How Progressive Policies Aggravated Homeless Crisis During COVID-19

Image:“Homeless Rough Sleeper” by Deadly Sirius is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The coronavirus crisis has taken a particular toll on the homeless community. Christopher Rufo, a documentary filmmaker and director of Discovery Institute’s Center on Wealth and Poverty, joins the podcast to talk about how West Coast progressives have failed the homeless. He also discusses which, if any, areas in the country are handling the homeless crisis during the coronavirus pandemic well, and what might happen if there is no change in policies on the West Coast for the homeless. Read the lightly edited transcript, pasted below, or listen to the interview on the podcast: 

We also cover these stories:

  • President Donald Trump sounds a warning note about state bailouts.
  • Trump says an internal document from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that says coronavirus deaths are projected to reach 3,000 daily by June 1 didn’t take mitigation efforts into account.
  • Rep. John Ratcliffe, Trump’s pick to be the next director of national intelligence, said in his Senate hearing Tuesday that he will be independent in his work if confirmed. 

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Rachel del Guidice: We’re joined today on The Daily Signal Podcast by Christopher Rufo. He’s a documentary filmmaker, contributing editor at City Journal, and research fellow at Discovery Institute Center on Wealth, Poverty, and Morality. Christopher, it’s great to have you on The Daily Signal Podcast.

Christopher Rufo: It’s great to be with you.

Del Guidice: Chris, you’ve studied homelessness extensively. And are homeless Americans at risk for coronavirus more so than others? And what about, as well, giving it to others?

Rufo: Yeah, there are actually two key vulnerabilities when you’re thinking about coronavirus and the homeless population. 

First is that public health experts are now saying that homeless shelters and homeless encampments are really one of the most dangerous vectors for transmission. Because within shelters, for example, it’s very hard to maintain social distancing. People are living at very close quarters. 

And even in the outdoor illegal tent cities and encampments that you’d find in cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, because of the nature and culture of those encampments, what you’re seeing, and what I’ve seen on the streets the past few weeks, is that people are not following any social distancing guidelines. 

There are open-air drug markets operating in the Tenderloin in San Francisco and Skid Row in Los Angeles. And you’re seeing hundreds of people congregating in very close quarters without any countermeasures to prevent transmission.

But the second key element is that if you look at the health dynamics of the homeless, they’re actually medically more vulnerable because of preexisting health conditions. 

According to a UCLA study that came out recently, among the unsheltered homeless, roughly three-quarters suffer from substance abuse disorders, mental health illnesses, and chronic physical conditions. 

So it’s really not only a vector for transmission, but potentially could be devastating to the people who are already suffering from previous health conditions.

Del Guidice: You recently had a piece in The Daily Signal talking about how coronavirus exposes how West Coast progressives have failed the homeless. How has this happened?

Rufo: I think that the biggest thing that’s happened over the past 10 years, there has been a narrative that homelessness is predominantly a housing problem. But as we just talked about, there’s actually a series of human problems that contribute to homelessness, and make it really hard for people to emerge from homelessness. 

The two key problems are substance abuse and mental illness. We know from federal data as well as data from the state and local level that about three-quarters of the people who are unsheltered have a substance abuse disorder or a mental illness.

Progressives have really willfully ignored and denied these problems, but the coronavirus has really revealed them in full force. 

We’re even starting to see progressive leaders like the mayor of San Francisco, London Breed, who came out just this week and said we can’t just simply provide housing. 

It’s a really difficult population to help because of substance abuse disorder, because of mental illness. And even though the city of San Francisco has leased hundreds and now thousands of hotel rooms, they’re finding that these human challenges are really at the crux of the issue.

So the coronavirus has really exposed something that we’ve known for a while, but the political class in progressive cities has been able to maintain a denial for. And fortunately, and unfortunately, they can no longer maintain that position.

Del Guidice: Chris, you talked about and briefly mentioned earlier how these encampments on the West Coast in cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, they did have a potential to basically become a tinderbox for infection. Has this happened now that we’re just starting May? Looking back to a few months ago, is this something that the West Coast is having to deal with right now?

Rufo: It is. There’s really something that I don’t think there’s been any kind of definitive explanation for, but it actually delayed the kind of spread that they were fearing in homeless encampments for a few weeks. 

As you know, the West Coast cities have actually emerged without huge problems like you’ve seen in New York. And for the first few weeks, as I was talking with people who work in some of the biggest shelters in West Coast cities, they said, “Hey, thankfully, we haven’t had any big outbreaks.” 

But that all changed about 10 days ago, about 14 days ago in Los Angeles where we started seeing the first numbers of confirmed coronavirus outbreaks within homeless shelters. 

Then what happened is that it spread very quickly, much like you’ve seen in nursing homes, another place where there’s really close contact and a vulnerable population. You saw one homeless shelter in San Francisco where within a matter of days, [it] went up to 100 infections.

