Separating Facts from False Narratives of Shellenberger’s “San Fransicko”

On February 3, the author Michael Shellenberger climbed the fence of the City’s new Tenderloin Linkage Center to try and take photos of clients seeking services there. It was an attempt to “expose” the City for providing an outdoor space that allows drug use. Overdose rates have been skyrocketing, many attributed to the availability of fentanyl, combined with the deep despair the pandemic brought to unhoused San Franciscans who have been suffering through a lack of shelter, housing, treatment and even basics like water for two years. The linkage center is the City’s attempt to give some respite from the streets and connect folks with services. The camera Shellenberger was holding was knocked from his hand, and he lunged into the center screaming. A citizens’ arrest was made by the center director, and staff called the police. Shellenberger demonstrated little respect for the privacy and dignity of those the center is attempting to support, who frankly deserve an apology from him. 

Shellenberger is a writer who weighs in on evidence-based discussion, often without evidence. He plays fast and loose with facts, decontextualizes the findings he presents, and flagrantly cherry-picks data. His past books have been controversial, using a formula that plays well in right-wing media. He uses a basic formula that gets him publicity in right-wing arenas by identifying himself as an independent thinker who walked away from a bad marriage with the left—then trashes scientific thinking around topics such as global warming. His latest book tour included appearances on Fox News, the Joe Rogan show, Glenn Beck and the Manhattan Institute. Despite the expert consensus that America’s homelessness crisis is primarily fueled by stagnant incomes and out of control housing costs,  Shellenberger’s central thesis is that homelessness is driven by a combination of rampant substance use, mental illness and a climate of decadent moral permissiveness in liberal cities. We break down some of these illusions here. 

  1. FACT: Progressives fight for expansion of shelters for homeless residents while also pushing for permanent housing. 

Shellenberger falsely asserts that progressives oppose the creation of shelter beds, leading to high rates of unsheltered homeless people in San Francisco. On the contrary, our city shelters more of our homeless neighbors than almost every other West Coast city partly due to the work of progressive advocates. The Coalition on Homelessness pushed for Proposition C, which is set to expand San Francisco’s shelter capacity by 1,000 beds, and we have pushed for policies that make it easier for homeless people to access shelter. 

Shellenberger writes, “The leading advocates for the homeless often oppose shelter. … Advocates for the homeless at the national level similarly oppose more shelters.” 

He also chooses to ignore low health outcomes of those living in congregate shelters and the inappropriateness of congregate shelter for certain populations, such as those with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. Shelter plays an important role, but it is only one piece of the solution. 

  1. FACT: The Housing First model has proven effective again and again.

Housing First is an approach to solving homelessness that prioritizes providing permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness, without requiring staying in shelter or transitional housing first.  The idea is that by ending an individual’s homelessness, an individual is stable and able to flourish.  By opposing housing first, and pushing only for more shelter beds and treatment centers, Shellenberger chooses to ignore best practices across the country from cities that have taken a hard look at all their homeless spending and readjusted, using modeling that ensures people move through the system and out of homelessness. If a city overspends on shelter and invests little in prevention or housing, individuals get stuck in a cycle of going from shelter to shelter, while more and more people become homeless. By analyzing the system as a whole and making adjustments, many cities have been able to make episodes of homelessness more brief and rare.

Shellenberger argues that some less liberal cities like Houston are better on homelessness. But every city Shellenberger cites as being successful, including Houston, uses a Housing First model—the model Shellenberger is saying isn’t working.

At the end of the book, after examining his central thesis—that housing does not solve homelessness—Shellenberger calls for more housing. Go figure.  

  1. FACT: San Francisco’s homeless population has risen much more slowly thanks to the expansion of shelter and housing options.

Shellenberger notes that San Francisco saw a large growth in homelessness between 2005 and 2019. But he fails to mention that we saw minimal growth in municipal homelessness between 2016 and 2019, compared to other West Coast cities like Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland and Bay Area counties like Santa Clara and Alameda saw 10% to 20% growth between every biennial count. This is because our City continued to expand its shelters and permanent supportive housing investments, while other municipalities did not. 

