February 5, 2020 Reading Time: 4 minutes

“Something must be done about the homeless.” 

That refrain seems to be the only thing people agree upon with respect to San Francisco’s tragic and intractable homelessness crisis. The city has lurched between the progressive and sometimes tolerant-to-a-fault policies for which it is known and periods of what reads and looks like urban warfare, encampments cleared all at once as blaring sirens sweep through. 

Homeless people have virtually taken over the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood, a trend that was becoming clear when I lived in the city a dozen years ago and that had become in all honesty unlike anything I’d ever seen when I visited last fall. Encampments come and go in still more neighborhoods, an almost unbelievable juxtaposition with the country’s most expensive city where a one-bedroom apartment averages $3,700

The situation is ready-made for tired cliches of both the Left and Right. On the left, people point to the extraordinary wealth disparity and demand that the rich pay more for housing the homeless. The Right leverages San Francisco’s image as America’s city most tolerant of alternative living to document how the Left’s excesses have created a magnet for the homeless.

The president’s Council of Economic Advisers joined many free market advocates in advocating dismantling the city’s notoriously labyrinthine zoning rules, which often vary by neighborhood and no doubt contribute to sky-high rents. Doing so would be a huge step forward for the city in alleviating its housing shortage, and would almost certainly help the area’s middle class and those considering moving there. But it’s less clear it would help the homeless, often tied down by addiction and mental illness rather than high rent.

Everyone on all sides correctly stresses there is no magic solution for San Francisco’s homeless, but the discussion continues to sound like a contest between proposed magic solutions. Perhaps one problem is in the phrase “the homeless” itself. All the solutions I described above implicitly treat this population of at least 10,000 as a monolithic mass. We’re all guilty of falling back on it, but in doing so we collectivize and dehumanize thousands of individuals without a home for vastly different reasons and with vastly different lines of sight to a better life.

Smaller-scale organizations like San Francisco’s At the Crossroads provide a potential blueprint for greater progress. They’ve helped homeless youth in the city who have been kicked out of other programs and provide what they describe as unconditional support. But it isn’t the top-down unconditional support of programs often favored by the Left and anathema to the Right. They get to know the people they’re helping, and tailor that support to the actual people who need it.

They approach their clients on the ground in the city’s Tenderloin and Mission neighborhoods “without an agenda and without judgement, and focus on empowering each person to define their own goals at their own pace.” Their approach reflects an outlook that often isn’t but should be associated with the term individualism:

We walk the streets of the Downtown and Mission neighborhoods to reach disconnected youth on their own turf, handing out basic necessities like food, socks, and hygiene supplies, and slowly building counseling relationships with youth. We also meet with clients 1-to-1. We listen to them talk about anything they want, with no agenda and no judgment. Over time, we help them identify goals, figure out who they want to be, and how to become that person. When our clients want resources such as jobs, housing, education, health care, and mental health services, we partner with other organizations to meet their needs.

Measuring the success of more conventional programs is notoriously difficult, but the numbers they report for the 1,250 youth “they engaged last year — often kicked out of other programs — are promising.

It’s hard to even talk about a program that works so steadfastly at the individual level in terms of the Left and Right’s dance between justice and accountability. In a sense, it demands far greater accountability than any work requirement, clean drug test, or police presence ever could. The organization may have never kicked a client out, but that doesn’t capture the unique accountability inherent in relationships between actual people instead of social planner and the homeless.

Think of this type of local knowledge and interaction as generating countless small moments of accountability instead of a blanket rule. At the Crossroads’ clients aren’t being offered unlimited help; they’re people helped by other people who can react both socially and with actual aid in real time.

The beauty of smaller aid organizations or social entrepreneurs like At the Crossroads is they can offer new ideas and succeed, fail, or be emulated based on them. If I’m wrong about individual-specific aid, it would be easy enough for donors to observe relative to a large charity let alone a government.

Our political system may not have room for solutions that are both incremental and impossible to put on a bumper sticker. But people can invest time and money in many ideas, and this is a case where they can likely grow in parallel to lumbering government programs and erratic policing. The only truly robust and lasting way to roll back government is to outcompete it.

Max Gulker

Max Gulker

Max Gulker is a former Senior Research Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. He is currently a Senior Fellow with the Reason Foundation. At AIER his research focused on two main areas: policy and technology. On the policy side, Gulker looked at how issues like poverty and access to education can be addressed with voluntary, decentralized approaches that don’t interfere with free markets. On technology, Gulker was interested in emerging fields like blockchain and cryptocurrencies, competitive issues raised by tech giants such as Facebook and Google, and the sharing economy.

Gulker frequently appears at conferences, on podcasts, and on television. Gulker holds a PhD in economics from Stanford University and a BA in economics from the University of Michigan. Prior to AIER, Max spent time in the private sector, consulting with large technology and financial firms on antitrust and other litigation. Follow @maxg_econ.

Get notified of new articles from Max Gulker and AIER.