What the homeless can teach us about homelessness in San Francisco

Wondering why San Francisco has so many homeless? Let the homeless explain it to you.

This post centers around a YouTube channel called “Invisible People”. Mark Horvath, who runs the channel, has interviewed a large number of homeless around the US over the past decade. Mark’s home base of LA is his most common filming location, though he’s done plenty of interviews in the homeless mecca that is San Francisco as well.

Note: the video links in the text below start at the part of each video where the topic at hand is discussed. You only need to watch 5-20 seconds of each one.

Mark mainly interviews what I call the “homeless elite” – the most lucid and photogenic segment of the population. Why the elite? Mark, formerly homeless himself, is unabashedly pro-homeless, and these people look and sound just like your friends and family. Their stories pull on your heart strings. You’ll have to look to other homeless channels for the unvarnished truth about street life. Mark won’t be interviewing Roman, covered in face tattoos, who mentions in passing that he killed his five-year-old. And elites just make for better television. His few videos with the non-elites, with their tweaked-out appearances and one-word answers, aren’t interesting to watch.

Elite: A homeless man reads a book in San Francisco’s Presidio, July 25, 2020.

For our purposes, the elites are the perfect subjects – they offer articulate insight into how people become homeless, what they want, and paths to solving the homeless problem. Let’s take a look at what the homeless commonly tell Mark about their lives.

Not Elite. A homeless man wanders through the Tenderloin, July 26, 2020.

They wander – usually to where the drugs and services are

The homeless get around. This is probably the single thing you’ll hear most frequently in Mark’s videos. Sometimes they relate their travels in detail, sometimes it’s just a passing reference, but they don’t call them drifters for nothing.

What motivates the homeless to move from place to place, and sometimes settle down? There are a few main factors:

Drug availability. Mark Horvath himself speaks for many homeless when he says: “As drug users we migrate to where the drugs are”. If you look at where the homeless are clustered in your city, that’s also probably where the heroin and Fentanyl are being dealt.

Many of Mark’s subjects look so normal that it’s jarring when they slip in their drug or alcohol habit. But the stereotype of drug use and homelessness is very real. Listen to this young woman, who came to San Francisco for the homeless services, mention her many trips to rehab. Or have Jonathan explain it in six simple words.

As Mark chants in dozens of videos, “It’s hard to do homeless sober”. By the same token, it’s hard to do responsible living addicted. Many of these people choose getting high over the straight life, no matter how much intervention friends, family, and society attempt.

Law enforcement (or lack thereof). Ask a homeless person why he left Point A for Point B, and he’ll often tell you local authorities chased him away. A homeless man in an LA Times story about the removal of a homeless encampment in Orange County says it well:

This happens to us over and over. I go from one city to this city and now I’ll have to find another city

If your town has a welcoming attitude to people moving in and pitching tents on the sidewalk, you’re going to wind up with a large number of sidewalk tents. If the police enforce “sit lie” and other laws, you’re more likely to be Point A above.

In San Francisco, we have a District Attorney who seems to care more about the plight of the drug dealers on our streets than enforcing drug laws. What homeless addict would ever leave such a place?

Services. The homeless are perfectly rational, and will drift to where the government and non-profits provide food, housing, and other benefits. Wondering why the homeless cluster on Skid Row in LA? Listen to this guy for 30 seconds.

Which city has the best homeless services? Many will tell you it’s our own City By The Bay. Here’s an example. Here’s another:

I came here [San Francisco] from New York, and there’s a lot more services here, than New York.

The “traveler” lifestyle. Some young homeless are proud vagrants. They’ll happily tell you they like being transients, often freighthopping from place to place. Wanderlust sure beats working. Mark invariably asks these people what their future holds, and they invariably shrug.

Beyond these motivations, the homeless drift for a grab bag of reasons, from the search for good weather to a promised job that never seems to materialize. One lady says she came to LA to see movie stars. While some homeless do in fact live near where they grew up, the odds that the homeless person on your doorstep is a local are slim.

