The Streets of San Francisco

The Streets of San Francisco

Lt. Mike Stone: You saw what he did, arrest him!

Inspector Steve Keller: No. I didn’t become a cop to arrest street poopers. I quit.

Lt. Mike Stone: Oh yeah, where you gonna go?

Inspector Steve Keller: I’m going back to school — Berkeley Law.

[A conversation between Stone and Keller if they patrolled the Streets of San Francisco today.  Click here if you don’t get the reference.)

The heartbreaking secret is out. I googled “San Francisco is a dump.” and up came 18,600,000 results in .06 seconds.

Partly out of pride and partly from nostalgia, I admit to being part of the cover up for many years.  PRI was founded nearly forty years ago by Sir Antony Fisher who lost his heart to Dorian Fisher Crocker of San Francisco.  They later married and lived in the city on the same block as Milton and Rose Friedman. Who wouldn’t boast about that?

As a southern Californian, I remember the days when we visited my cousins in San Francisco.  The city seemed so elegant with its gorgeous City Hall, Opera House, and heart stopping views of the Bay from Russian and Nob hills. We had nothing like it in southern Cal.  I’ve traveled to many cities across the U.S.  Geographically, it is the most beautiful city in America.

But when Sally Pipes, PRI’s president, announced that we were opening an office in Southern California, Ben Smithwick, PRI’s director of development, and I hightailed out of town.  That was two years ago.  Since then, the city’s homeless, trash, drug, and poop problems have only gotten worse.

San Francisco has been a liberal town for decades.  But as John David Danielson writes in The Federalist, “The absence of any organized political opposition, combined with its vast wealth, makes San Francisco a kind of proof-of-concept for progressive governance. If there’s anywhere progressives should be able to enact their schemes for a perfectly-ordered society, it’s here.”  He’s right.  Since a centralized, tax and spend theory of government is agreeable to most San Franciscans rich and poor alike, you would think that the city would look more like its cleaner, family-friendly socialist sister cities like Copenhagen and Montreal.

The official number of homeless in San Francisco is 7,500, but health workers say that the actual number is closer to 10,000. In the last city budget (San Francisco has a 2-year budget cycle), $250 million was spent to help mitigate the homeless problem.  This upcoming budget proposes a $29 million increase.  But after spending $250 million over the last two years only for the problem to get worse, I’m not sure an additional $29 million will help.  In my back-of-the-envelope calculation, and using the higher number of homeless, the city will be spending about $14,000 annually on each homeless person.  This dollar figure doesn’t include what the city is spending to help drug addicts. I’m no homeless issue expert, so I have no idea if $14,000 is too much or too little.  But what I and taxpaying residents do know is that it hasn’t made a dent.

Last week, PRI’s podcast featured an interview with Michael Anton, former director of communications at the National Security Council.  He grew up in the Bay Area and wrote a highly acclaimed essay for the Claremont Review of Books titled “San Francisco Values”.  Michael believes that San Francisco is soft on enforcing city laws and minimum public standards because the city’s wealthy liberal elite feels guilty about their wealth and that it is more noble and compassionate to just let the homeless do as they please.

So it doesn’t come as a surprise that London Breed, San Francisco’s newly elected mayor, wants to continue the soft touch.  When asked by NBC Bay Area about whether she will call for harsher penalties against those who litter or defecate on city streets, Breed said “I didn’t express anything about a penalty.”  The mayor said she has encouraged nonprofits “to talk to their clients….”

As Michael Anton said, “The attitude is that it would be a shame to deprive the city of its wonderful colorful character if laws were enforced,” referring to the Tenderloin, which has always been the worst area of the city.  In fact, the Tenderloin now has a museum to reflect that wonderful character. Its mission statement reads:

The Tenderloin neighborhood is one of the most misunderstood and maligned in San Francisco, with a rich, complex history that remains undiscovered by most residents. At the same time, the Tenderloin is one of the few affordable places left in the city, home to one of it’s [website typo] highest populations of low and moderate-income people and a diverse “melting pot” of people from around the world.

Of course, there’s no mention of the fact that there are hundreds of people hanging out, dazed, and high as kite, or that it has one of the highest rates of violent street crime in the city including robbery and aggravated assault, nor of the widespread prostitution.

For now, the city’s elite is holding steadfast to the idea that the key to fixing San Francisco’s homeless and drug problem is greater collective compassion and distribution of wealth.  But unless it also starts enforcing laws and basic standards of public conduct, it’s hard to see any future improvements.  As Mark Twain, one of San Francisco’s biggest fans once said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

For more background on California’s poverty crisis and policy recommendation on how California could reduce poverty in the state, go to “Good Intentions: How California’s Anti-Poverty Programs Aren’t Delivering and How the Private Sector Can Lift More People Out of Poverty” by PRI fellow Kerry Jackson.

Rowena Itchon is senior vice president of Pacific Research Institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.