TRUTH ABOUT HOMELESSNESS & CORRUPTION IN HOUSING FIRST
July 26, 2022
S02 - E08
RSnake and Matt Mackowiak talked about Austin's Prop B and Save Austin Now, how homelessness impacts crime, business, pollution, and property value. They discuss the issues that police face when dealing with the homeless. They talk about deinstitutionalization, the dropping prices of drugs like heroine, crack, meth, fentanyl as well as designer drugs like krokodil, flakka and K2. They discuss corruption in Housing First, the fallacy of the Portuguese stance on drugs, and much more.
Today I sat with Matt Mackowiak, and we dove deep into the topic of homelessness. There's a kind-hearted but ultimately dangerous way to look at homelessness, and there's a cold pragmatic, but ultimately, much more ethical way to deal with this systemic issue.
Having spent a lot of time thinking about homelessness, it was an important conversation that I've been wanting to have ever since I started the show. We talked about Austin's Proposition B, how homeless impacts crime, business, pollution, and property value.
We discussed the issues that police face when dealing with the homeless. We talk about deinstitutionalization, the dropping prices of drugs like heroin, crack, meth, fentanyl, as well as designer drugs like Krokodil, Flakka, and K2.
We discussed corruption in Housing First, the fallacy of the Portuguese stance on drugs, and much more. It's an important conversation I was glad to have and finally get to dig in with someone so close to the issue.
Without further ado, here's my conversation with Matt Mackowiak.
Hello, and welcome to the RSnake Show. Today, I have Matt Mackowiak. How are you, sir?
Great, Robert. Thanks for having me.
Thanks for coming down. This is going to be an interesting episode, primarily, because I'm not going to talk about a lot of stuff with you that I probably should. You have this insane amount of things that I think I could just go down and probe and tons of different places.
So as much as people who know you're going to go, "Why didn't you talk about this and that other thing?" I'm intentionally keeping it narrow. So we can have a very specific conversation that is about homelessness.
It's an area that I've seen you speak about. So it's not something out of the blue. I think you should have quite a bit of body knowledge on the topic for all kinds of reasons. It's also an area that I care a lot about. I don't know why. It's just been this thing throughout my life.
I've always been interested in the homeless, possibly because I've always been afraid of it when I was younger. Then as I got older, it was something that was always around in every major city that I lived in.
I wanted to spend a little time setting the stage about, first of all, why the word homelessness gets a bad name. Some people like to use the word unsheltered or unhoused. I've heard a lot of different versions of these things.
For the purposes of this episode, I am probably going to use those words a bit interchangeably. Not to say anything derogatory towards the homeless because I think some people feel like that's a derogatory term. As if that is somehow a bad thing to be, which I personally think probably is a bad thing.
But it's not because I don't have any negative feelings towards the homeless in that regard. Like they're lesser than. More that it is a state of being homeless. Just wanted to clarify that.
It's a descriptor.
Yeah, exactly. More of a statement of fact, less than a derogatory statement. Just one fine point about that. There are people who are housed, but yet homeless. They are in a shelter, for instance. So there is some nuance there.
If it makes sense, we can go down that path and go into more specific detail. It's more just an area of being precise.
In the United States, it's been said that up till about 2020 or 2019, there were 580,000 homeless in the United States. That's a pretty fair amount. But as of 2021, because the way they did their analysis, it went down to 326,000. So there really is no good estimation before 2020.
I think 2020 is the last good indication that we have. We're just going to have to use those numbers, even if it's higher or lower because that's the best we've got.
Then also, the COVID Relief Fund ended up in a weird situation where they were housing people, but they also had to turn them away because of COVID issues.
That's the issue with shelters, etcetera.
So it's a little hard to even know, in any individual shelter, of which many shutdown, what the end effect of all of this stuff was. Do you have any better stats that might come off hand that I just didn't see?
First of all, it's a population that's very hard to track, to begin with. It's transient by nature. And based on what we know, a pretty small percentage of the overall homeless population in the country remains out in the wilderness 24/7, 365 days a year.
The population, generally, is looking for their next meal, their next roof. They're just trying to get to the next day. What oftentimes you see — and this is one of the problems we have in the system, it's one of the reasons why we have chronic homelessness across the country — is that people fall through the cracks.
And the government doesn't make it easy to track and manage not just where a person is, physically, but also how you get them from step one to step two to step three. Our goal in the United States ought to be to reduce homelessness.
I had the out-of-body experience of appearing on a homelessness debate on Dr. Phil a few months ago. It was right after the Super Bowl in Los Angeles. It was set up as a debate. It was a really great experience, very thoughtful, and the subsequent conversation.
There were three advocates on the Housing First side and three advocates on the Treatment First side, which is where I am. I started by saying, "Can we all agree that reducing homelessness and moving people into self-sufficiency is the goal?"
Because if that's not the goal, then it's hard to know how you measure success. How do you ensure you're being efficient with taxpayer dollars? If you're trying to track whether we are succeeding to address the issue of homelessness and to mitigate the issue of homelessness, it's pretty clear across the country, we're failing by any measurement.
In terms of the question you asked, I don't believe it's 300,000 or 400, 000. I don't believe it's 500,000 either if you look at the 10 or 12 largest cities in the country that have significant homeless populations, and I've studied eight or nine of them myself and visited all of them over the last three years.
If you start with Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, and put Honolulu in there, then you say Chicago, New York, DC, and then you add Austin, in those cities alone, they've all seen their homeless populations increase significantly. One of the challenges you have is that, as I said before, it's a hard population to count.
If you don't measure something, it's hard to know whether what you're doing is working or not. Show me what you measure and I'll show you what you care about.
One of the challenges we have in this and what I generally call the homeless industrial complex, but basically the well-intentioned, well-meaning, generous, and kind people who work in this industry, is the fewer homeless people there are, the less funding they're going to have to do the work that they're doing. So I do think that is a fundamental issue as we talk about this topic.
But if you just look at all of those cities...
What do you think the real number is?
LA County has 100,000 by itself; 80,000 in Los Angeles proper. It's got to be a million. My guess is it's in the one to two million range. Again, throwing out one number doesn't tell you very much because it ought to be about a trend.
You ought to be doing one clear method of counting, do it in the top 50 or top 20 cities in the country on the same day of the year. Then you can begin to track it.