Many have jobs or income, but won’t live where they can afford

Young travelers aside, the majority of the elite want to work. Many have jobs, or express a sincere desire to get one. Many have had prior careers spanning decades. Work provides money, friends and a purpose to the homeless elite, just as it does to housed people. Listen to this man:

The job keeps me sane. The job keeps me civilized.

Or this guy: “I love to work. I can’t not work”.

The problem is, they can’t or won’t pass the Walmart test – work where their income can afford a place to live. Many want a free lunch that just isn’t realistic – to enjoy the high wages in the most expensive parts of the US, but without paying the high rents there.

The homeless with income will tell you over and over and over and over and over that rents are too high for their income.

So that’s less that a thousand dollars – $994 to live on for a month [in Los Angeles]. And that’s exeedingly difficult to do.

Exactly. The homeless need help finding a place where it’s not so difficult. Listen to this working, able bodied man, sleeping on the streets of the Tenderloin, cry when he thinks of his son in Alabama. Where’s the logical place for him to go? This man understands the problem exactly – but still insists on living in a place he can’t afford.

There’s a progressive line of thinking that everyone should be able afford to live everywhere. Listen to this man 12 seconds into a local NBC video. He’s got a sticker that says “We are all San Franciscans” and says “something is wrong when you’re working in your city but you can’t afford a place to live”. That’s a pleasant sentiment, but expecting everyone in America to be able to live in San Francisco – a 7X7 square mile city where houses cost over $1M – simply isn’t economically feasible.

They have an alarming number of children

The ability for the homeless to procreate is staggering. They’ll casually toss the number of kids they have into conversations – two, four kids, six kids, eight kids, like it’s some kind of fertility contest:

Mark: you’re here with your 4 kids .

Emily, homeless woman: Mm hmm. And one on the way.

Unfortunately, the homeless have no incentive to use birth control, and every incentive to breed. “”Now that I’m pregnant I have a lot more resources that are willing to help me.” says homeless Amanda, who also mentions her other five children in passing. It’s not uncommon.

This perfectly intelligent woman has drifted to San Francisco and is enjoying taxpayer funded housing, food, transport, etc. She’s got a 16 year old, an eight year old, and (because, why not?), is eight months pregnant with Number Three.

Mark finds pregnant young homeless women and single mothers everywhere. Birth control is rarely at the forefront of conversations about the homeless. The result, in 20 years, will be a world wondering where all the unhoused young people came from. The examples are endless.

Remember Roman, who killed his five year old, with Jesse above? She’s expecting. That’s another human being that’s probably going to be supported with your tax dollars from cradle to grave.

Other issues the homeless frequently mention

A few other common themes come up when listening to Mark’s videos. Importantly, the foster care system acts as a feeder for the homeless population – many young homeless age out of the system at 18, and have no place to go. Listen here, here, here and here.

You may not be aware that the foster care system is essentially a business arrangement. Adults receive a daily fee – around $30 per day in the Bay Area per child – to care for kids. The day the child turns 18, the payments stop, and America’s homeless population increases by one.

Lack of realistic job expectations is another issue the homeless mention often. Many will tell you they’re musicians, actors, writers, or artists. Here they’ve confused hobbies with real careers that will provide the steady income needed for housing.

Pets are third common problem. Over and over, the homeless describe how their animals, usually dogs, prevent them being housed. This woman had a great life…until her landlord said no dogs. Watch enough interviews, and the mere mention of pets gives you a fair idea of why a person may be un-housed.

Conclusions – using this information to solve homelessness

I reached two conclusions from binge-watching Mark’s channel.

Give each homeless person two choices

Every person who imposes a cost on society by remaining un-housed needs two choices, The Good Place, and The Bad Place.

The Good Place has the opportunity for the things the homeless tell us over and over they want out of life. Dogs, friends, travel, safety, cigarettes, beer, creative expression, entertainment are all possible in the Good Place. Your stuff is not going to get stolen in the Good Place, the cops aren’t going to hassle you, and nobody’s going to force you into prostitution.