So the political leaders are faced with a really vexing political choice. The shelters that they’ve set up to kind of provide mass housing are now starting to see their first infections. But there’s really no other good option. So instead of trying to quickly address this problem, political leaders now are essentially giving up. 

In San Francisco, they’re creating open parking lots where people can camp. There are currently, actually, … tents and kind of homeless encampments surrounding San Francisco City Hall on all sides. 

So it’s really chaotic, and it’s not only a public health problem, but it’s really metamorphosized into a very apparent and very serious political problem.

Del Guidice: Looking back [at] kind of how we got here, how would you say the West Coast homelessness response has complicated the current coronavirus situation?

Rufo: The West Coast homelessness response has really created the conditions for this to be a problem in the first place. West Coast cities are spending an absolutely enormous sum of money to address homelessness. 

According to latest data in Seattle and King County, it’s more than a billion dollars a year. In the city and County of San Francisco, it’s more than a billion dollars a year. And in the city and County of Los Angeles, if you include both public and private spending, it’s well over a billion dollars a year. So we’re spending huge sums of money. 

But what we’ve seen year, after year, after year are more people on the streets, are more people addicted to drugs like heroin and methamphetamine, and more people who are suffering from mental illness are flocking to West Coast cities because of their permissive public policies.

So while this seems like a new emerging crisis and a kind of emergency situation, West Coast leaders who have failed to meaningfully address homelessness for now more than 20 years, have really set up all of these conditions, and they’re really just manifesting themselves in this moment. 

But I think that when the coronavirus is over, it’s time for West Coast voters and citizens and policymakers to really do a top-to-bottom audit of their current policies, figure out what contributed to this problem and this emergency, and then really go for a complete overhaul. Because what’s happened hasn’t worked and it’s really just set up this problem to continue in the future.

Del Guidice: Is there any area in the country that is handling the homeless crisis during this coronavirus pandemic well?

Rufo: Yeah. I mean, I think certainly you see a huge disparity between different cities and different geographical regions, and the number of infections. But if you really look to a city that I think has done a great job tackling homelessness, it’s really Houston, Texas. … 

Again, Houston is a big city. It’s an expensive city. Rents have gone up significantly in the past 10 years. On the surface, it has many of the same dynamics as other large cities and West Coast cities. But what Houston has done is they’ve adopted fundamentally different policies toward homelessness. 

The city of Houston and Harris County in conjunction with federal government, they have built housing, they have built emergency shelters, they have created programs that are compassionate, that really offer people help. But what they’ve done in addition to that, that West Coast cities have failed to do, is they’ve actually instituted a policy of responsibility and a policy of enforcement.

So the rhetoric from Houston and really the policies of Houston have been, “We’re going to offer you a hand up. We’re going to offer you compassion and help. But it’s your responsibility to accept it, to accept housing, to accept services. And it’s your responsibility to not camp on the streets, or else we’re going to enforce the law.” 

I think that Houston’s model of what I’m calling “compassionate enforcement” is quite different than the model of unlimited permissiveness from Seattle, or San Francisco, or Los Angeles. And you see the results. Whereas the homeless population in cities like Seattle doubled in roughly the past 10 years, the city of Houston has been able to reduce it by more than half.

So the outcomes tell the story. And if you work backward to understand the policies, it’s really the cities who have combined compassion with enforcement, with services, and responsibility that have been able to make a big difference. And I think that’s now paying dividends with the [coronavirus] crisis.

Del Guidice: Thanks for sharing the insight. BuzzFeed just had a piece out about how there are thousands of empty hotel rooms across the U.S. And, basically, the piece was asking the question, why can’t homeless people use them through this time of quarantine? And my question to you is, why don’t you think these hotel rooms, this availability, have been able to be utilized by the homeless? Is there an opportunity here or is there another consideration that people should be looking at?

Rufo: In fact, leaders in Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles have leased thousands upon thousands of hotel rooms in the past 60 days. But what they’re finding is that it’s not just a housing problem. It’s actually very difficult to persuade people who are living on the streets, who are suffering from substance abuse disorders, suffering from mental illness, to persuade them to even accept the housing they found is very difficult. 

You have a large percentage of people who simply don’t want to leave the streets. They’ve … kind of adapted to a culture of street life, a culture of outdoor camping, and they don’t want to go. So that’s the first problem.

But the second problem is that once you move people who may have an addiction to heroin and methamphetamines, who may be suffering from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, or may have a chronic and serious health condition, just moving them into a hotel room is actually not enough. 

Policymakers are finding that there’s high risk of damage to property. There’s high risk of drug dealers, pimps, and other criminals moving into hotel complexes. And there’s still the problem of dealing with those other behavioral and social pathologies. 

So again, London Breed in San Francisco has actually admitted something that they have been denying for years. She said it’s very hard to move this population that … has such high rates of behavioral problems into hotel rooms without setting up a really vast social service apparatus.