One of the things that frustrates me about the issue of homelessness is that we, both as a national government but also as a state government, city, government, county government, there just doesn't seem to be much incentive to deliver services more efficiently. That's a fundamental problem.
We'll get to that in a second. I think it's worth numerating what I think happened in Austin. It's maybe not exactly analogous to what happened somewhere else, but it's a data point.
At one point, the ARCH basically said they're going to greatly reduce or even shut down to capacity for a while. I lived on the east side of Austin at the time, which is maybe eight blocks or so away from the ARCH. I noticed all the homeless population just moved over to the public library, which happened to be very close to where I live.
There was suddenly this massive homeless population. There was that population, they were just somewhere else. Then instead of the homeless population stabilizing, they then reopen the ARCH and it's like it doubled. Instead of there being just that same homeless population and now they move back to the ARCH, now, there were two homeless populations. It was double the size, approximately.
This was me just looking around sort of noticing what was happening. Then Hurricane Harvey hit and it was a very strange experience. I was sitting outside and I saw this woman who was wearing, effectively, all Gucci and looked like she just had her hair done with a shopping cart, and clearly homeless. All of her stuff in there.
I'm sure she's going to find her way out just fine, but at that moment, she was homeless. I noticed the homeless population searched pretty dramatically at that point. Then we had a camping ban that was just removed suddenly one day. All of a sudden, the population. exploded. It was like overnight.
Is that your impression? Am I getting that timeline right? Does that sound like what you experienced?
Yeah. I wasn't back from DC when Hurricane Harvey hit. I was still in DC at that time. So part of this is what you see from a distance and part of it is what you experienced. My involvement began at the city level when the council decided to vote 9-2 to lift the camping ban.
We had a camping ban in place in Austin for 23 years. The Austin Police Department testified to the council that they were getting 91% voluntary compliance. You don't take a policy that has 91% success and throw it out.
What you do is you take your limited resources, your significant resources, and you address the 9% of the problem that's not being addressed. That would have been a far better way to address this.
In the end, we know human beings respond to incentives. And no one wants to be homeless, I don't believe that. I believe there's a percentage of the overall homeless population that may want to live in a way that doesn't require them to live with rules and with responsibilities. But being homeless is not a glamorous or enjoyable experience.
One of the more searing experiences that I had was when I went around the deputy constable focusing on the homeless in April of 2021. We went deep into the woods. We talked to lots of homeless individuals. We had a caseworker from the city with us. I learned a lot that day.
One of the things I learned is, unless you've been homeless, you don't really understand the challenges the homeless are facing. A lot of times, it's very basic things. Where do they keep their limited but valuable possessions? How do they find a place where they can sleep in peace and quiet?
A good number of them get so used to being in loud environments that when they go to a shelter and there's no noise at night, it's hard for them to fall asleep. One of the other reasons that sleeping is difficult is that, depending on where they are but in a lot of these encampments, they're constantly at risk of physical violence, sexual violence, having their possessions stolen, and all kinds of horrific things.
So you're always looking over your shoulder. In Austin, our mayor decided to push this effort to lift the camping ban along with Councilmember Greg Kozar. It passed 9-2. They then went on a month-long August vacation, which they do every year.
At that time, this was totally backwards, but our mayor decided to travel to Los Angeles and San Francisco to learn about homelessness. Generally, you would go there first before you pass a significant policy change.
If anything, you should have come back at the end of August and said, "Look, Los Angeles and San Francisco also lifted their camping ban. They were 10 or 12 years ahead of Austin. You can see what's happened in those two cities. It's going to happen here, we actually need to do something different." They didn't do that.
Not only that, they had really no plan whatsoever. No plan to deal with human waste and physical waste that's created by camping. No plan for the environmental effects. You have issues in our waterways, you have trash, you have needles, profound effects on public safety, public health, on our intersections, on our neighborhoods, on the image of our city, on tourism, the list goes on.
There's no question that the population grew. Could I swear under oath of a specific number? It's very hard to get precise.
Why do you think about the camping ban being lifted? What is the impetus for that?
Listen, it's the question that I get more than any other question in my life. Why did they do this? It so clearly failed. It was so predictable that it was going to fail. Why would they be so suicidally committed to a failed policy?
I generally think that financial motivations are a pretty good guess for understanding human behavior. When you look at the fact that we were spending roughly 70 million or so a year on homelessness, and they basically doubled or tripled that. You look at the fact that they're proposing now what sounds like a $300 million affordable — I call it unaffordable — housing bond.
There's no question that they're not going to pump far more money into it. I think what they wanted is they wanted the problem to be more visible. They wanted to not have the police take so much time moving people around. Then they wanted to be able to demand and direct more resources to the issue.
Which is why apart from the Affordable Housing Bond, which I just mentioned, they have a they have a massive plan to house 3,000 Austin homeless individuals over a three-year period. I believe it's a $500 million plan. Part of that is city-funded, part of it is county, and part of it is Federal billion.
Half a billion for 3,000 people?
That's right. It's $70,000 per homeless person per year. $550 million is the exact amount. I think even an average business person on the back of an envelope, given 10 minutes and a cup of warm coffee could come up with a more sensible, credible plan that that.
Even very nice house in Austin for rent would be far less than that.
You would think. There are all kinds of interesting and creative technological solutions now with PAUSE and other things that can work as a temporary bridge solution for the population.
The reason it's hard to know exactly where the population is in our city is that the only way that we count homeless individuals is that ECHO, the city's preferred nonprofit on homelessness, does a point-in-time count one night every year with volunteers. They haven't done it the last two years. They blamed COVID for it.
I don't know why you can't put gloves on and give people face shields, you're outdoors, to begin with. You don't need to go up and massage the person to count them. Either way, they haven't done that count.
But if you just look at, and I talk to law enforcement sources and other people around the city that they track these issues, there's a general belief that the homeless population has doubled or even tripled over the last two years. It was a totally unsustainable trajectory.
So the reason for that goes back to I said the beginning, which is incentives. If you tell a homeless individual, or if you just send a signal across the country that Austin is going to welcome this population; that you can do whatever you want, whenever you want, wherever you want, almost no restrictions whatsoever, they exempted very few locations for camping.
In fact, when they lifted the ban initially, there were almost no exceptions except what they called curfew buildings, which are the new library, the governor's mansion in the Capitol, and things like that. There were very basic limits on where you could camp.