  1. FACT: Rising rents explain the rise in homelessness in major cities. 

Shellenberger also fails to cite studies that looked at why West Coast rates of homelessness have risen and found no other contributing factor except rising rents. 

Shellenberger’s argument relies on a Zillow study that he blazenly misrepresents, wrongly interpreting the study as demonstrating that affordability doesn’t matter. The study in fact found that rent affordability explained significant differences in homelessnessness rates in different geographic areas. With the exception of the Miami metropolitan area, all of the cities Shellenberger mentions as counterpoints to the West Coast experience score fairly well on Zillow’s rent affordability index. So even though average rents in those cities have been rising in absolute terms, the households are not paying a significant share of income where Zillow’s model predicts they would be associated with rapid increases in homelessness.   However, on the west coast, and in particular San Francisco, already inflated rents rose even higher, sending struggling households into homelessness. 

  1. FACT: Criminalization exacerbates poverty and does nothing to move people out of homelessness.

Shellenberger claims SF does not criminalize homelessness, and that by focusing on housing homeless people San Francisco has driven up homeless rates. In fact, police issue between 10,000 and 20,000 citations to homeless people each year, according to numbers released over the past many decades by the Superior Court, and according to the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management,  operations occur daily to remove unhoused people from public spaces with police present . 

Shellenberger interviewed several experts about criminalization, including Christopher Herring of Harvard. Herring is cited and even indexed in Shellenberger’s book across more than a half-dozen pages. Yet he never once cites any of Herring’s peer-reviewed articles in top social science journals about how San Francisco has actually increased the number of officers addressing homelessness between 2015 and 2020 and intensified policing during this time. Nor does he review all the negative impacts of this criminalization found by numerous other social scientists and criminologists cited in that work. 

  1. FACT: Only 6% of San Francisco’s budget is spent on solutions to homelessness.

Shellenberger claims that San Francisco spends an exorbitant amount of money on homelessness, but never acknowledges that our “Homeless Budget” mainly comprises spending on permanent supportive housing. He fails to mention that even though homelessness has been a major issue in San Francisco for decades, only 3% of the City budget went towards ending homelessness, which increased to 6% annually when Prop. C was implemented.

In the book, he argues that the $350 million San Francisco spends annually on shelters and emergency services is wasted, when in fact according to Jeff Kositsky, former Director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing as quoted in a January 10, 2022 interview on KALW, a large portion of the department’s budget goes toward supportive housing for over 8,000 households who would otherwise be homeless, costing the government many times more in increased health care and social service costs. 

Shellenberger also distorts the per-person cost of homeless spending by failing to accurately reflect how many people experience homelessness each year in San Francisco. Shellenberger relies on the PIT count number, which is notoriously a dramatic undercount, and thus erroneously inflates the per person spending. 

  1. FACT: Similar to other municipalities, more than 70% of homeless people in San Francisco became homeless when they lost their housing here in the City. 

Shellenberger claims that San Francisco is a unique magnet of homeless people, wrongly taking the point-in-time count survey that finds that 30% of those experiencing homelessness are from outside the City out of context. Surveys from other West Coast counties such as Washington’s King County and California’s Los Angeles, Fresno and Kern counties also show that 20% to 40% of people experiencing homelessness say they became homeless outside that city. Shellenberger conveniently ignores this in his book. 

In fact, SF is a leading exporter of poor people due to rising rents and real estate speculation. Not only does San Francisco bus hundreds of homeless people out of town every year, but Black and brown low-income community members have been displaced out of San Francisco in large numbers, while many more have ended up homeless. 

  1. FACT: Making sobriety a prerequisite for accessing services weakens our ability to transition people out of homelessness.

Shellenberger argues that Housing First doesn’t work because some studies have found that the addiction rates of those who receive housing compared with those who remain in shelters are not significantly different. He doesn’t deny that Housing First has been shown to successfully end homelessness, reduce jail time and reduce costs to other public services; he just argues that we should be using this housing exclusively as a reward for those who will go sober. What he ignores are the findings from studies that demonstrate that there is little difference in outcomes from those who enter treatment before entering housing and those entering housing directly from the streets, except the latter saves public funds.   

