The Streets of San Francisco, a Libertarian Take

“Sometimes I think we’re so liberal that we’re OK stepping over dead people on our sidewalks,” Daniel Bergerac of the Castro Merchants Association and Castro Cares told me as we discussed the state of the streets of San Francisco. As he knows, people stepping over dead people does happen in San Francisco.

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Baghdad by the Bay is living with two intractable problems — a large homeless population and bands of street people who turn parts of this shining city into a menacing and grimy environment. Throwing millions of dollars a year at the homeless problem and developing well-meaning programs haven’t made the city more livable for the taxpaying public. To the contrary, walk down Market Street and you see men openly flashing cash and dealing drugs. You see street people defecating in public. You smell urine. You see used syringes tossed in plain sight and users passed out in public. City Hall is hobbled by good intentions: Elected officials have been shy to advocate for community standards lest advocates accuse them of waging a war on the poor. The result is a city that fails both the homeless and its middle class.

If you lean libertarian, and you believe in smaller government and more individual initiative as I do, you don’t think new laws or well-intended programs can bring about the fundamental change Ess Eff needs. I don’t think the city benefits when social workers enroll homeless adults in welfare and housing programs, and then hope for the best. So I phoned a libertarian-leaning think tank, the Independent Institute in Oakland. Vice President Mary L.G. Theroux suggested that the first step is a change in attitude, a move away from San Francisco’s approach to the homeless, which she described as: “We’ll pat you on the head and say, ‘You poor victim.’ That’s not helping them.”

City Hall means well and does help a lot of people, but this approach often fails the chronically homeless. As Theroux noted, the progressive view is to let self-destructive people do whatever they want, and that approach helps no one.

Here are the steps to a new “attitude”:

Support private charities

According to San Francisco’s homeless czar Sam Dodge, the city already contracts with more than 30 private charities who run homeless shelters. That’s a plus, as private and faith-based charities can do things government institutions cannot. Theroux has served on Salvation Army boards for about 20 years because its “approach is to help people help themselves.” The Salvation Army’s Oakland Garden Street Shelter for families requires that parents stay clean and sober. There are random drug tests, Salvation Army Capt. Daniel Williams told me, and “we search bags every day.” The shelter encourages parents to attend Friday night recovery meetings at the church — which provides stability for the children. Without this system, Williams told me, “We become more of just a place to stay, not a place to get your life together.”

Hold the same standards for all

If working people can’t pitch tents and camp out on public streets, no one should be able to do so. Mayor Ed Lee understood this when he ordered the Department of Public Health to clear a rat-infested encampment on Division Street in February.

How can a board of supervisors that passed an ordinance that won’t allow merchants to give away plastic bags nonetheless give clean needles to junkies who litter with used needles? Used syringes are a public health hazard — yet City Hall subsidizes needle access programs that do not require users to bring in used needles in exchange for clean syringes.

Quoth Theroux: “You’re always going to have some people who can’t be helped and who are going to wallow in this, but you don’t have to subsidize it and you don’t have to encourage it.”

Let residents own their neighborhoods

There’s something to be said for people taking charge of their neighborhood’s safety instead of expecting government to do it for them. San Francisco has a number of Community Benefit Districts, funded by local merchants, who hire cleanup crews and law enforcement. There’s a more direct link between those who pay for the benefit districts and those who serve them. Some districts hire regular police officers to patrol their communities. The Castro/Upper Market Community Benefit District uses Patrol Specials — a privately paid police force that operates under the City Charter. Patrol Specials — which Bergerac said costs about half what San Francisco police officers cost — can make citizens’ arrests, contact SFPD about illegal behavior and ask sidewalk squatters to behave or move on.

Theroux also sees a role for the Guardian Angels, a volunteer safety patrol group, and Neighborhood Watch groups.

The advantage of more law enforcement, Chamber of Commerce Veep Jim Lazarus noted, is that their presence changes a block’s atmosphere: “They don’t even have to arrest anybody.”

Remove barriers to cheap housing

Theroux advocates for “cheap housing” — not the same thing as affordable housing, which tends to be bigger and permanent. She sees the “tiny house” movement as a means of providing small homes for those in need. Homeless czar Dodge responded that the city has small homes — residential hotel rooms. He called proposed “tiny house” villages “shantytowns.” He fears the same serious health hazards that plague large tent encampments.

OK, but there are other tiny homes. When I noted that San Francisco doesn’t have an RV park, Dodge offered that he would be interested in working with a neighborhood to set up a place where RVs now parked on streets can hook up to electricity and water. “An RV park would be another kind of step,” Dodge noted, especially because everyone knows there already are “people living in RVs on city streets.”

Know when not to be too libertarian

Sometimes safety trumps ideology. Even if you think the federal War on Drugs is misguided, as I do, there is a role for local law enforcement when dealers brazenly sell drugs and users shoot up on Market Street. Proposition 47, the 2014 ballot measure that reduced criminal penalties for drug offenses, has made drug possession an infraction. Use drugs, get a ticket. Nonetheless, San Francisco Police Lt. Mike Nevin told me, drug dealing remains a felony. Good. There’s a handy way to make street dealers afraid of getting caught and going to jail. Arrest them.

Hard-core libertarians believe that private charities can help those in need better than governments can, in part because coercive government programs often subsidize the wrong behavior. In a speech about what some call the “voluntary city,” economist Robert P. Murphy stressed that it is wrong to equate free-market conservatism with sink-or-swim social Darwinism. “You can admit that ‘yes, there is a need in a humane society for institutions that take care of people who are poor, who maybe made poor life decisions, or who just got struck with some rare disease or things beyond their control.’ We don’t want as a society to sit back and let those people die in the street.” He sees the answer in voluntary philanthropic organizations. I’ll take whatever works.

Email Debra J. Saunders at [email protected].

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