After a few months, we worked hard to get some modest improvements there. The council, thankfully, voted to do that. In fact, I think the original vote was 8-3, not 9-2. The later vote was 9-2 and all that did was it was it banned camping on sidewalks. Good. That's a public right of way. It has a very specific purpose. It banned camping in flood and fire mitigation zones; areas where fires and floods are at high likelihood.
Those were modest improvements, but again, you continue to see encampments pop up all across the city, including places like City Hall, which is a curfew building which was prohibited. They didn't do anything about that for months, partly because City Hall was closed down for over a year due to COVID. They weren't going to do their work.
At the end of the day, Austin either intentionally or unintentionally, created a structure that not just caused homeless individuals to leave existing shelters to go live wherever they wanted and do whatever they wanted, but I absolutely believe it served as a magnet across the country.
There's a program called Operation Homeward Bound. It's nonprofits in other cities that put people in buses and send them to other cities that they want to go to. And if you talk to law enforcement personnel, they'll tell you these buses come in the middle. They give them $50 and say "Good luck."
So that population has increased over the last two years but it plateaued after our victory on property.
Can you explain that? Most of the audience does not live in Austin.
I didn't know if you wanted to get to it later. My involvement in this really came out of nowhere because, up to that point, I had not been super engaged at the city level. I'd worked a little bit on trying to lift the ridiculous ban on Uber and Lyft. I'd worked a little bit on trying to get the MLS team here, which I thought was very positive for the city.
No, we've got to keep this narrow. There's a million things I could talk to you about.
I'm just saying I did some city work on some city things, but I hadn't been really engaged.
I want to talk to you about all those things, but we won't have time.
I understand. What I'm saying is my engagement level in the city had been limited to specific areas and fairly shallow. I just could not believe that this policy could be put in place and that our city leaders didn't see what it was doing.
I saw it downtown immediately as an ally right on the side of our building. And I heard about it from people in other neighborhoods. That was the other thing. I thought initially it was a downtown problem only and it wasn't. It was affecting every neighborhood, every intersection, every small business.
Almost every woman in our city has had a negative personal experience after the camping ban was lifted. They've been harassed, a friend of theirs had been harassed., they've seen something, you name it.
So we started a nonpartisan discourse, myself and a local democrat activist named Cleo Patristic. We both believe that local issues shouldn't be partisan. I understand the food fight at the state level on the federal level shouldn't be here. We want safe roads, safe streets, we want an affordable city, we want opportunity, and want to support small businesses. Those are things that we want in our city.
It shouldn't be too much to ask and get those things, particularly, for the amount that we spend in taxes. We started saying, "Washington now." Our initial goal was to try to get the council to either put the ban back in place or to do something different. They were simply not interested.
Why is that? Did they give you any indication like, "No, these homeless thing is working out for us"?
They were committed to their ideological agenda. Again, I think they wanted the problem to get so bad that they could put forward a $550 million plan and go out and direct the resources.
Did they give you any excuse like, "This is working to plan. This is all phase one and, yes, we should see it dramatically increase for a while. But then phase two...."?
I'll say from the time I got involved until Prop B passed, which I'll explain in a second, in May of '21, we didn't get any kind of substantive explanation, or any kind of defense of the policy. They kind of ignored it.
What happened is August of 2020 or September 2020, after the governor threatened to get involved directly, and he put a very detailed memo together, listing 30 or 40 different things the state was going to do if the city didn't get serious about cleaning up the mess they created, that's when they passed those modest changes.
You still had two council members who said, "No, I think camping should exist on sidewalks. It needs to exist in fire and flood mitigation zones and these other limited areas."
The reason that you're talking to me now, the reason that Prop B ever came to be, the reason that we built Save Austin Now, the largest grassroots organization in the history of the city of Austin, is what happened at the end of that council meeting. At the end of that council meeting, the mayor said, "We are done considering changes to this policy."
I don't know that I've ever heard anyone at any level of government say in public, "The policy we have is perfect and it can never be improved. We don't want any more data, we don't want any more feedback."
In a way, it kind of laid bare their kamikaze-level commitment to this ideological push they were making. So they didn't give us any choice. We could either quit or put it on the ballot. We then spent roughly a year with two separate efforts putting a petition together.
You have to have 20,000 petitions certified by the city that have been filled out correctly and signed by registered voters. We turned in about 24,000 the first time. They said we were short of 20,000. We don't believe we were. We sued by the city over it. We then made a second effort.
Where is that lawsuit currently?
Well, we actually converted it. It became moot because our second effort got on the ballot. Now, I would argue it would have been on the ballot six months earlier or it would have cost us a lot of time, a lot of money. But in the end, mootness rendered it unnecessary.
So you ended up dropping it?
Yeah, we basically dropped it. We learned some lessons from that first time. The second time, we worked about half the time and got an extra 3,000 or 4,000 signatures. We had the highest validation rate in the history of the city at about 95%. We turned in 26,000.
It would have been interesting to get them into discovery. How did you come to this conclusion?
That process itself, I'll come back to probably in a second what it was and what happened. But yeah, that process is interesting, too. What they do is they hire a statistics professor from the University of Texas. They come up with a sample. And they basically review, I want to say, about 25% of the ballots. It might be less, it maybe 10%. I can't remember offhand.
Then he has to certify to the council. I forget if it's a 90% or 95% certainty that you've reached 20,000. So I've been told, '"Look, if you've done a thoughtful job of doing this. 10% more or 20% more than enough." We did more than 20% the first time. We went well beyond that the second time
Anyway, we get on the ballot, we get certified. In the end, it took us an enormous amount effort to get on the ballot but then we had to go win the election. The only way to explain Prop B was it reinstated the camping ban. And it did several things.
Number one, it put the ban back in place on the belief that it had been working for 23 years. Number two, it reinstated what was known as the Sit-lie Ordinance. The Sit-lie Ordinance said that, in a specific area downtown depending on the bar of the district, you can't put a sleeping bag on a park bench in front of a hotel and just live there at night. It's not safe for you. It's not safe for other people.
We decided to expand that area to include the UT campus and the area around UT. We expanded it a bit. So Prop B was not intended to be punitive, not intended to try to put people in jail. I don't believe putting homeless people in jail is a good thing. It was intended to force the council to stop pretending that lifting the camping ban was working, and to provide actual solutions.
