Make no bones about it, many housed people in California are resentful of the rise of tent cities, public drug use and related issues. The fact that witnessing human despair does not equate to experiencing it doesn’t diminish the political backlash against reformers perceived to be “soft on crime.” Just look at the recall election that progressive San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin faces on June 7, which polls suggest he will lose.
The most vocal cadre of anti-homeless Californians has found a savior in Michael Shellenberger, the author of this year’s book San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities, and an independent gubernatorial candidate this cycle. While Shellenberger calls himself an “underdog” candidate, he has already succeeded in influencing the public conversation on these issues, especially in San Francisco.
One of his marquee plans is Cal-Psych. In 2021, Shellenberger and his allies founded the strangely-named California Peace Coalition. That organization’s website sketches out what Cal-Psych might be: “California’s governor must create a state-wide agency, Cal-Psych, to remove addicts and the mentally ill from the street through voluntary drug treatment and psychiatric care, as well as by working with the courts to oversee involuntary care through conservatorship and assisted outpatient treatment. The CEO of Cal-Psych would report directly to the governor and be the best-in-class. And Cal-Psych would have the purchasing power to expand psychiatric beds, navigation shelters, and residential homes across the state.”
Not content with “removing” people from the streets, Shellenberger wants to ship them to distant facilities out of the cities altogether.
Aside from reprehensible word choices that drip with disdain for a population Shellenberger claims he wants to help, the “voluntary” part sounds ok; more mental health care and more accessibility would be good. Yet involuntary, coerced treatment that tramples on rights and isn’t effective is a clear red light.
And then, of course, the plan promises further policing and punishment in neighborhoods that are already suffering crackdowns: “Because a large number of the homeless are addicted to drugs, Cal-Psych social workers would coordinate with law enforcement to break up open air drug scenes like those in the Tenderloin and Skid Row … Addicts who have committed nuisance crimes or crimes to feed their addictions would be offered drug treatment as an alternative to jail…”
Shellenberger elaborates further on his gubernatorial campaign’s website: ”A statewide system will allow us to treat addicts and the mentally ill in parts of California where the cost of living is lower.”
So an unhoused person who uses drugs in San Francisco, say, and is picked up by law enforcement, will be involuntarily exiled away from their neighborhood, family or friends. As Shellenberger has made clear—calling for full enforcement of all laws, including drug laws and laws against public camping—their only other “option” would be jail or prison. Not content with “removing” people with addictions and mental health conditions from the streets, Shellenberger wants to ship them to distant facilities out of the cities altogether.
It’s profoundly sinister. From the most notorious totalitarian regimes of the 1930s to modern-day China and other places, countless abuses and atrocities have been perpetrated against equivalent populations confined to camps, asylums and gulags.
In the United States, too, long before the era of mass incarceration, asylums were packed. In 1880, a census of “insane persons” counted a population in “hospitals and asylums for the insane” to rival that held in prisons and jails.
Changing sensibilities and awareness of abuses, combined with the invention of reliable antipsychotic medications and the passage of laws to create Medicaid and Medicare, eventually led the US down the path of “deinstitutionalization,” or phasing out institutions in favor of community mental health care.
Statutory laws can always be reversed, which means the system Shellenberger supports could hypothetically be created. But in attempting to do so, he would quickly run up against the courts.
In 1975, the Supreme Court held in O’Connor v. Donaldson that a non-dangerous person with a mental illness cannot be confined against their will. One could envision a Governor Shellenberger arguing that people who use drugs in public or are involved in public disturbances related to mental health issues are inherently dangerous. But that may impermissibly stretch the definition of “dangerousness,” which in the legal context is usually taken to mean a risk of physical violence.
In the current political climate, the haves are going to continue seeking opportunities to attack the have-nots.
In addition, the Ninth Circuit, which covers California and much of the West, ruled in 2018 that people cannot be arrested or prosecuted for simply sleeping outside when no alternative exists. The Supreme Court then refused to hear the city of Boise’s appeal of the decision, which in itself might have reflected tacit approval.
That said, the power of precedent in the US legal system has been deeply diminished, if the leaked draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade reflects the Supreme Court’s ultimate decision in its pending abortion case.
Additionally, the Ninth Circuit opinion has not stopped frustrated politicians, such as those on the Los Angeles City Council, from seeking to work around the law to criminalize homelessness with new statutory language.
Another concern that should be raised about Shellenberger’s still-vague plans is his record of distorting facts. Before riding the current crime-alarmism wave, he wrote prolifically about climate change; environmental scientists decried many of his claims as “half-truths or based on cherry-picked information.” He has also claimed that California’s Proposition 47 “decriminalized hard drugs.” Yet it merely “defelonized” drug possession, making it a misdemeanor, which still carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail.
In the current political climate, the haves are going to continue seeking opportunities to attack the have-nots, as Tennessee lawmakers showed when they recently made public camping by homeless people a felony—a national first. Shellenberger has said he wants Cal-Psych to become a “model” for the nation. Let us hope not, because it would embolden the most callous among us, at the expense of the most vulnerable.