The Revolt Against Homelessness

Michael Shellenberger is betting on the frustration of California voters—even though most experts disagree with the solutions he’s selling.

A picture of a tent next to an image of Michael Shellenberger
Jonathan Nguyen / Alamy; Susan Walsh / AP; The Atlantic

SAN FRANCISCO—Michael Shellenberger was more excited to tour the Tenderloin than I was, even though it was my idea. I was nervous about provoking desperate people in various states of disrepair. Shellenberger, meanwhile, seemed intent on showing that many homeless people are addicted to drugs. (If that seems callous to you, Shellenberger would say you’re in thrall to liberal “victim ideology.”)

He told me not to worry. “You seem like a tough Russian chick, right?” he said as we walked up narrow sidewalks where hundreds of humans sleep at night, passing people sitting on wheelchairs, under tarps, and in tents. Many were slumped over or nodding off—from fentanyl, Shellenberger said. One man walked down the street hooting repeatedly to no one.

As we talked with people, Shellenberger kept introducing himself as a “reporter,” even though he’s running for governor of California. His candidacy has indeed involved a lot of interviewing: He often films himself asking homeless people about their lives and tweets about it. He has also written several books, including last year’s San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities, which makes the argument that has become a central plank of his candidacy: What most homeless people need is not, in his words, “namby pamby” TLC from lefty nonprofits but a firm hand and a stint in rehab. He’s essentially a single-issue candidate running against homelessness and its consequences. Fortunately for him, that’s an issue Californians feel strongly about. And thanks to California’s top-two “jungle” primary system, there’s a chance he could make it past the June 7 primary and face off against California Governor Gavin Newsom in the general election.

The night seemed to be shaping up for Shellenberger’s point of view. We walked down a side street full of people strung out on the sidewalk. We approached two men—one of whom, an older white man sitting in a wheelchair, held a glass pipe. When Shellenberger asked about it, the men grew belligerent. “Hey, man, we’re just trying to have a conversation!” said his companion, a young man in a black hoodie. “We don’t do it around kids!” the older man said.

Shellenberger said his vision for California would address scenes like this. Most unsheltered homeless people, who live on the street, are either addicted to drugs or mentally ill or both, he claims. (Homelessness experts say this is true of the chronically unsheltered population, but that this group is a very small percentage of the overall number of people experiencing homelessness.) They should be offered shelter beds, Shellenberger believes, not studio apartments. They may receive better housing only if they agree to drug rehab and mental-health treatment. Camping on the street would be banned. If a homeless person refuses shelter or drug treatment, that’s fine, but they can’t stay on the sidewalk overnight—they’d be arrested if they tried. A new statewide mental-health and drug-treatment system, Cal-Psych, would treat those with mental illness and addiction for free. San Franciscans—and Angelenos and Californians all over—would reclaim neighborhoods that have been given over to tents and dealers. “Just because you’re in a poor neighborhood doesn’t mean you should lose your sidewalks and streets to people suffering mental illness and addiction,” he said as we sprinted past poop of unknown provenance. He is an extremely fast walker.

With his book and his campaign, Shellenberger is capitalizing on Californians’ frustrations with homelessness, which consistently ranks as one of voters’ top concerns. “Homelessness is a big issue for Californians because we see it every day, in all of our cities,” Kim Nalder, a political scientist at Sacramento State University, told me. “It’s a humanitarian crisis, and it’s also making it difficult to use our parks and roads and alleys.” Homelessness—especially San Francisco’s homelessness—is also a black eye for Newsom, the former San Francisco mayor and California governor since 2019, a year when the state had at least 10,000 fewer homeless people. Newsom, Shellenberger said, “just wants there to be no consequences for open-air drug use and open-air drug dealing.” The governor has failed to beef up psychiatric and addiction care in the state, he claims. (“The reality is Governor Newsom has launched the most aggressive agenda to tackle homelessness and expand mental-health support in California history,” Newsom’s spokesperson Nathan Click told me. “He's gotten 58,000 people into shelter or housing, just since the pandemic began.”)

The scenes around the Tenderloin certainly suggest that something is not working. Another man we met, Ralph, was sitting in his tent and talking with his buddies, including one who passed him a baggie filled with white powder. Ralph said he could go to a single-room-occupancy hotel, but he doesn’t want to. At least 166 people fatally overdosed in city-funded hotels in 2020 and 2021, the San Francisco Chronicle recently reported—14 percent of all the city’s overdoses. (In that two-year span, the city lost 693 lives to COVID, but more than 1,300 to overdoses.) Ralph began spouting some common Shellenberger talking points: The city is spending so much money on homelessness, and for what? People are overdosing right and left. Ralph said he was 66—meaning he likely receives Social Security income.

