San Francisco. By Michael Shellenberger. Harpist; 416 pages: $ 28.99 and £ 20
“THERE IS CRUELTY here that I don’t think I’ve ever seen, ”said Leilani Farha, then the UNSpecial Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, in San Francisco in 2018. Visitors are regularly dismayed by the desperation of those who live on the streets of the wealthy West Coast city. From 2005 to 2020, the estimated number of homeless homeless nearly doubled, even as homelessness declined nationwide. How can a place brimming with resources and good intentions so blatantly fail to meet the basic needs of the people?
This question and its uncomfortable answers form the backbone of “San Fransicko” by Michael Shellenberger, a former journalist who runs Environmental Progress, a nonprofit group. He attributes the woes of San Francisco to a culture of permissive anarchy and a mistaken view of what constitutes moral policymaking. For example, many on the left think that the lax pursuit of laws is compassionate. As a result, the city generally does not enforce drug laws, even against drug dealers, which is increasingly costing drug addicts. Last year, 713 people died from accidental drug overdoses, more than double the toll from covid-19. “What kind of city regulates ice cream shops more strictly than the drug dealers who kill 713 of its citizens in a single year?” Asks Mr Shellenberger.
Oddly enough, a counter-cultural metropolis renowned for innovation has been beset by group thinking. Campaigners say San Francisco simply needs to spend more to house the homeless, without looking at funds the city is already distributing to a network of irresponsible nonprofits, or considering the magnetic effect of its permissive policies. on people in difficulty elsewhere. About 30% of the homeless population in San Francisco say they were homeless before they arrived.
Mr. Shellenberger’s desire to tell the truth is courageous. Those who challenge the policies adopted by homeless advocates are often attacked as inhuman, even though the same policies have contributed to so many unfortunate people lacking access to shelter. Mr Shellenberger believes they are on the streets in part because of a ‘housing first’ approach, which applies to permanent single-family homes at the expense of building enough temporary housing. In an expensive city, where longtime residents regularly oppose new construction, this is unrealistic.
At its best, “San Fransicko” sounds like a heated conversation at a dinner party, as Mr. Shellenberger recounts his intellectual duels with well-meaning but ill-advised opponents. Depressing statistics abound. Between 2014 and 2018, for example, the number of human excreta complaints to the city’s helpline doubled. There are 50% more injection drug users in San Francisco than there are students enrolled in its public high schools.
However, what the book offers in data, it lacks in characters. Readers find themselves without a keen sense of the personalities and backgrounds of Mr. Shellenberger’s interlocutors. There is also not enough analysis of dysfunctional city governance. He fails to mention it, but San Francisco is the subject of a FBI investigation which has already charged three former city hall officials with wrongdoing. Could his hometown be even sicker than he suggests? The definitive book on modern San Francisco has yet to be written. ■
This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of the print edition under the title “The Coast of Dystopia”