Newell: San Francisco is hostage to their homeless; is New Orleans next?

Misguided solutions crash head-on into the culture of non-compliance

Newell Normand
October 10, 2019 - 5:56 pm

How would you like to walk out of your door to discarded syringes, human excrement, trash, and homeless people sleeping on your steps?

San Francisco, one of America's wealthiest and most beautiful cities, is being held hostage by its homeless population. Social programs designed to help the homeless have actually hurt the very people it purports to help by making it easy for them to live on the street. Free syringes with instructions on how to properly use them are given out; in fact, 4.5 million syringes were given out last year. Drug and alcohol use coupled with mental health issues, and you have a recipe for disaster. Over $2 billion dollars was spent over ten years for 3000 to additional housing units that included drug counseling and social workers. They are spending an average of $47,500 a year per homeless person. Guess what? This is coming to a city near you. Large metropolises around the country are experiencing an influx of homelessness.

To better understand this issue and set out ways to keep this nightmare scenario from coming to roost right here in New Orleans, Newell invited Carl Tannenbaum onto the program Wednesday morning. Carl is a retired Police Sergeant with the San Francisco Police Department.

"People ask me why do I go out to California and look at what's going on there to address any number of social issues," Newell began, "And it's because 'it happens there first' in many respects. It's a living experiment by which to judge whether or not the measures that are implemented are meaningful and lead to good outcomes. Here in New Orleans, we have early signs of a very troubling situation as it relates to the homeless population. You just need drive by the interstate overpasses, and the tents are mounting up. There are more today than there were six months ago. There was a recent article in the City Journal entitled 'San Francisco: Hostage to the Homeless.' You've you heard me say this a lot - we are developing a culture of non-compliance!" 

Asked to respond to what he read in the City Journal piece, Tannenbaum said, "It was like a trip down memory lane for me. Starting in 1981 when I was a rookie cop walking the beat in the Tenderloin... everything the author wrote about what she saw today was also true then to a lesser degree. She's kind of spot-on in her analysis."

"She said, 'actually having a place to live may be the least of the homeless' concerns.' Sounds a little counter-intuitive, doesn't it?" 

"There's the old saying, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. What I found dealing with the homeless is that there are a lot of people that don't want to be sheltered, that don't want to be controlled or ordered around. So even though housing is available, is the homeless population willing to participate? And if so, will they maintain some semblance of lawfulness once they're in subsidized housing. So I agree, that's not always the solution. You have to have buy-in."

"Is there really a coordinated effort in San Francisco, or is this just so many different agencies trying to address this in a kind of shotgun approach that isn't really strategic?" Newell asked.

"You hit the nail on the head," Tannenbaum replied. "There are competing special interests, there's whatever the political will of the Mayor is, and the 11 elected supervisors who represent 11 city districts, each one looking out for their own district and their own best interests. And when it comes to resources versus advocacy, constitutional rights - all these things butt up against each other and then you have all these falling all over each other fighting for funding, and the homeless person gets left in the dust."

"The author also says 'we have a society now that has stopped enforcing bourgeois norms of behavior," Newell said, "Meaning, I guess, middle class norms of behavior in our city - and this is what happens?"

"The enforcement aspect of it is not that difficult when you put yourselves in the shoes of the officers she quotes. They have special officers now whose primary duty is to deal with the homeless people, but if you think about what the officer has to deal with... let's say there's a crime committed and the officer takes some action. If they issue a citation, the courts have started dismissing those on the whole. So the officer realizes whatever they do, it's going to be an exercise in futility. So they're sort of reluctant. Say the citation does turn into a warrant, then they would go encounter that person and arrest them, and then deal with the person's property. And there's no way around that, that's the law, those are the rules. Even though you and I can tell what a shopping cart full of garbage is, you still have to manage that. Officers are starting to question, 'why am I doing this?'"

"Everyone is saying the same thing, " Newell replied. "You need to be consistent, and you need to be persistent in whatever strategy you utilize to deal with this situation... what I've found is that the problem seems to be exaggerated when you about read it, but when you talk to the people on the ground, but it's probably a fair, accurate picture of what's going on in San Francisco and other cities. So you begin to wonder, what's the ultimate end game here? When you have so many disparate competing special interests trying to address the same thing from different perspectives, none of whom can actually say they've actually made life better for these people living on the street? That's what I find incredulous!"

Hear the entire interview in the audio player below.

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