“Shouldn’t that be enough for him to afford housing? A lot of people are using their Social Security check to support their drug habit,” Shellenberger said.

Toward the end of our walk, paramedics came and hauled away a camo-clad man who had doubled over in a plaza full of people openly using drugs. We were directly in front of City Hall.

As a younger man, Shellenberger worked with leftist groups in the Bay Area, but he’s now renounced the Democrats and is running as an independent. A thin 50-year-old with an arch smile, he comes off as sarcastic, but he also doesn’t mince words. On Twitter, he frequently rails against “wokeism” and critical race theory. His previous book, Apocalypse Never, was a screed against what he sees as environmentalist excess. When I asked him if he believed in global warming, he said, “Yeah, but it’s not the end of the world.” Then he went on a rant against windmills, adding sheepishly, “I have a minority view on these issues.” (That minority, though, notably includes former President Donald Trump.) His interest in the conjunction of homelessness, mental health, and substance abuse stems in part from having an aunt with schizophrenia and in part from his fondness for European-style addiction treatment.

The problem—or opportunity—for Shellenberger is that virtually every homelessness expert disagrees with him. (“Like an internet troll that’s written a book” is how Jennifer Friedenbach, the executive director of San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness, described him to me.) Among advocates and Democratic officials, “housing first,” or “permanent supportive housing,” is now the most widely accepted solution to homelessness, and its proponents say that the most pressing issue for homeless people is their lack of a private home. Therefore, they should be given an apartment first, and then social workers can attempt to engage them in drug and mental-health treatment—but not necessarily mandate it. When people get their own place, “then they want to see a doctor, their substance use goes down, their drinking goes down,” Sam Tsemberis, the psychologist who developed the Housing First model, told me. Housing First advocates place the blame for the homelessness crisis largely on housing prices, and say the solution is to increase people’s income and to build more inexpensive housing.

These experts have answers to frequently asked questions: Why not direct homeless people to shelters instead of apartments? Shelters are crowded, and many don’t allow pets or partners, so homeless people resist going to them. And according to Tsemberis, they are more expensive than studio apartments. Why not help homeless people move to cheaper areas outside of big West Coast cities? Moving costs a lot, and it disrupts the social networks that low-income people rely on for job leads and child care. “We can move everyone to Topeka,” Gregg Colburn, a University of Washington housing-policy professor and a co-author of Homelessness Is a Housing Problem, told me. “Well, what are they going to do in Topeka?” If homeless people are just poor, why are they often seen doing drugs or having psychotic episodes? “There are places with really, really bad drug problems, like West Virginia and Arkansas,” Colburn said, “and we don’t see homelessness there.” Drug use is often the result of homelessness, not the cause, he and others say.

These experts point, instead, to an acute shortage of affordable housing in California. Big West Coast cities make it hard to get construction permits, Colburn said. And their two most beloved natural features—mountains and water—limit the amount of housing that developers can realistically build. Though the state has made some changes, zoning requirements have long prevented apartments from being built in desirable areas, and a quirk of California’s tax system discourages people from selling their houses.

Several studies show that Housing First keeps people in housing for a greater number of days compared with the alternatives. Shellenberger dismisses these studies on methodological grounds, and he points to a 2018 National Academy of Sciences report that showed that, although permanent supportive housing did help keep people housed, research had not yet determined that it improved health outcomes. Shellenberger is vehemently opposed to Housing First. “In what world are you entitled to your own apartment unit in San Francisco?” he said. “You’re giving away free apartments in San Francisco without any requirement of sobriety? Sounds like a good deal. They will come here for that.”

On the way to meet Shellenberger, my cab driver genially volunteered that he’d had some experience with homelessness. When he first moved to the Bay Area, he and his wife slept in their car sometimes. At one point, money got so tight that he begged for cash outside a Jack in the Box. Shellenberger doesn’t have much of a plan for people like this, who become homeless because of poverty and don’t have drug addiction—which advocates say is true of the majority of the homeless population. “We do a really good job taking care of people for whom untreated mental illness and drug addiction are not the cause of the homelessness,” he told me.

The problem with Housing First is that actually implementing it strains even Californians’ progressiveness. Giving people cheap apartments in some of the most expensive cities on the planet—the median monthly rent in San Francisco is nearly $3,000—and letting them do drugs there is not necessarily a political winner. Many evidence-based policies fail in the face of intense political opposition: Supervised drug-consumption sites have been shown to reduce overdose deaths, but even liberal cities such as Seattle have struggled to overcome local opposition to them. Citizens who claim to want more affordable housing discover their NIMBYism and environmental objections when it comes time to actually build the apartments.

