More On The "Morality" Of Throwing Money At The Problem Of Homelessness

After reading the comments to my post on Friday about the upcoming voter initiative in San Francisco to cure “homelessness” by throwing lots more money at the problem, it occurred to me that there were several more points that I should have made.

Here is a quote that comes near the end of Mr. Benioff’s New York Times piece:

It’s also time to put to rest the claim that more generous support for the homeless will only attract more homeless people to our community. The city’s own analysis found “no research” that expanding homeless services increases homelessness. An overwhelming majority of homeless people in San Francisco are from San Francisco. They are our neighbors and they desperately need our help.

Interesting. I don’t know if it rises to the level of “research,” but did San Francisco’s genius analysts look at the data from New York City, where since 2013 annual city spending on services for the homeless has soared from about $1 billion to well over $2 billion, and the number of people counted as “homeless” has gone from about 43,000 to about 76,000? Other cities that have greatly increased spending on services to the homeless, only to see the number of people counted as homeless skyrocket, include Los Angeles and Seattle. Cause and effect? I can’t even think of how, after looking at the data from New York, Los Angeles and Seattle, you could say with a straight face that “no research” supports the proposition that expanding homeless services increases homelessness. I guess that theoretically somebody could always make the argument that without all the extra spending the number of homeless people would have been even higher; but at some point such a contention becomes completely preposterous.

Benioff seems to think that the risk is that increased spending on homeless services will cause people to move into the city to claim access to the services. Possible, but I doubt that that is the main source of the additional homeless people who have emerged in New York, Los Angeles and Seattle. Since I’m not on the ground to look at the details of what is going on in Los Angeles and Seattle, I’ll focus my remarks on New York.

In New York, the population of people deemed “homeless” really consists of two populations that are very distinct: the unsheltered homeless people who live on the streets or in public spaces, and the homeless people who live in government-provided shelters. The second group is far and away the larger, and the one that has expanded.

In New York, each year on one day, they get a bunch of people together and send them out into the streets to try to find every homeless person they can find living “unsheltered” in the city. The 2018 survey, conducted in February, found 3,675 such people. That number is only about 5% of the 76,000 total counted as “homeless.” This post from Politico in June compiles the results of the annual survey for each year going back to 2005. As you can see, the numbers fluctuate up and down with no particularly noticeable trend, except maybe slightly down overall. The highest number of unsheltered homeless found was in the first year, 2005, when the count was 4,395; the lowest was in 2009, at 2,328 (so if you picked 2009 as your start year, there might appear to be an upward trend).

It’s a very different story for the much larger number of people in shelters. That number has gone from the low 40,000s when Mayor de Blasio took office in 2014 to well over 70,000 today. Is there any particular policy that one might look to as influencing this growth? Yes. One of the first things that de Blasio did upon taking office in 2014 was to reinstate a policy, previously discontinued by prior Mayor Bloomberg, that gave “homeless” people living in shelters priority on getting into deeply subsidized public housing. Here is a Wall Street Journal article from November 2014 reporting on that change in policy. Bloomberg had previously discontinued the policy specifically because he asserted that the public housing preference was incentivizing people to declare themselves “homeless” to jump the queue, which without the preference is something like a 25 year wait for a spot in the subsidized projects.

Thus, there is an obvious explanation for the dramatic increase in the numbers of “homeless” living in shelters, without any need for belief in thousands of people moving into New York for the subsidies as part of the explanation. Within New York (or San Francisco, or any other city) at any given time there are plenty of people — in New York it’s undoubtedly hundreds of thousands, if not more — whose housing circumstances are less than desirable. A typical situation would be a young adult child who would like to move out of his/her parents’ home but has difficulty affording the private market rent in this expensive city. Other people are doubled up with siblings, cousins, friends, whatever. If your parents or relatives or friends throw you out, or would like to, you can become “homeless,” and can jump the line for a subsidized apartment. Other suddenly available services could equally draw thousands, or tens of thousands, or such people out of the woodwork.

The three or four thousand unsheltered homeless are an entirely different and much smaller population, only about 5% of the total. But of course, these are the ones you see, and are the ones you think of when you see the word “homeless.” Since shelter can be had on demand in New York, why would someone forego that to live on the streets or in the subways? It doesn’t take too much reflection to come up with obvious answers. They don’t let you take drugs in the shelters. Also, you need cash to buy drugs, and the shelters and their immediate surroundings — often in out-of-the-way neighborhoods — are a particularly poor place to do the panhandling that produces the cash. The best places for panhandling are the places where thousands of affluent working stiffs pass each day, namely the subways, and the train and bus stations. And sure enough, that’s where a plurality of the unsheltered homeless can be found. Those are also places where you can keep reasonably warm in the winter.

So, the prospects that San Francisco’s new $300 million might actually reduce the population deemed “homeless”? Right around zero. But a year or two after the initiative passes, what are the chances that the do-gooders and bureaucrats will be back for another few hundred million, with the promise that this time it will work? One hundred percent.