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Culture War Roundup for the week of August 14, 2023

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Has the Beinoff Homelessness and Housing Initiative Report been discussed yet here? You can read the report here, an executive summary here, and a transcript of the report being discussed on the Ezra Klein Show here.

Released in June, it’s a statewide study on homelessness in California, the largest of its kind in some thirty years. It’s built on “nearly 3,200 participants, selected intentionally to provide a representative sample, and weighted data to provide statewide estimates. To augment survey responses, we recruited 365 participants to participate in in-depth interviews”. No question as to the state of focus: California is just over a tenth of the American population but nearly a third of its homeless population and nearly half of the unsheltered homeless population.

Approximately one in five participants (19%) entered homelessness from an institution (such as a prison or prolonged jail stay); 49% from a housing situation in which participants didn’t have their name on a lease or mortgage (non-leaseholder), and 32% from a housing situation where they had their name on a lease or mortgage (leaseholder)...Leaseholders reported a median of 10 days notice that they were going to lose their housing, while non-leaseholders reported a median of one day.

Other takeaways are that contra claims that homeless populations are traveling to California for warm weather or social services, 90% of interviewed participants said they were from California (and 75% from the same county they were homeless in), and backed it up with various details about their hometowns and whatnot. This also aligns with the finding that only about a third of the homeless even sought out government services, suggesting that most people are not taking advantage of whatever unique government services for the homeless California offers (which aren't good anyway). This overall makes some common sense imo - if you’re so broke you don’t have somewhere to live then your options for travel are likely limited as well.

The paper is interesting as a resource in its own right, but I think it’s most useful combined with the claims made in a book referenced in the Ezra Klein discussion of the report: “Homelessness is a Housing Problem.”

The piece argues that housing costs are the primary driving factor behind homelessness. For those who claim that homelessness is mostly a reflection of insanity and addiction, researchers point out that those things are frequently worse in other states with less severe homeless problems (correlations available in the hyperlink).

For instance, West Virginia has worse poverty, mental health, and substance abuse, but has a homeless problem vastly less bad than California's (0.09% vs 0.4%). The only thing California performs worse than West Virginia on is, predictably, housing costs. Or why does San Francisco, with a poverty rate of 11.4%, have such a worse homelessness problem (0.95%) than much poorer cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New Orleans, all of which have poverty rates more than twice as high around 23% and homelessness rates around only 0.27%? The clearest answer is the most straightforward: San Francisco is simply twice as expensive to live in (a studio apartment in SF is little over $2k vs a little over 1k for the other three cities). This also lines up with the survey responses, with 89% of respondents saying housing costs were a barrier to them finding housing.

This doesn’t necessarily mean those mental health and addiction aren’t highly important here are as well, but that there may be a demographic of fairly low functioning people who are able to take care of themselves, just barely, at low costs, but are simply unable to under heavier financial burdens. Jerusalem Demsas compares this to a game of musical chairs: as you take away chairs one by one steadily the slower and weaker kids will find themselves without a place to sit. But if you don’t have enough chairs / are going through a severe housing shortage, of course you’re gonna have a worse chairlessness problem then elsewhere, even if their kids are slower and weaker.

And once you’re out, it can be very hard to get back on your feet. Your credit history is gonna be terrible, as is your appearance. Maybe you live in your car for a while but then it gets impounded because you have nowhere legal to park it and can’t pay for the tickets. Then you’ve lost your shelter as well as your ability to go to a job. From there you’re really in the streets, which is scary - some people may take uppers due to fear of being asleep in public where people can hurt you or steal from you, and thus pick up addictions. Things spiral very fast from bad to worse.

Taken together, these suggest early intervention and a clear policy prescription to build more housing and do what can be done to lower costs - not because every disheveled person on the street is a fresh-faced suburban homeowner waiting to happen, but specifically the opposite - that every poor or unstable person living on the cusp of not being able to afford where they stay bears the risk that it’ll be much harder for them to bounce back from a fall than to sustain where they are.

Interested to hear what other people thought.

As the other replies have said, the vast majority of “homeless” people are unemployed or mostly unemployed people living in their parents’/friend’s/trap house or in their car or couchsurfing. Even the majority of homeless people of no fixed abode aren’t like those living in tents on Venice Beach. These people can indeed be helped by cheaper housing costs or state-subsidized housing schemes. But they also aren’t what is usually meant by the public when talking about the homeless problem.

The problem is with the minority of homeless who are psychotic fent or meth addicted predators. These are the people living on the street in San Francisco or LA and causing problems for everyone else. Demography of the more general “homeless” population isn’t relevant. These are people who deliberately refuse shelters with space because they want to stay on the street to do drugs, offering them housing isn’t going to solve that problem or associated problems with drug-related crime done by people who want a fix.

It seems plausible that the absence of affordable housing for the first type of person creates a pipeline whereby they are more likely to become the second type of person.

This seems likely.

But, in my mind, the biggest thing that turns a type 1 down-on-their luck person into a type 2 pants pooper is the wide availability of fentanyl and heroin on the streets today.