So the folks at BuzzFeed are operating on a very narrow logical grounds. They’re saying there are people without homes, and there are empty hotel rooms. One plus one equals two. Problem solved. The problem is that, what they haven’t done is actually go and investigate the deeper problems, the deeper causes, and really the deeper challenges to adopting a policy like that, which, frankly, hasn’t worked out very well in the past 60 days.

Del Guidice: Fox News also had an article out this week saying that hundreds of homeless tested positive for coronavirus in Denver and that shelter workers also ended up getting sick. What do you think should be done in situations like this?

Rufo: What I’ve seen in the people that I’ve talked to is a tremendous amount of courage and compassion on behalf of shelter workers. 

Here in Seattle, Washington, when one of the largest homeless shelters at the Union Gospel Mission went into lockdown, they had staff members volunteer to lock down with the homeless inside the shelter and really ride out a 14-day quarantine. 

So homeless shelter workers are really on the front lines of dealing with a crucial challenge and they’re putting themselves at risk to help the homeless.

I think it’s our responsibility as a society and the responsibility of policymakers to try to rapidly create solutions so that in five years, 10 years, 20 years, we don’t have to ask people to really put themselves at risk in this way.

And I think that the only thing that can ultimately reverse course is adopting a policy of compassionate enforcement and really trying to create programs that can transform people’s lives so we can not only move people off the streets, but we can actually get them on the path toward self-sufficiency. 

That really should be the kind of guiding light, the lodestar for all of the policies that we’re thinking about, not only during this time of the coronavirus emergency, but moving forward far into the future.

Del Guidice: … In your piece, you wrote that once life returns to normal, citizens must hold the inept leadership of America’s West Coast … accountable for their actions. If they do not immediately change course, they will cause tremendous harm to those on the streets. So what might happen if there is no change in policies on the West Coast for the homeless?

Rufo: We’re seeing it already. I mean, we’ve seen it growing the past 10 years, and it’s really just accelerated. And what you’re seeing is the creation of an entirely new class of people that have been relegated to the streets, that have been really enabled and normalized in their addictions. Then we’re also casting out a large group of people suffering from severe mental illness through no fault of their own onto the streets. 

What we’re seeing the creation of now in Skid Row in Los Angeles, and the Tenderloin in San Francisco, and Pioneer Square in Seattle, is we’re seeing the resurgence of open-air drug markets. We’re seeing now thousands of people sleeping on the streets, sleeping in tents, sleeping in packing crates. And there’s no viable proposed solution to really end that kind of human misery.

In the larger socioeconomic perspective, I think what we’re seeing is the emergence of elite West Coast cities that are home to really the affluent and the indigent. 

Many of these cities are quickly losing their old middle class. And what we’re seeing is either kind of a progressive, tech-driven wealth at the top and the really destitute, and disordered, and the homeless at the bottom. I think that that is fundamentally counter to what we’re trying to do. 

The great irony is that the cities that have progressive leaders who have most kind of aggressively denounced inequality are the same leaders who are creating the greatest inequality in the United States today.

Del Guidice: As we close up, what would your word of advice be to city officials and others who do have a role to play and do have leadership in this area? What would you encourage them to do to help address this homelessness crisis?

Rufo: I would just remind everyone that local policies matter. There are state homelessness programs, there are significant multibillion-dollar funding at the federal level, but, ultimately, these are all local problems, local challenges, and require local solutions. 

What I would leave in people’s minds is that you see, even within the same region, … cities that adopt different policies have different outcomes. And no matter what size city you are, no matter what kind of budget or resources you have as a city, you can take steps to intelligently address homelessness, get people off the streets, and really disincentivize people from coming to your city, from camping in your city, from succumbing to addiction in your city. 

City leaders should not be shy in adopting policies that protect average citizens, and also insist on a certain amount of compassion and responsibility for those people who are experiencing homelessness.

Del Guidice: One last thing, … you do have a film coming out. Can you tell listeners quickly about it and where they can go to find it?

Rufo: Yeah. I spent five years exploring life in three forgotten American cities: Youngstown, Ohio; Memphis, Tennessee; and Stockton, California. And I’m really looking at these declining cities through the lens of families that are struggling to make it. … 

The film … is going to be broadcasting later this year on PBS. But it’s now currently available at And for Daily Signal listeners, they can actually watch the film for free in its entirety before it comes out on National PBS at It’s just 

It touches on a lot of these themes: the collapse of family; the kind of decline of work, meaningful work, and stable work in these communities; and really the fraying of the social fabric that I think we’re seeing throughout the American interior.

Del Guidice: Christopher, thank you so much for joining us on The Daily Signal Podcast. It’s been a pleasure to have you.

Rufo: Thank you.

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Rachel del Guidice is a congressional reporter for The Daily Signal. She is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, Forge Leadership Network, and The Heritage Foundation’s Young Leaders Program. Send an email to Rachel. Reproduced with permission. Original here.