The intelligent and hilarious HBO comedian John Oliver last night aired a 25-minute segment on homelessness. In it, he attributed homelessness to poverty, high rents, and NIMBY neighborhood activists who block new housing developments. Oliver showed interviews with homeless people who say they would like to work full-time but are unable to do so because they have to live in homeless shelters.
Unfortunately, Oliver’s segment repeated many myths that are easy to debunk. The vast majority of people we call “homeless” are suffering from untreated mental illness and/or addiction and it led them to lose their job, housing, and family ties.
We already do a great job of helping mothers and others who don’t suffer from addiction or untreated mental illness to benefit from subsidized housing. The problem is we don’t mandate the psychiatric and addiction care that many “homeless” require.
And the best-available, peer-reviewed science shows that “Housing First” agenda Oliver promotes fails on its own terms, worsens addiction, and is one of the main reasons homelessness has grown so much worse.
It’s true that we need more housing and voluntary addiction and psychiatric care, including what is called “permanent supportive housing” for people suffering from mental illness. In my new book, San Fransicko, I advocate for universal psychiatric care, drug treatment on demand, and building of more shelter space for the homeless. And Oliver is right that the U.S. lacks the social safety net that European and other developed nations have.
But Oliver badly misdescribes the problem. For example, he notes that some cities lack sufficient homeless shelter. But he doesn’t acknowledge that it has been “Housing First” homelessness advocates who caused the lack of shelter by demanding that funding be diverted to apartments often costing $750,000 each.
And Oliver promotes policies that have made addiction, mental illness, and homelessness worse. He claims homelessness causes addiction when it is far more often the other way around. And Oliver completely ignores the overwhelming body of scientific research showing that using housing as a reward for abstinence, rather than giving it away as a right, is essential to reducing homelessness by reducing addiction.
Oliver was wrong to encourage more of the same policies that caused homelessness to increase in the U.S. over the last decade, and wrong to suggest that anyone who disagreed with him were racist and NIMBY “dicks” who cause violence against homeless people. Oliver closes his segment by ridiculing a white woman who expresses concern about subsidized housing bringing the homeless into her neighborhood.
Why is that? Why does such an intelligent, thoughtful, and compassionate journalist repeat easily-debunked myths about homelessness?
Part of it is just ignorance. Oliver appears to have relied entirely on Housing First advocates and not read anything that questions their narrative. As I document in San Fransicko, homeless advocates are not just small service providers but major academics at top universities including Columbia University and University of California, San Francisco. Those “Housing First” advocates have received hundreds of millions in grants from Marc Benioff, John Arnold, George Soros, and other donors to promote the notion that Housing First works.
Another part of it is ideological. Housing First advocates believe that housing, not shelter, is a right, and that governments have a moral obligation to provide it. They have spent 20 years trying to prove that giving away housing, unconditionally, to addicts and the mentally ill works. But the studies show that it fails to address addiction and thus even keep people in apartments at higher rates than other methods. The only thing proven to work is to make housing a reward for good behavior, mostly abstinence but also things like taking one’s psychiatric medicines, and going to work.
The dominant view among progressives of homelessness, drugs, and mental illness stems from victim ideology, which was born in the 1960s. Starting in the late 1960s, progressives attacked any effort to hold people who receive welfare or subsidized accountable as “blaming the victim.” Today, many progressives even view drug dealers as victims.
Victim ideology categorizes people as victims or oppressors, and argues that nothing should be demanded of people categorized as victims. This is terrible for the mentally ill, who often need to be coerced into taking their medicines, so they don’t end up breaking the law, hurting people or themselves, and winding up in prison. And this is terrible for addicts, who need to be arrested, when breaking laws related to their addiction, such as public drug use, shoplifting, and public defecation.
In the end, Oliver’s 25 minute segment on homelessness is a perfect encapsulation of victim ideology and why it is so wrong on both the facts and on ethics. On the facts, Oliver misdescribes a homeless woman, who is likely suffering from mental illness and/or drug addiction, as merely down on her luck. And Oliver mixes together apparently sober and sane homeless families, temporarily down on their luck, with people are on the street because of addiction and untreated mental illness. Doing so is wrong, analytically, but also wrong, morally, since most addicts and the mentally ill need something very different from just a subsidized apartment unit.
If we are to solve homelessness rather than make it worse, we need intelligent and thoughtful comedians and influencers like Oliver to do their homework, rather than to repeat myths. I researched and wrote San Fransicko, in part, to make it easier for people to get the facts, rather than repeat what we were told, and to see that there’s a better way to help the homeless, whether addicted to drugs, mentally ill, or not.
The good news is that the conversation around drugs and homelessness is changing rapidly because the situation on the ground has grown so much worse. Environmental Progress and the California Peace Coalition are at the very beginning of our efforts to educate journalists, policymakers, and the public. And San Fransicko was published just three weeks ago.
As time passes, many Americans will see the consequence of treating what is fundamentally a problem of untreated mental illness and addiction as a problem of poverty, high rents, and NIMBYs. And some of them, perhaps even progressive comedians like John Oliver, will come to find humor, and humility, from the fact that so many of us got it so wrong, for so long.