If able, you’ll need to work a 40 hour week in The Good Place. The Good Place is probably in an inexpensive part of the country, where you income (often Social Security checks) can pay the rent. Support services will be there to help. You’ll have health care, and a way to get to work. If you aren’t able bodied or minded, you will be taken care of, and your Good Place may be a slightly different setting, like a group home.

The Bad Place is a prison cell. It’s that simple.

Despite America’s love of guns, the odds of being murdered in the US in a given year are tiny, about one in 20,000. That’s because killing another person, except in self defense, is absolutely forbidden. It’s something every child is taught, and the punishment is extremely serious. We need to treat homelessness in a similar way. They key is the deterrent effect – it is indeed expensive to keep one person in prison, but that threat prevents another hundred from breaking the law.

On the flip side, we have an obligation to give everyone a path to the Good Place. That’s going to include a set of initial and ongoing services – from drug and alcohol counselling to health care to possibly job guarantees to ensure steady income in places where rent is affordable. Listen to this woman, homeless in Marin county, explain it. If you’re ready to get clean and get back into society, society needs to provide you a path to that.

The good news is, many people have a Good Place they can go back to. Listen to this perfectly intelligent woman living in a tunnel under Las Vegas tell you where she’d rather be. San Francisco’s Homeward Bound program has helped over 10,000 people return to their homes.

The critical point is that the people can be incentivized toward or away from homelessness. As you might choose between two jobs based on a number of factors, people implicitly choose between a housed or unhoused lifestyle.

Take Larry. A former accountant, Larry is well spoken and clearly intelligent. He could pass the WalMart test with flying colors. So why is he camped out on Venice Beach? Larry will tell you he’s got a good group of friends, food stamps, and a cash benefit check he can use to party with. Hear it in his own words. The cops don’t appear to give Larry much trouble, so why not spend your days soaking up the LA sun?

In his new life, Larry is probably not going to be living on Venice Beach, sleeping late and partying. He may wind up in St. Louis or Bakersfield showing up for his job at a grocery store five days per week. Almost 62 years old, Larry will qualify for Social Security benefits soon – but he’ll still have to live in a place where those benefits can afford housing. Allowing society to foot the bill for Larry’s existence must be absolutely forbidden.

Focus on the 18-26 year old segment of the population

You’re looking at two homeless people: 66 year old Ben, and 20 year old Amy. Ben is collecting Social Security soon, and is nearer the end than the beginning of his life. His remaining cost to society is limited.

Amy’s going to be on the streets for another 50 years. She’s going to have four kids, all of which are going to end up in foster homes, two of which are also going to end up homeless. Without intervention, what financial burden will she impose on the rest of us? The number is surely in the millions. It should be obvious where our limited service resources should go.

Take Alyona, 19, on the streets of LA, trying to go to college. Imagine the cost of intervening to help her now, versus letting the streets grind her up for a few years.

Homeless youth understandably lack many of the adulting skills the rest of us take for granted, from budgeting to finding a track to the right career. They’ve also yet to reach mental maturity, and are prone to bad decisions – there’s a reason people under 25 have a hard time renting a car.

Birth control is a major component of this solution. I’m not talking about forced sterilization, but plenty of education, as well as cash or other incentives, for those who can’t be responsible parents not to procreate. Unwanted kids have a way of producing more of them. We know such programs work.

There are some programs to help people at this critical age. In 2012, California passed AB 12, for example, extending benefits for foster children aged 18 through 20. But as we know from Mark’s videos, far more help is needed.

Implementing the two ideas above is going to be initially expensive – the payoff happens over a period of decades. It will require a Federal solution – any state or local system of benefits is doomed to failure, since it will only attract homeless from the rest of the country. This is exactly what we see in San Francisco.

A more immediate question might be: what can and should San Francisco do today, without such national solutions? That’s a topic for another post.

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