. They don’t need the same things as those addicted to heroin and meth.

Mr. Jekielek: You say in your book that someone in this situation cannot be held accountable because addiction is seen as an illness. But paradoxically, the only way they’re going to escape is to take some responsibility for their situation or let someone else take responsibility.

Mr. Shellenberger: Many of us have family or a friend who have suffered from addiction and benefited from an intervention, or not gotten an intervention and needed one. I have had two childhood friends who died from complications relating to drug addiction. Another friend is still struggling with addiction.

So you have to ask, why do people who say they’re so compassionate allowing people suffering from drug addiction or severe mental illness to live on the streets?

The idea that people can be put in the category of victims and that everything should be given to them, and nothing is asked, is the dominant ideology of progressives right now.

What we call homeless encampments is a euphemism. It’s propaganda designed to make you think something’s different than it is. The idea is that: “Oh, these people are helping each other. They’re camping out.”

When you’re addicted to opioids, whether pills, heroin, or fentanyl, and you’re in the depths of that addiction, you often need to be using your opioids every four hours, except at night when you might sleep a long time. That’s what those encampments are. They’re open drug scenes.

Mr. Jekielek: You describe in the book how people with mental illness end up in prison or in these open-air drug markets. But neither of those scenarios necessarily helps them.

Mr. Shellenberger: It’s an issue I’m sensitive to. My aunt suffered from schizophrenia. She lived in a residential care facility in Denver, Colorado. She had her own bedroom, and a shared living space and kitchen. She was too disabled to work. She was cared for by taxpayers but in as positive a way as possible.

We don’t allow our grandparents suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia to live on the streets. Why then do we allow people suffering from psychosis, whether from schizophrenia or from chronic meth use, to be on the streets?

In my book, I argue for a system more like the one Europeans have, which is universal psychiatric care—shelter first, treatment first, and then housing earned.

Here we’re paying people to live in tents, use hard drugs, defecate publicly, and commit crimes.

Mr. Jekielek: Let’s talk about Europe a bit.

Mr. Shellenberger: When you ask progressives what the solution is to all the drug overdoses in San Francisco, they say we need a safe place for people to use drugs. They claim that’s what Europe did. They claim that Europe simply decriminalized. That’s just false.

I asked the head of Portugal’s drug program, “If I were shooting heroin in Lisbon, in public, what would happen to me?” He said, “You would be arrested and brought to the police station.”

They have decriminalized certain drugs. But if you’re caught breaking other laws as a result of your addiction, including shooting heroin on a park bench, you are brought before something called a Commissions for the Dissuasion of Addiction.

Basically, it’s an intervention with the power of the state behind it.

Mr. Jekielek: But the idea is that, because of this accountability, you can have a chance, right?

Mr. Shellenberger: That’s right. Interventions are liberating. The addicts are in the grip of a mental illness. That’s the first thing you have to understand. In the book, I describe three recovering addicts. And they say: “I had to be arrested to quit drugs. And I’m glad I was arrested.”

They need some sort of structure to keep themselves healthy and clean.

You don’t necessarily need to arrest addicts and put them in prison, but they do need the intervention to get clean and move on with their lives.

Mr. Jekielek: What surprised you most when you went out into various communities while writing “San Fransicko?”

Mr. Shellenberger: The most surprising thing is that we don’t have enough shelter beds in San Francisco or in other cities in California.

Some on the left really believe that housing is a right. That if you just show up and say, “I’m homeless,” then you have a right to an apartment in San Francisco.

If you were to say to the people on the street: “You can’t sleep here in the park. You have to sleep in the shelter. And if you’re not going to the shelter and you insist on staying here, then we’re going to arrest you,” you will suddenly discover that you don’t have tents all over your city anymore.

Mr. Jekielek: So what’s the end game of this?

Mr. Shellenberger: We’re seeing attacks on the pillars of civilization. The radical left has been attacking psychiatric hospitals. It’s attacking the police. It’s attacking universities as a place of free inquiry. It’s seeking censorship.

I have a lot of faith in this country because we do have an ability to remake ourselves. We’re still unique and special among nations.

But I do think we have to rescue a sense of national identity. This hypersensitivity to racial identity, sexual identity, and gender identity occurs because there isn’t a strong national identity.

I advocate for universal psychiatric care. Our current system of psychiatric care is a mess. I’m proposing a new agency, Cal-Psych, with a hierarchy that reports directly to the governor. It would have the power to get you the particular care you need.

I found broad agreement on this vision, even from the radical left.

Mr. Jekielek: In the book, you mention the coddling in education and upbringing.

Mr. Shellenberger: Yes. A progressive teacher I know complained that he was punished for having disciplined a child engaged in deeply inappropriate behavior in the classroom. The idea was that that child was, if not a victim, then fragile and should not be disciplined. So, the rise of coddling culture.

I also see this behind the opioid epidemic, this idea that any amount of pain should be treated with drugs.

Everybody’s life is full of moments of pain and suffering.

We need to tell our kids to expect pain and suffering, and that they can develop character by taking responsibility for what they do with that pain and suffering, which is inevitable.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.