How San Francisco Fell
And how it might rise again.
Hi from Nellie — I hope you’re having a wonderful weekend.
Common Sense is my home, but sometimes I moonlight (which hopefully brings in new subscribers!). This past week, I wrote a big story in the Atlantic about a topic we’ve covered here before and that Common Sense readers know well: The state of San Francisco.
It’s a hopeful story, in the end. Because this was the week Chesa Boudin was handily recalled from office.
Thank you for reading. And see you, as always, on Friday. — NB
If you’re going to die on the street, San Francisco is not a bad place to do it. The fog keeps things temperate. There’s nowhere in the world with more beautiful views. City workers and volunteers bring you food and blankets, needles and tents. Doctors come to see how the fentanyl is progressing, and to make sure the rest of you is all right as you go.
In February 2021, at a corner in the lovely Japantown neighborhood, just a few feet from a house that would soon sell for $4.8 million, a 37-year-old homeless man named Dustin Walker died by the side of the road. His body lay there for at least 11 hours. He wore blue shorts and even in death clutched his backpack.
I can’t stop thinking about how long he lay there, dead, on that corner, and how normal this was in our putatively gentle city. San Franciscans are careful to use language that centers people’s humanity—you don’t say “a homeless person”; you say “someone experiencing homelessness”—and yet we live in a city where many of those people die on the sidewalk.
Here is a list of some of the organizations that work with the city to fight overdoses and to generally make life more pleasant for the people on the street: Street Crisis Response Team, EMS-6, Street Overdose Response Team, San Francisco Homeless Outreach Team, Street Medicine and Shelter Health, DPH Mobile Crisis Team, Street Wellness Response Team, and Compassionate Alternative Response Team. The city also funds thousands of shelter beds and many walk-in clinics.
The budget to tackle homelessness and provide supportive housing has been growing exponentially for years. In 2021, the city announced that it would pour more than $1 billion into the issue over the next two years. But almost 8,000 people remain on the streets.
Alison Hawkes, a spokesperson for the Department of Public Health, said money spent on the well-being of the homeless goes to good use: Many people “end up remaining on the street but in a better situation. Their immediate needs are taken care of.”
But many are clearly in an awful situation. San Francisco saw 92 drug deaths in 2015. There were about 700 in 2020. By way of comparison, that year, 261 San Franciscans died of COVID.
Of course, you can’t blame the plague of meth and opioids on my hometown. Fentanyl is a national catastrophe. But people addicted to drugs come from all over the country in part for the services San Francisco provides. In addition to the supervised drug-use facility in the plaza, San Francisco has a specially sanctioned and city-maintained slum a block from City Hall, where food, medical care, and counseling are free, and every tent costs taxpayers roughly $60,000 a year. People addicted to fentanyl come, too, because buying and doing drugs here is so easy. In 2014, Proposition 47, a state law, downgraded drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, and one that Boudin said he wouldn’t devote resources to prosecuting.
The city’s approach to drug use and homelessness is distinctly San Franciscan, blending empathy-driven progressivism with California libertarianism. The roots of this belief system reach back to the ’60s, when hippies filled the streets with tents and weed. The city has always had a soft spot for vagabonds, and an admirable focus on care over punishment. Policy makers and residents largely embraced the exciting idea that people should be able to do whatever they want to do, including live in tent cities and have fun with drugs and make their own medical decisions, even if they are out of their mind sometimes. But then fentanyl arrived, and more and more people started dying in those tents. When the pandemic began, the drug crisis got worse.
In 2019, someone posted a picture in a Facebook group called B.A.R.T. Rants & Raves, where people complain about the state of the regional transportation system. The photo was of a young man, slumped over on a train. People were chiming in about how gross the city was.
A woman named Jacqui Berlinn wrote in the comments, simply: “That’s my son.”
And if you missed Michael Shellenberger’s earlier essay for us—Slow-Motion Suicide in San Francisco—don’t sleep on it.