We spent 10 weeks. We raised $1.9 million. It had never been done before in the history of the city. The only campaign that's ever raised more than that was the Uber Lyft effort to get the ban lifted. And that was funded 95% by those two companies. We had 4,000 donors from every neighborhood, every precinct, every demographic, you name it.
In the end, we won 58%-42%, despite the mayor opposing us, 9 out of 10 councilmembers opposing us, the major media in our city, for the most part, opposing us, every Democratic Party official in a county in a city that's 3-1 Democrat. We went up against all of that. In the end, the voters ignored the scare tactics and the fear-mongering of our leaders and said, "We're tired of this. This is not working. We want the ban back in place."
Just talking to the average person, people who have nothing to do with any of this at all, I didn't know a single person who thought that was a good idea. Not one, even people who are extremely left-leaning. They were like, "This homeless thing is horrible. They've got to do something. This isn't working at all."
That was strangely extremely bipartisan, at least for the people I know. It seems like the only people who actually did want this were very few people at the very top of the left-leaning city council.
I agree with that in terms of pushing the policy. The thing that's a little bit concerning is we still had 42% of people who voted to not reinstate the ban. They basically bought the line from the other side that this was "criminalizing homeless existence".
Being homeless has never been illegal. We didn't seek to make it illegal. What we said is you can't camp in public. Camping is a behavior. Camping takes a public space and converts it to private use, and there are negative second and third-order consequences that come from camping.
From our standpoint, it's absolutely true that the power structure of the city, at least the elected power structure of the city, was against us. And you're right, our coalition was very bipartisan. I think we got at least 40% of the Democratic vote. I believe we got 90% the independent vote, maybe 80%, and probably 90-95% of the Republican vote. That's a winning coalition in Austin.
I expected after that victory that the council was going to blame the voters and say, "Look, this isn't our policy. It's not what we want. We did what we wanted, but we respect the voters. So we're going to reinstate the camping ban." That's a smart political thing to do, right?
You don't take a 40% position and double and triple down on it, and that's basically what they've done. They've put together an unserious four-phase enforcement plan that had they enforced it, had they actually done it, might have worked. But they didn't take it seriously. It was all on paper and did nothing.
Verbal warnings, written warnings, citations, and then finally full enforcement if someone is not paying the fines, and they're still camping, they're still in violation. The statesmen did a good job of going back and seeing how many citations were issued. It was a couple of a dozen. You have 1000s of people in violation of camp ban tonight, as we sit here.
What we've done since then is we sued. This is a lawsuit that we're going to take till the ends of the earth. As long as I have two nickels to rub together, we're going to take it to the very end. I really do want to get to discovery on that because while I am very sympathetic to the police staffing situation and the police's limited ability to enforce this, it's obviously a question of priorities and whether you respect the will of the voters and whether you respect an ordinance that passed overwhelmingly.
So we sued. We brought four small business owners who've been directly injured, who clearly have standing. A Dairy Queen owner that's had horrific things happen at his store. He has had to hire private security cutting into his own business and his ability to offer bonuses, hire more people, and be profitable. We have four people from all different parts of the city.
We expect to get to discovery and to get the depositions here in the next month or two. We're going to take it all the way to the end. If you have to go to Texas in court, we will, and I do believe we'll prevail.
The other thing that happened that's important, and this is another reminder of how extreme our city leaders are here is, 7 or 10 days after Prop B passed in May of 2021, the Texas Legislature before they adjourned, passed on a bipartisan basis, a statewide camping ban.
I testified in front of the House and the Senate on that. We worked with the Bill authors who worked on that for months. I want to thank the Bill authors on that. Tim Parker who is going to be a senator now, and Don Buckingham in the Senate, who's likely to be our Lead Commissioner.
That was a sign that even the legislature was able on a bipartisan basis to agree on this that this policy doesn't work. And keep in mind, Austin was the only city in Texas that tried this. Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, very progressive cities, democratic electorates, progressive mayors, none of them tried this. Austin is the only city in Texas to try this.
The legislators, a vast majority of them don't live in Austin, but they come here. Obviously, during the session, they're here for 140 days. Then they're here a day or two a month outside of that doing hearings and other work. But they're seeing it. They're coming here and they're seeing it.
They could see for themselves the problem. We didn't get an overwhelming Democratic vote, but we got a significant number in both houses and we're appreciative of that. But it's a reminder, not just that there was bipartisan support for reinstating the camp ban and not allowing camping anymore across our state, but it also was a message that this idea was so bad, and the consequences were so devastating that this can never be tried another city in Texas.
So if Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, or some other city elects some extreme person who wants to go do this or runs on that agenda, it can't happen. On the lawsuit, we're moving forward on that.
What do you get out of that if you win?
Great question. There are three things. One, I think there's value in discovery from learning exactly who ordered it not to be enforced and what the basis was. My guess is there's all kinds of embarrassing traffic on emails and text messages between the mayor, perhaps the city manager, council members, perhaps senior police leaders, although I hope not.
The police have their hands tied. They've effectively been told not to enforce Prop B.
Number one, we believe we will learn a lot through discovery. Number to our belief and our hope, and our expectation is the courts will say, "You have to enforce Prop B. You can't just pretend." And honestly, at this point, they can't even argue they're enforcing it. It's not even going to be credible.
Third is a bigger question. This isn't a question for us. It's more of a question for the plaintiffs that joined, whether they want to seek damages. And listen, I could spend the next month and go out and recruit 100 more plaintiffs to join. At some point, there's a diminishing marginal utility to doing that. But the number of people who have been directly injured and have had significant damages from this policy is not an insignificant number.
I don't know if the plan is to make a decision on the damages issue. I think for most people who've had negative experiences from camping, whether it's small business owners, families, or whoever they are, just want to see it stop.
There was this one time in the middle of all of that where it seemed like the camping ban was reinstated temporarily or something was happening or some enforcement was happening. Some cleanup was happening except under all the underpasses.
Two issues related there. One is, state government has jurisdiction on state property, city government has jurisdiction on city property. DPS can't go into Zilker and clear out people who are illegally camping. Just like city officials, even if they were inclined to do so, can't go onto the Capitol grounds and clear people out if they were camping.
It depends on the highway you're talking about. But generally, highways are going to be state property. There are some county roads too.
This was under Cesar Chavez.