Fixing housing affordability issues seems is a hard problem. Fixing housing affordability has never been done by any country (as far as I know).

Meanwhile, there are lots of countries with essentially zero drug use. Taiwan, China, Singapore, and Japan have don't have drugs. And unlike the Prohibition Al Capone memes, these countries also have very few if any gangs. We could reduce drug use by a ton and it wouldn't be that hard. All it would take is a serious effort to criminalize drugs.

And before anyone says "War on Drugs didn't work", we should take a look at the overdose stats. Overdoses deaths in the U.S. are up 1000% since the 1980s. The correct take, IMO, is that the war on drugs did work. We just didn't do it hard enough and gave up too soon.

But, in my mind, the biggest thing that turns a type 1 down-on-their luck person into a type 2 pants pooper is the wide availability of fentanyl and heroin on the streets today.

I think it's meth much more than opiates. Opiates can kill you and make you unproductive, but they don't fry your brain and give you psychosis like hardcore simulants do.

And before anyone says "War on Drugs didn't work", we should take a look at the overdose stats. Overdoses deaths in the U.S. are up 1000% since the 1980s. The correct take, IMO, is that the war on drugs did work. We just didn't do it hard enough and gave up too soon.

The main reason overdoses are up is that fentanyl is really potent and easy to overdose on, but it's also the most popular illegal opiate because it's cheap to make and can be smuggled across the border in large quantities because it's so concentrated. If lower potency opiates (and narcan) could be purchased legally over the counter, fentanyl use and fentanyl deaths would plummet.

If lower potency opiates (and narcan) could be purchased legally over the counter, fentanyl use and fentanyl deaths would plummet.

Only if we legalized it the right way, which we wouldn't. Look how we legalized marijuana. See how it's celebrated and commercialized now with billboards and brightly lit stores in every shitty small town in America. If we do the same for opioids, usage will go through the roof - as will overdoses.

I would advocate a method where junkies can, under medical supervision, get free opioids in a super boring and lame way that ensures no one will ever do it for fun. That would have the effect of making street dealers unprofitable while reducing the chance of non-junkies getting hooked. Long prison sentences for dealers will do the rest.

If we do the same for opioids, usage will go through the roof

You don't need the dependent clause. We can just do the math (economics). Many moons ago, at the old old old place, I did an estimate, ignoring any effect of removing criminal penalties, ignoring any effect of branding/marketing/whathaveyou, ignoring any cultural or other developments which could change the elasticities, of how usage of marijuana might change in response to the change in price that was observed. Let's just say that anyone who thinks that usage of drugs is going to go down (or even stay flat) in response to legalization is getting high on their own supply. Marginal Revolution just referred to Portugal. The Bloody Atlantic is almost going after Oregon. It was trendy to think otherwise for a while (I believed it when I was a kid), but like most silly lefty trends, at some point the need to shut out the data and embrace cognitive dissonance becomes too difficult.

The question isn't whether drug use will go down; it's whether ODs will go down. I suspect they would; if you know how much you're getting you're not going to OD because your usual hit is 10x the potency.

Of course if you legalized hard drugs the way pot has been legalized in NY or NJ that might not work, but that's because government can screw anything up. You also can't just decriminalize possession (like Oregon did); you have to legalize production and sales.

This line of thinking is tempting as well, that it's just product uncertainty. There may be some factor, but I'm skeptical that it would be the overwhelming factor that a lot of people think. One could easily talk about two movies from this image. In one movie, fentanyl is primarily about product uncertainty, and that has driven a rise in deaths. In another movie, fentanyl is just way more potent and way more dangerous in general, so of course it's going to be higher. But hell, there are still quite a few prescription opioid deaths there; those are chugging along, even though they don't have the same product uncertainty problem. Instead, they mostly fit into the ordering just fine in terms of inherent danger of the substance, regardless of product uncertainty.

Even alcohol is still chugging along, causing deaths, even though there's basically no product uncertainty there. People still try to cram as much as they can into their bodies, just to see if they can and to see if it feels "super awesome, yo". They still party and try different shit, not actually paying all that much attention to what someone is pouring for them or what pill was handed to them. Certainly not carefully looking up the risk statistics of mixing substances and consulting a dosing chart or whatever. Nah, it's, "GET DAT SHIT IN ME AND LET'S GET SUPER HIGH!"

Maybe I'll try putting it this way... the belief that it's just about product uncertainty smells to me a lot like one of Rob Henderson's luxury beliefs. Sure, you may be a rich upper class person who can manage to make casual cocaine holiday work in your life, so long as there isn't product uncertainty in your cocaine, but for many many other people, life just isn't like that. Intense addiction, the need to try always-increasing quantities, and frankly low intelligence/conscientiousness is just going to lead to deaths mostly in proportion to how inherently dangerous the substances are. Product uncertainty can play a role, but a more minor one.

Finally, even if acute ODs do go down a little, what is the cost in terms of long-term mortality? During alcohol prohibition, the government was literally poisoning alcohol, and yet the health benefits in terms of long-term mortality and such were much more significant than the acute effects of their literal, intentional poisoning.

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