The Unheavenly City

J. S. ScifoUndesignated Leave a Comment


Although California faces many crises—housing, energy, affordability generally, public disorder bordering on mayhem—none is more vexing than homelessness.

It is no accident that most of the problems referenced above have at their root some misguided government policy. However, unlike those problems, homelessness has the additional misfortune of resulting, to a large degree, from the dysfunction of an individual human.

In reaction to this human tragedy, the response of many (if not most) people is to seize on a single, seemingly obvious solution, that of providing shelter. After all, if any of us found ourselves on the street, we would gladly accept an offer of assistance. Unfortunately, the homeless are not like us.

In his 1968 book “The Unheavenly City,” addressing what used to be called “urban problems,” Harvard professor Edward Banfield described the phenomenon by which middle- and upper-middle class voters distort policy by assuming that the poor think like they do.  Furthermore, the well-off are motivated by a service ethic (largely based on America’s Puritan tradition) that leads to what we would today call virtue signaling:

“Believing that any problem can be solved if we only try hard enough, we do not hesitate to attempt what we do not have the least idea of how to do and what, in some instances, reason and experience both tell us cannot be done….In reality, the doing of good is not so much for the benefit of those to whom the good is done as it is for the doers.”

In much the same way, the state’s approach to the homeless conundrum is based on the idea that homelessness is just another policy problem that can be fixed with the right programs and massive funding.

Speaking of virtue signaling, in a recent story on homelessness, the Voice of San Diego takes some satisfaction in debunking the myth that homelessness and mental health are related:

“The combined percentage of people who have experienced serious depression, anxiety, had trouble remembering or concentrating or dealt with hallucinations was 82 percent. It’s worth noting though the largest portion of that group had experienced depression or anxiety…”

That’s hardly a consolation. Based on my (admittedly) limited research into the matter, German psychiatrists created the diagnoses of depression (and schizophrenia) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to replace more outdated terminology, such as lunacy and madness.

As to drugs, VOSD cites a UCSF study finding that nearly two-thirds of homeless people “regularly used” hard drugs and alcohol.

And yet, instead of drawing the obvious conclusion, VOSD opted to point out that drug abuse was just one of “many other overlapping complications” in the lives of the homeless.

Having ruled out the two most commonly cited “causes” of homelessness, VOSD, like the rest of us, is left wondering what it is that causes homelessness.

I too do not consider mental health issues and drug abuse to be “THE” causes of homelessness.  They are only symptoms.  And while VOSD points to the lack of affordable housing as the root cause of homelessness, I am left wondering what are the root causes of mental health problems and drug abuse, at least on the scale that we are now witnessing in California.

And though I cannot prove it (such proof is nonexistent in any empirical sense) neither can I shake the belief that the real cause of the kind of concentrated, perpetual, widespread homelessness (of the type we are now experiencing in California) is a profound moral and spiritual crisis.    It also points to something deeply flawed with a society that could create so many broken people.  Here too, VOSD’s reporting that most of San Diego’s homeless are home grown is hardly reassuring.

Still, I am convinced that the idea that there is—primarily—a policy solution (i.e., services combined with accessible housing) to homelessness misses the point entirely.

In July, the San Diego Taxpayers Educational Foundation announced that governments in San Diego County had spent $2.3 billion on homelessness services since 2015.  This in addition to the $18 billion spent by the State towards those same efforts.

If you’re still wondering how California can spend billions to solve homelessness with no appreciable improvements (and some evidence the problem got worst) the answer is simple:  homelessness cannot be fixed with money.

There will never be enough money or shelter beds or programs or clinicians or “affordable” (read free) housing to solve the homelessness problem.

As I have written previously, the policies that might have helped to minimize, and even prevent, homelessness from becoming a crisis—namely, the basic enforcement of law and order—are exactly the policies that the progressives who run the state do not want to employ.  This hits on another of Banfield’s insights that the policies that are feasible are often not acceptable to the well-off (upper-middle class, college educated, suburban white people) who form public opinion, and vice versa.

The Unheavenly City stands opposed to the heavenly City Upon a Hill (as much as conservatives love that imagery).  It is a place where people pursue the possible for the good it might do instead of the fanciful for the way it makes them feel.

Towards the end of his book Banfield ponders that if this “altruistic bias” is the tendency in a well-off society, what shall happen in the super-affluent one.  Fifty years on, we in California know the answer to that question.

J.S. Scifo is a North County resident who has worked in national and state politics.


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