Is California headed for a right-wing backlash? This question has hovered over the state’s politics for years now, as the public’s frustration with homelessness and property crime has escalated. To date, the evidence has been decidedly mixed. The most recent mayoral election in Los Angeles was supposed to be a referendum on this matter, but much to the chagrin of those declaring a new purple wave in Southern California, Karen Bass, an establishment progressive, defeated Rick Caruso, a real-estate billionaire and former Republican who promised to “clean up” the city. Up north, the recall of Chesa Boudin in San Francisco was supposed to be proof that voters in a famously liberal city had had enough, but soon after Boudin was recalled, Pamela Price, a fellow-progressive, was elected as the district attorney of Alameda County. Now Price herself is facing a similar recall campaign, which some would marshal as proof that “the wokes” have lost for good.
The lack of clarity has led to some strange decisions by a few of California’s most prominent liberal politicians, who are responding in a myriad of ways to the possibility of a rightward swing. Last week in San Francisco, London Breed, the city’s mayor, announced a bill to deny welfare benefits to anyone “suffering from substance-use disorder” who was not enrolled in a drug rehabilitation or treatment program. “No more handouts without accountability,” Breed said. “In order to receive resources from our city, you will need to be in a substance-use-disorder program and consistently seeking treatment.” The plan received an approving “bravo” tweet from Elon Musk. The city’s progressives and homeless advocates voiced their dissent to what they correctly see as an egregiously punitive policy, straight out of the Reagan era.
Breed’s plan demonizes the “service resistant” homeless population that so often becomes the center of any conversation about homelessness in California. These people, the story goes, refuse all government assistance and shelter, and choose instead to take advantage of a liberal city’s lax enforcement laws to openly use drugs and cause public disturbances. In reality, such people make up a small minority of the homeless population. But, even if we were to indulge in Breed’s fantasy, and say that there are hundreds of addicts in San Francisco who would finally enter treatment under threat of losing their welfare benefits, it seems clear that there are not enough “substance-use disorder” programs that can take on any new patients. A report in the San Francisco Standard found that roughly half of the city’s drug users who sought treatment were not admitted into San Francisco’s biggest drug-detox center. As I’ve reported before, the existing services suffer from chronic staffing shortages that lead to long delays. People fall through the cracks, and end up either back on the streets or dead.
Breed has her usual combatants, most notably Dean Preston, a leftist, Democratic Socialists of America-backed board supervisor (San Francisco’s equivalent to a city-council member), but both Rafael Mandelman, a moderate who represents the Castro district, and his colleague Matt Haney, the darling of the powerful pro-development YIMBY movement in the Bay Area, suggested that the city wouldn’t be able to handle the increased demand for treatment that could come with Breed’s new punitive program. “With the city failing to provide immediately accessible substance use services for those currently seeking such services,” Mandelman wrote on Twitter, “I have concerns about the City’s ability to successfully move this initiative forward.”
Haney said that Breed’s proposal was “shockingly unserious for a city facing a horrific and deadly public-health-and-public-safety drug crisis.” He also pointed out what should be obvious to anyone who knows anything about basic economics: “Taking away limited assistance from people who may be sick with an addiction or simply unable to make an appointment and putting them on the sidewalk again will lead to even worse chaos on our streets.”
I’ve written extensively about how the homelessness crisis in California cannot be solved by big ideas, for as long as the underlying staffing and infrastructural problems persist. Municipalities and the state can throw billions of dollars at the problem, but until they find a way to replace the existing patchwork of third-party nonprofits, much of that money will go to waste.
Breed, I imagine, knows all this. We can guess that her motivation for such a silly policy likely comes, instead, from her electoral ambitions. Breed is up for reëlection in 2src24, and as Joe Eskenazi of Mission Local, a San Francisco news site, pointed out last Tuesday, her main challenger, Daniel Lurie, a forty-six-year-old philanthropist and an heir to the Levi Strauss fortune, will likely try to compete with her for the moderate vote. Lurie says that he decided to run for mayor when he was walking his two young children to school and saw a naked man stumbling down the street. His platform includes increased police staffing, compulsory psychiatric treatment for severely mentally ill people, and more shelter beds. Breed’s office, in turn, told the New York Times that Lurie lacked the current mayor’s government experience, but that his ideas “did not depart from what the mayor was already trying to do.”
Essentially, the voters of San Francisco will be faced with two candidates having a tough-talk competition. Both candidates are worried about escalating crime and homelessness, and believe the city has become far too permissive on both fronts; both seem to be trying to create a coalition between standard conservatives and the increasingly conservative and highly influential Chinese American voting bloc. (Lurie, for his part, promised to put foot patrols in Chinatown in response to attacks against Asian elders.) This may make sense in an electoral sense, but if Breed’s most recent proposal is any indication, the incoming rightward flex-off between Breed and Lurie will be totally divorced from reality.
There is no question that homelessness and addiction in the state should be the top priorities for any elected official—not just because voters care but because the crises deserve real solutions. Blaming people battling addiction and threatening them with potential financial ruin might satisfy someone like Elon Musk, but the game that Breed is playing now is both cynical and a waste of everyone’s time. Maybe all of this will teach Breed the lesson that she should have learned when she cheered on the recall of Chesa Boudin: if the problems—homelessness, crime—stay the same once you’ve disposed of your political enemies, the next backlash is coming straight for you. ♦