Why John Oliver Is Wrong About Homelessness
HBO TV Comedian Repeats Myth that the Homeless Are Just Poor People in Need of Subsidized Housing
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.
Progressives don’t believe that people have the seeds of their own destruction within them… they project those onto society and deceive themselves into believing that human nature can be reprogrammed through consciousness raising.
This lie is a version of the Pelagian heresy. The late Poul Anderson, who Michael reminds me of, denounced it in his fiction, especially “Orion Shall Rise”. Every human has to make a choice between good and evil… and those progressives that pave a broad smooth path toward evil serve evil and, I believe, are ultimately consumed by evil.
Oddly enough, Shellenberger insists on sticking to the dogma that high housing prices have nothing to do with homelessness, in spite of overwhelming research indicating that it does. Also, common sense, if I may invoke this. My mentally ill sister lives in a trailer in Twenty-Nine Palms which costs her $400/mo. She can afford this on her SSI and Food Stamps. She would not be able to afford to be housed in expensive San Francisco.
Of course, homelessness has many causes and it is no doubt true that mental illness and drug addiction are both causes of and the result of being homeless. He rightly blames policy changes in the 60s and 70s as the root cause of the explosion of the homeless population while ignoring the huge decrease in funding for HUD, which was the housing provider of last resort. Also, both Progressives and Conservatives supported the Lanterman–Petris–Short (LPS) Act, which released a huge population of mentally ill into our communities.
Housing First is a policy with a mixed bag. I think the fairest assessment of it from The Manhatten Institute (a right of center policy institute).
1) Housing First has not been shown to be effective in ending homelessness at the community level, but rather, only for individuals.
2) A Housing First intervention for a small segment of “high utilizer” homeless people may save taxpayers money. But making Housing First the organizing principle of homeless services systems, as urged by many advocates, will not save taxpayers money.
3) Housing is not the same as treatment. Housing First’s record at addressing behavioral health disorders, such as untreated serious mental illness and drug addiction, is far weaker than its record at promoting residential stability.
4) Housing First’s record at promoting employment and addressing social isolation for the homeless is also weaker than its record at promoting residential stability.
I am a little confused by Micheal's last statement:
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.
I think there must be a "not" in there. I would agree that high rents and NIMBYs are a huge root cause but certainly not the only and probably not the primary cause of homelessness.