Sure. There are a number of areas that are underpasses. Look, the city has cleared some of them out. The state has done some work here and there. Ultimately, and I am really sympathetic to the state's view on this, they didn't create this mess. They don't want to necessarily engage in a whack-a-mole thing where they're having to pay to have these areas cleaned out once a month. It's difficult work.
I imagine Highway Patrol or DPS, people who are asked to do it, don't love it. You're putting people at risk. Then you have the challenge of where you have those people go. Right now, the city has done an absolutely terrible job adding capacity to our ability to shelter our homeless population. It gets to the question of where the hell our money is going.
Los Angeles spent $1.2 billion in 2019 and saw an increase of 43%. What is this going to do to our budget if we actually want to take this seriously? Are we just going to go down another rabbit hole just like LA did and see an increase? Is ever an end to this?
Look, LA is even worse than San Francisco in my view. Those two cities are by far the worst in terms of how they've addressed the issue of homelessness, and how their populations have grown.
I think there's a runoff right now in the Los Angeles Mayoral Race. If Rick Caruso wins, I think you may see LA change direction. You've already started to see a significant directional change in San Francisco, where their DA was recalled. I think there's going to be some other important changes in San Francisco as well.
The reason that Los Angeles has failed is that they have adopted a housing-first approach and have for 10 or 15 years now. Housing first says you can't do anything with a homeless person unless you can put them in a house first.
In my mind, would it be a positive thing if we could shelter every single homeless person in our city? The answer is yes, of course. I don't want someone on hot pavement in 110-degree weather. The question is, is it effective?
UCLA did a study that found roughly three-quarters of the homeless population has drug and alcohol addiction. Three-quarters of the population has mental health challenges. Then there's an overlap between those two populations.
Think of it this way. If you had someone in your life that had a drug and alcohol addiction problem, or a serious mental health challenge that was not being addressed, and they became homeless, and maybe they ran into you somewhere, and they said, "Listen, can you just put me in an apartment for three months and let me get back on my feet?" You would probably think about it. But you would say, "Well, hang on, what are we doing about the drug and alcohol addiction issue?"
It's simply not going to work to put someone who's not dealing with the direct challenges that are affecting either their bad luck, their poor decision-making, or their circumstance, unless they deal with those things directly. You're not going to be in a position where making them self-sufficient and putting them into taxpayer-funded housing is going to work.
The advantage to shelters is you have people managing shelters. You have rules. You can require no drugs and alcohol. You can have curfews. You can offer additional benefits as people gain and show that they’re doing things the right way.
There's two models that I've studied closely, and both in Central Texas. It's amazing. You don't have to go to Los Angeles, you can go to Community First! Village in South East Austin. Alan Graham of Mobile Loaves & Fishes does a fantastic mission-driven effort.
Explain that because anyone listening elsewhere is not going to know what that is.
Of course, yes. It's fascinating. Alan believes that homelessness is a lack of community first, more than anything else. And if you think about it, it actually makes sense. What would you do not to be homeless? You'd call every single person on your phone. You'd reach out to every family member. You'd reach out to people you despise. Presumably, you'd go out and work minimum-wage jobs.
Being homeless is as bad a living situation as almost anything you can possibly imagine. So if you don't have that, if you've either ruined those relationships, or you're in a city where you don't know anyone or whatever, then you don't have a community to fall back on.
What Alan's done with Community First! Village is he has created a nonprofit village that does not rely on any funding from the city. The reason for that is that he does not want the strings that the city would put on it. He has several rules. Again, this is so instructive. This shows why his model succeeds and why this Austin, Los Angeles, and San Francisco model undeniably fails.
Number one, you sign a contract when you get there. That contract says you have to pay rent. For some people, the rent is very small. You're talking about less than $100 a month. For some people, it can be $250 a month. Everyone lives in their own home. These are micro homes, tiny homes.
I've been in them, I've toured them. I've been down there five or six times over the last year and a half. They're tripling in capacity over the next year and a half. I don't remember the numbers offhand but I want to say they house has 600-800 people now and they're going to be at like 2,500 by the end of the current pathway that they're on.
Part of the reason they're able to do that is they've done a great job raising private funds, but they've also gotten a significant investment from the county. That was a clear message from the County. The county could have somehow partnered with the city and kept doing what they're doing; buying hotels and going with that Housing First approach.
In this case, what Alan believes is no drugs and alcohol. He doesn't police it, but he can tell which people are on the right path and which people aren't. Number two, you have to work and you can work on the property. It's almost like Deadwood.
It's almost like a Western community where they have different people doing different things: crafts work, fixing cars, woodworking, people working serving food, and making food. It's almost a self-sufficient community entirely by itself. Then they also have a bus that stops there and takes people to different jobs.
That's a model that has been very successful. The other model that's very successful is Haven For Hope in San Antonio. This is fascinating too.
Community First! Village shows how if you put rules in place, you can have success. Let me go back to that. Community First! Village treats the chronically homeless. They don't deal with people that fell on hard times and became suddenly homeless. They believe the city and other nonprofits can handle triaging those individuals and getting them back on their feet.
They deal with the chronically homeless. He believes that population will basically remain there the rest of their lives. He also points to the fact that homeless individuals deal with much shorter lifespans than the average population. It's not just physical from ailments and other things and perhaps drug and alcohol and all those kinds of things. It's a psychological cost of living that way. It takes a toll on you over time and it does.
So Community First! Village is great for dealing with the chronically homeless and if we had 10 of them in Austin or five of them in Austin in different parts of the city, I think we could really solve 80% of the problem.
Haven For Hope is San Antonio is fascinating. It's a different model. Similar in some ways, but different also. It's different because it is not intended to be the place you stay forever. It is a transitional facility. It is absolutely remarkable.
It is the product of a partnership between the city, the county, and the private sector. They had a mayor and City Manager Sheryl Sculley who is in Austin now, who all came together. They have a camping ban in San Antonio and they take it seriously. If you're camping in San Antonio, you get taken to Haven For Hope.
The first thing you do is you go through detox. They don't care whether you're drunk or sober. You go through it. Once you're detoxed, you're processed, and they lay out what the rules are. They have an outdoor area that has misters and lockers where you can lock some of your possessions and where you sleep in sleeping bags. I don't know what they do in the summer because it's really hot.