Shellenberger focuses on studies with people who voluntarily opted into sober living residential rehab programs that worked for them (SF also has these programs that have shown success). What he ignores—and what the Coalition on Homelessness found in our 2020 report, Stop the Revolving Door, is that over one-third of those who complete residential rehab programs end up back on the street, and that many of those who return to homelessness report relapsing or being unable to maintain their recovery due to a lack of housing. Less than 20% had stable housing after leaving treatment. 

Shellenberger ignores countless studies that show that access to housing decreases substance use and improves mental health, including a recent UC San Francisco study that looked at shelter-in-place hotel resident outcomes and found that residents reported decreased substance use while stabilized in hotels. 

  1. FACT: Homeless San Franciscans are NOT “service-resistant.” 

Shellenberger suggests the main problem of homelessness is service resistance. He argues that there is a lack of demand for services rather than a lack of supply, and that San Francisco’s homelessness problem would be solved if only its police and courts forced people to use shelter and treatment. 

Although he contradicts himself on this point when he mentions the City’s shelter shortage, he never describes the immense desire and demand among those experiencing homelessness in San Francisco who are trying desperately to access drug and alcohol recovery programs, shelter, or voluntary behavioral health services, as we found in our Stop the Revolving Door report, which we shared with him. The overall perspective readers are left with is that San Francisco has invested in services that are readily available, and that people just simply won’t use them—when in fact demand far outstrips supply. No one could police people into nonexistent services. Instead, the outcome would clearly be incarceration. 

  1. FACT: The lack of social services in the United States prolongs homelessness and exacerbates drug use.

Shellenberger draws on examples from Portugal, The Netherlands and Germany to show how societies use both coercion and care to address mental illness and drug use. However, the comparisons are so wildly out of context as to be useless. All these countries have universal health care, some semblance of universal basic income, and available housing, as well as prison systems that make our homeless shelters look horrific. The primary study he cites to show how European cities used both policing and social services to shut down open-air drug markets indicates how such initiatives failed when there were not adequate long-term services to connect people with first voluntarily and only as a last resort, coercively. But Shellenberger uses this study to claim that San Francisco needs to increase policing, ignoring the fact that this City, and more broadly the United States, has a near nonexistent welfare system in comparison to the places that carried out these efforts. 

  1. FACT: Homeless people are not all struggling with substance use or mental illness.

Shellenberger contends that the vast majority of those experiencing homelessness in San Francisco are both drug addicted and mentally ill. But many studies show this is not the case. According to the 2019 Point In Time (PIT) count, about 42% of homeless San Franciscans say they struggle with substance use. It is important to note that the PIT count dramatically undercounts families with children, and other unhoused people whose housing status is not obvious at first glance, which may suggest that an even larger proportion of unhoused San Franciscans are not struggling with these issues. 

Shellenberger also fails to account for the many people who have substance use and mental health issues as a result—not as a cause—of homelessness. According to the 2019 PIT count, alcohol or drug use was the primary cause of homelessness for 18% of those counted, while mental health issues accounted for just 8%. This is key: It points to the need to ramp up homeless prevention efforts—something that does not fit into his lack of personal responsibility drives homelessness narrative. Shellenberger also extensively criticizes Prop. C, which is funding the first significant expansion of treatment, and prevention for these challenges in more than five decades, while calling for more mental health and substance use treatment.

  1. FACT: San Francisco shelters a greater proportion of its homeless population than almost any other city on the West Coast. 

Shellenberger claims San Francisco has a super high rate of unsheltered homelessness compared to other cities. This is true when compared to New York City, Denver, Phoenix, and Miami. But Shellenberger chooses to ignore that San Francisco has a higher rate of sheltered homeless people compared to every one of California’s major cities except San Diego.  Given similar levels of rising rents along the west coast, it is an important comparison.