For the last three decades, San Francisco has conducted a real-life experiment in what happens when a society stops enforcing bourgeois norms of behavior. The city has done so in the name of compassion toward the homeless. The results have been the opposite: street squalor and misery have increased, even as government expenditures have ballooned. Yet the principles that have guided the city’s homelessness policy remain inviolate: homelessness is a housing problem; it is involuntary; and its persistence is the result of inadequate public spending. These propositions are readily disproved by talking to people living on the streets.
Shaku’s assessment of drug use among the homeless is widely shared. Asked if she does drugs, a formerly homeless woman, just placed in a city-subsidized single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotel, responds incredulously: “Is that a trick question?” A 33-year-old woman from Alabama, who now lives in a tent in an industrial area outside downtown, says: “Everyone out here has done something—drugs, you name it.” On Sutter Avenue, a wizened 50-year-old named Jeff slumps over his coffee cup at 7:30 AM, one hand holding a sweet roll, the other playing with his beard. A half-eaten muffin sits next to him on a filthy blanket. “I use drugs, alcohol, all of it,” he tells me, his eyes closed, as a pair of smiling German tourists deposit a peach on his blanket. Last night it was speed, he says, which has left him just a “little bit high” this morning. “The whole Tenderloin is for drugs,” Jeff observes, before nodding off again.