That's an overflow space. I want to say there are around 1,000 people there. It cost $100 million to build. Their operating budget is $20 or $25 million a year. Look, it doesn't deal with every single person who's homeless in the city of San Antonio, but you really do not see significant homeless camping on campus or homeless populations in that city.
And it's smart for San Antonio because it's a city that is heavily reliant on tourism. If the Riverwalk had encampments, or if the Alamo had encampments, that would really affect their economy.
So what's the answer? The answer in Austin, in my mind, is I think we need a Haven For Hope, as a bridge. And I should add that an energy executive donated the land for that facility, and the city and the county came in. Then he chaired the board for 10 years and raised a lot of money from his peers and from people in San Antonio.
That is such a success story. We should emulate it here.
If I was just dropped in the middle of Austin and I didn't know a single person, didn't have a cell phone, no way to contact anybody, and I was homeless for all intents and purposes, just the clothes on my back, no drugs, no alcohol, just somebody who's got super bad luck and ended up being homeless. Without any other sort of mental illnesses, no diseases, nothing preventing me from living a healthy life other than being homeless. How easy is it for me to get out today?
Well, it's very hard. And of course, it gets to the question of what do you need? In the example that you lay out, the person needs a safe, sheltered environment to get back on their feet.
Temporary enough to get a job.
Yeah, for a few months, get a job, save some money. Sometimes hard to talk about the population as if they're all the same stuff and as if it's monolithic.
That's why I was giving you the most perfect use case.
One of the problems we have is we have limited shelter. All the shelters are full, and the city does a horrendous job of what you might call case management. They don't track individuals from one thing to the next. There's no one making sure that not only getting your medications but are you taking them? Are you sober? Are you working? Are you saving money?
The only thing they measure under a housing-first approach is heads and beds. Look, I guess that's better than not measuring anything. But that's not the sole determinant as to whether our policy is succeeding or failing.
Except they're not even measuring that.
They're not even adequately measuring that. They use some statistics and some modeling to try to estimate what the population is. But it's laughable. In fact, I was on a Zoom call with the guy that runs ECHO a year ago. I asked him, "How confident are you in your count?" He said, "Well, we do the very best we can. It's a difficult population to count." I'm paraphrasing.
I said, "Well, let me ask you this. If you had more volunteers, would you count more people?" He said, "Yeah, because there's a direct relationship." I said, "Well, then your count really can't be that accurate."
What if you double the number of volunteers? Are we going to have twice as many people that we count? So to answer your question, one of the things that's frustrating and what I've learned from spending the day with a deputy constable and that caseworker is, sometimes what happens is a person may go into an initially sheltered environment, but there's a time limit.
And if they can't get from there to the next level, their own housing... To get their own housing, they need to deposit. They need to pass a credit check. They need to be working. They probably need a car. Those four things may not sound like huge barriers and huge burdens to any person out there listening or watching this, but to a homeless person, any one of those is a significant barrier. All four of them are significant barriers.
I met a woman with the deputy constable who was close to what you described. She'd had some trouble. She had been in jail. She'd had some drug addiction, but she'd really gotten past it, all of it. She was right on the precipice of getting a place. She actually was able to buy a car, which is amazing.
But in the interviews, and people talk about how people want to give people a second chance, most employers don't. It's actually a huge part of the problem.
It's a liability. So they try to avoid it.
It can be. And certain industries like banking and things like that, I can understand.
Government, security clearances. We have to think about if there are ways we can do more on the second chance hiring piece. I'll tell you the biggest problem with the example that you laid out. And that is, you're asking a person who's already having significant challenges, who is under a lot of stress, who may not be in their right mind, to basically case-manage themselves.
And they may not have any idea where to even begin.
Don't know where to begin, may not have a cell phone, may not have email or access to receiving email.
I'll be honest. If I was dropped in the middle of a foreign land and didn't have a cell phone, I'd be, "Well, I've got to get a cell phone somewhere." I don't know what to do.
Sure. And, of course, when you see people panhandling they got dogs, some have cell phones and you kind of wonder, is this a profitable enterprise? Are they making a couple of $100 a day and it's worth doing? I don't know.
Our city does a terrible job of case management, of tracking people through the process. On that day I did the ride along, we talked to a lot of people who had gone through the first step, or maybe got through the second step. But then they timed out and they couldn't get to the next step. So then they come back here.
You're spending time and money, city, employee time, nonprofit time, probably nonprofit money to try to get that person along the pathway, and then they're coming back. It's essentially recidivism. We have a recidivism problem that is as much about our inability to manage these cases as anything else.
I want to spend some time on the negative impacts and actually sit down and enumerate them. Because I think some of these may not actually be that obvious. And if there are others that I'm missing, I want to dive into them. I'll just list them out and then we can go back.
Crime, traffic and loitering, housing prices, businesses, pollution, health and safety, and if you can think of others, we can do that. Let's start with crime. I sat down with a police officer when the traffic started spiking in Austin because of the homeless. People were trying to get past and people were stumbling in the middle of the streets. It was starting to become a problem.
The local neighborhood was getting upset. The police said, "Why don't we have a meeting."" They sat down with the locals, and the conversation they had with us, I was actually very surprised. I was expecting then to go, "This is a problem. We're trying to figure out how to deal with it," or anything along those lines.
It was almost the exact opposite. They said, "These are your neighbors." I'm like, "Wait, what? They're not my neighbors. In fact, they probably won't even be here in a couple of weeks, there'll be somewhere else." They don't have any reason to be in this location as opposed to some other location if that happens to be more beneficial for whatever reason.
Then when I started really analyzing it, I drove past it every day, and I got to spend time within a few feet of the homeless literally every day for a year or so, I noticed that it wasn't so much the homeless that was the problem with the crime. They were actually pretty okay.
Obviously, they're self-harming and doing things they shouldn't be doing for their own health. But it was the drug dealers right around them. They were everywhere around them. And they were very obvious. You knew exactly who they were. They didn't even particularly hide it. Even as a passerby, you would notice.
Then prostitution started picking up and that is going to lead to violence and all this other stuff going on and turf wars. The downstream effect of having so many people using drugs in such a small place is enormous. Do you have any concept of...?
Absolutely. All that's correct. I've gotten to know Michael Shellenberger pretty well in the last couple of years.
I was going to mention him actually.
He lives in San Francisco and has written a best-selling book, San Fransicko, which went through in a detailed and data-driven way why San Francisco has become such a failed city.