Many Californians agree with some of Shellenberger’s views. In one poll of voters in Los Angeles, a majority of respondents said that mental illness and substance abuse are among the causes of homelessness, and most disagreed with the idea that people have a right to sleep on public property. In another, 57 percent of respondents thought that officials should prioritize shelters, as opposed to 30 percent who said the focus should be long-term housing. “Even left-leaning people who might vote very progressively at a national level become more conservative the closer the issues come at home,” Colburn said.

Tsemberis suggested that homeless people should be treated like other Americans, who don’t have to follow special rules in order to stay housed. “You and I don’t have to be clean and sober or be on psychiatric medication for all of our psychological issues and be totally sane and follow every rule in order to get housing,” he told me. But that can be a hard sell for people who pay their own rent and mortgage.

I asked Tsemberis what he thinks of Shellenberger’s campaign for governor. He laughed hard and then said, “Yeah, why not? … That’s wild.”

Even some experts agree with some of Shellenberger’s critiques of Housing First. Though they stop short of endorsing Shellenberger or his views, they say that providing every homeless person in California with their own studio apartment, complete with a supportive social worker, cannot be done quickly enough to meet the scale and urgency of the crisis. And if even some knowledgeable professors say the state has failed on homelessness, imagine what the average voter thinks.

Keith Humphreys, an addiction expert and psychiatry professor at Stanford, is quoted in San Fransicko saying, “The left’s idea is that everyone who’s addicted really wants to change if we just give them the right services. But look at how much money addicted people spend on drugs every year versus how much they spend on treatment.”

Humphreys thinks Housing First is a good option for people with severe mental illness, who aren’t sufficiently in touch with reality to secure their own apartment. But he doesn’t think the city should allow people to use deadly drugs freely, either on the sidewalks or in government-funded private rooms. “The idea right now for a lot of people who rule the roost in human services in San Francisco is you cannot expect anything from people who use drugs, you cannot ask anything of them, you cannot put any pressure on them in any way, that that’s cruel and nasty and impossible,” Humphreys told me. (Friedenbach, from the Coalition on Homelessness, disputes this, and said people in the Tenderloin get arrested “all the time.” A majority of San Francisco’s drug-related arrests occur in the Tenderloin.) “Harm reduction” is still the right approach to drug addiction, Humphreys said, but West Coast liberals are failing to see the harm done to the entire community.

Humphreys surmised that a few more of Shellenberger’s suspicions are correct: that most of the homeless people in the Tenderloin have drug addiction, and that, more than simply forcing people into homelessness with high rents, West Coast cities draw addicts to their streets with easy drug access.

Dennis Culhane, a homelessness expert at the University of Pennsylvania, is in the strange position of being both recommended to me by Sam Tsemberis and found credible by Shellenberger. Culhane thinks everyone should have housing, but he also told me that a faster way to get people housed is by giving them vouchers to secure a room in a shared house—either with family members, friends, or roommates. He pointed to surveys showing that about half of homeless people would accept this type of “shared housing”—not a shelter, but not quite their own apartment, either. This group-house solution is pretty similar to what low-income people, such as college students and young graduates, already do in big cities. “I have adult children,” he said. “Neither of them can afford to live alone.”

These might all be moot points, though, because even if Shellenberger makes it past the top-two primary, he will almost certainly lose the general election. Newsom easily fought off a recall last fall. Instead, Shellenberger is likely running to spotlight homelessness, Kim Nalder said. “Probably also wouldn’t hurt book sales,” she added.

In the meantime, elements of the tough, Shellenberger-style approach are catching on with other politicians in the state. In addition to hurriedly building low-income housing, Newsom recently unveiled a new system for the court-mandated treatment of severely mentally ill people, called CARE Court, which liberal advocates have criticized for being too harsh. Several Los Angeles mayoral candidates are running on the promise of building more homeless shelters.

The risk for Democrats is that San Francisco’s crime and homelessness problems convince voters across the state that liberals can’t be trusted to govern. This is how Seattle ended up with a tough-on-crime Republican city attorney in 2021, and how an effort to recall progressive San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin gained momentum. Newsom can hardly distance himself from the city: In the ’90s, he was on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and he served as mayor until 2011. He may be safe for now, but down-ballot Democrats aren’t—and neither is Newsom’s post-California political future. If Newsom wants to run for president someday—and what California governor doesn’t?—he would benefit from having successes on homelessness to point to. “In terms of a person’s national ambitions, it certainly helps to be popular at home and to be seen as solving problems at home,” Eric Schickler, a political scientist at UC Berkeley, told me.

In this way, Shellenberger’s main role is keeping California Democrats honest. His campaign resembles his book: an exaggerated provocation, but one that may contain a kernel of truth.