It's a great book.
He has a pretty comprehensive plan for homelessness. One of the things he talks about is how these encampments have become open drug markets, and it's absolutely the case. And you're right, you have desperate people who are being preyed upon by others: drug dealers, human traffickers, sex traffickers, violent criminals, gang members, you name it.
You have horrific crimes occurring in every single encampment, every single day of the week. It's a very good thing that the Rathgeber Center for Women and Families opened, the Salvation Army facility. I went down and toured six or nine months ago.
We've done a pretty good job, as a city, of getting women and children off the streets. Obviously, some still come in and some still become homeless, but for the most part, they're...
They must be heavily predated a second there in that environment.
Correct. So it is a heavily male environment, but, of course, people come in and come out. But you're right, it's a breeding ground for... We're not talking about people smoking marijuana. We're talking about very hard drugs that are very dangerous: K2, heroin, crystal meth, fentanyl, you name it. It's a horror show.
And honestly, of all the things that enrage me about the policy, how it's failed, and how our city has not been serious about, number one, admitting they made a mistake, and number two, changing direction is they're allowing these things to happen. There's a carelessness for human beings that is so core to allowing unregulated, unsafe, unsanitary camping, that is kind of evil on some level.
It's really troubling. There's no question that the camping ordinance has contributed to increased crime in our city. We know homeless fires doubled in the first year based on stats from the Austin Fire Department to an all-time record. The city does an intentionally poor job of tracking crimes by homeless individuals, keeping that as its own data point.
Of course, now with 911 calls being routed to 311, it's even harder. I did see a study in Austin, it might have been ECHO's or it might be somebody else being a statesman. One of the things that you see is violent crimes being perpetrated by homeless individuals against other homeless individuals
I think the average person probably has some concern about walking past an encampment or somewhere and maybe being harassed or mugged or something like that. The far more likely thing that's happening in camps is a homeless person is attacking another homeless person. They're doing it for money or for their shoes, or drugs, or whatever.
Or often, they're very crazy people who will attack because they think they're snakes or whatever. It's nothing against that person. They're just crazy.
That's right. So think about it. If you are putting forward a policy that basically allows camping to happen anywhere, anytime, anyplace, and you are not allowing the police to do anything to enforce the camping ban, and you are allowing those encampments to grow and expand and basically let anything happen, what generally happens is these encampments grow and grow.
People complain and complain. Nothing happens for weeks or months. Then eventually, they come and clear that area out. Now, the city's view is we can't clear an area out until we can put you somewhere. The problem with that is we are years away from being in a place where we're going to have enough capacity to put everyone somewhere who's illegally camping right now.
The city bought four hotels, roughly $12 million dollars per hotel. They're retrofitting them and they're turning them into homeless shelters. If you say we have 3,000 people, we have more than 3,000. I think 10,000 would be my guess. Let's say we have 3,000. That's roughly what the count was two years ago the last time they did it. If you had 100 people per hotel, you could do the math.
You're talking about a pretty significant number of hotels you need to go out and buy. At that number, you're talking about 30 at $10 million each. It's $300 million. That presumes you're able to run those facilities and keep them safe and make sure there aren't drugs and alcohol and that people are working and saving and all of those things.
We can't even manage the limit of facilities we have now with nowhere near the capacity that we need. So crime is a huge issue related to this policy. It gets worse every single day. And by not allowing the police to enforce the ban makes the problem worse.
The next one is traffic and loitering. This one is pretty bad. This actually reminds me of Mexico. There are places in Austin where people are going to come over and try to wash your windshield, despite you telling them, "I don't want my windshield washed." Coming over and trying to ask and loiter.
To some extent, that's not ultra-dangerous for the most part, except that they end up in traffic. They actually are literally walking through traffic and they get accustomed to doing it. Now there's definitely places in Austin where it's not just driving slow because there's pedestrians, it's driving slow because there's people wandering through the middle of the street, blocking traffic for multiple lights, backing up traffic in the process.
Sometimes they're loitering and sometimes they're just high. The idea of pedestrians, being in traffic at all is quite a dangerous topic. Even normal pedestrians who are not on anything and very lucid, that's still a very dangerous proposition.
Add in the fact that these people are either mentally insane or very high or just don't care. They're just angry at life and just don't care and they're yelling at people or whatever. That's just not a great recipe.
No, it's an issue as well. Most major intersections in Austin have someone panhandling. A lot of them have significant encampments under the underpasses. Before the camping ban was put back in place, pretty much every intersection on 183, which is one of our major thoroughfares over a three or four-mile period, had a major encampment.
183 in Burnett was perhaps the worst encampment in the city, which is saying something. So yeah, number one, you have panhandling. Depending on where you are, sometimes they go into the street. More of that what happens downtown. Of course, the problem with it happening downtown is at night you have drunk people walking around, and people are partying. That leads to confrontations that lead to bad decisions that lead to combativeness.
Yeah, I could definitely see crimes against the homeless escalating.
In both directions, absolutely. The loitering issue is a huge issue, too. I don't even know where to begin. Royal Blue Grocery, which is a fairly progressive boutique grocery chain in downtown Austin has changed their hours such that they're in almost every location not open after dark. They've had huge problems.
We've seen Starbucks announce they're going to be closing locations in a number of cities that I mentioned earlier. I don't believe Austin was one of them, although I'm kind of surprised. Depending on where you are, those kinds of activities are occurring all the time.
I mentioned the Dairy Queen owner, Robert Mayfield. I don't want to get into it because it's gross, but he had a really unfortunate incident occur in his store. Someone came in and did something pretty disgusting. These are just the cases that we hear about or that get reported. There's probably 10 times as many that we don't know about.
Where are city leaders when it comes to protecting women and children and families? Where they are in protecting small businesses? A small business should be able to operate and open their doors to their customers and be safe.
You won't have civil society if you don't commerce.
Of course not. I didn't mention one of the other modest changes they made. They banned camping in the immediate area, at the entry of a home or business. You would think, well, why wasn't that in there to begin with? Any person going into their home or going to their business should be able to open their door without being obstructed.
Particularly, businesses that have an awning. I'm thinking of a place like Kruger's Jewelers at 8th & Congress downtown, a couple of blocks from the Capitol. They have had an awning. For over a year, they had people with a sleeping bag sleeping under that awning.
If I was that person, I would prefer an awning too. I don't get rained on, it's some kind of protection. The problem is that's where the front door of the business is. Does that business have a right to have their employees walk in and not have to be confronted by someone who may be high, maybe desperate, and certainly has some measure of desperation?
So the loitering and panhandling issue is a huge problem. I'd be remised if I didn't bring up the broken windows theory. New York had a lot of these problems in the 80s and 90s. I know Rudy Giuliani is a different figure today in public life. But at that time, he ran on cleaning up New York City.
They have a mayor now that's trying to do the same thing. We'll see if he's successful. They did two things that were really interesting. The first is they put forward this idea of broken windows theory, which is to say if you don't take small infractions seriously, small infractions become big infractions. And that's absolutely true.
A person that's engaging in petty theft is going to eventually do grand larceny. A person that's in engaged in criminal mischief or trespassing is going to engage in something more serious.
Especially if they see something that already looks like it's been broken into. Well, it doesn't matter.
They got rid of the squeegee guys in Times Square, and they got rid of the prostitution stuff. New York experienced a 10 or 15-year run where it was the greatest city in the world. The second thing they did, and this does get into policing, but I'll just explain it briefly. And that's ComStat.
Through their police department, they started tracking all kinds of data more than they'd ever had before, maybe by a hundredfold increase. They studied it and they could tell which crimes occurred in which parts of the city at which times. And what they did is they surged resources to those areas. It reduced crime significantly across the city.
I don't know offhand if we have a ComStat type system in Austin. I would tend to doubt it. Whatever it is, I'm sure it's inadequate for whatever we're doing now. But until Austin gets serious about the smaller infractions, we're not going to have a safe city. That's true both with the homeless issue and more broadly.
All right, housing prices. The weird part about homelessness is it tends to congregate around certain places like bridges or whatever, just getting the elements off of people. So in some ways, it is a shelter. But the people who live next to those things tend to be people who don't have very much money. People who want to live right next to an overpass or that is the house they have chosen tend to not care about the noise or they don't have the option to care about the noise. That's their house.
So of all the people who are most negatively affected, it seems like it affects poor people the most, which is almost backwards. It seems like the rich would be affected, like Beverly Hills or something. But it doesn't seem like that's the case. It seems like it's mostly the people who are the closest physically to them.
You would think, well, rich people have more disposable income, probably have cash on them, might be more willing to give someone who's panhandling money, make them feel good, make them feel charitable, not going to change their life. You're right. The locations where homeless individuals generally create these encampments or are loitering or panhandling is generally in these more transitional areas.
It's been interesting because you're right, generally, really nice wealthy neighborhoods are not near intersections or major highways. Not near necessarily bridges. In some cases, they can be around wooded areas. I know where we are today taping this. It's near a Greenbelt.
This is one of the other astounding things about this issue. Austin has prided itself on being an environmentally conscious city. And it's not just about affecting the waterways and trash and needles and chemicals from mattresses and other things getting into our waterways. That's bad enough. It's also affecting all of our parks.
They banned camping in parks. That was the fourth time. Entry to a business was the third and then the fourth was parks. That's laughable. I mean, there's camping ongoing in every single park in our city right now every single day of the year. And that's not even debatable.
For a city that claims to care about parks, always wants to get more parkland, and that wants green space to be part of every development deal, they're not even patrolling or taking care of what we have. In fact, they've shut down the park police. The park police office doesn't exist anymore.
Now, I actually thought you asked me a different question about housing. I thought you were going to say, is homelessness caused by the increase in the cost of housing? There's no doubt that Austin has had...
We can certainly get to that too. There are some stats about an annual increase in housing costs, which can drive a certain amount of homelessness once it hits some tipping point. I think it's once more than 30% of your income goes to housing, it has a tipping point effect where homelessness kicks off.
That's right. I'm not going to sit here and pretend that housing prices don't affect homelessness. I'm sure it does. I think it's probably along the margins. I fundamentally believe it's about drug and alcohol addiction and untreated mental illness more than anything.
I mean, some sort of economic stress on somebody driving them to drugs and alcohol. I can see where that tipping effect is maybe a first-order problem that leads to the second-order problem.
That's right. Our city believes the only way they can create affordable housing is to pass bonds and go out and build things and then choose which people get to live there. In the meantime, and property taxes are through the roof, valuations are through the roof, you can't protest.
They raise taxes at every opportunity. Project Connect being one example of that, the unaffordable housing bond. Every year or two, they're trying to do something new that costs more money. So I'm not really sympathetic to the city council if they want to make the argument that housing prices have caused our homeless crisis. If anything, they've made affordability worse in our city through their actions
Availability of houses has gotten way down.
That's a huge problem too, and that's a problem they've directly made worse because development fees in Austin are roughly 80% more than they are in any other major city in Texas. When you add to that the time it takes to build a new house, it takes a year and a half on average to build a new house in Travis County or Austin. You go one County North to Williamson, one County South to Hayes, the average is six months.
We are not building enough housing to address the demand that we have here on the low end, and even in the medium end. I don't know what a reasonable price is for a starter home these days what people think are reasonable prices. I remember when I got started, I think I bought a house at $350,000 when I got started,
I think the most recent set I saw that was median was somewhere around 600.
Yeah, it's much higher now. That's right. A $500,000 or $600,000 home is going to be unattainable for 95% of people as their first home.
I feel like that was a starter home for a single family, should be around 600 grand is what their current estimate is. It's crazy.
Austin does a horrendous job of addressing affordability. Number one, they make it expensive to live here through taxes and property taxes and everything. Number two, they artificially constrain the supply of housing. Number three, the Development Office is about 1/10 the size it needs to be. You can't get permits. If you even look the wrong way at a tree, it's a felony, let alone remove even a dead tree from your own property. The list goes on and on.
You have to step back and say, how can the 11th largest in the country have elected leadership that continues to do things that are so irrational, that are clearly failing? And the only thing I can come to is there's an ideological approach that they're totally committed to, for whatever their own reasons are.
That's why we've got to have voters independently assess these things, and decide, do you like the direction the city is going? I believe 60%, 70%, or maybe even 80% of these people who live here don't believe Austin is headed in the right direction. But until people start voting differently, we're going to continue to get what we've always gotten.
We kind of talked about businesses already. Pollution is the next one. You mentioned something about the waterways. I remember seeing this video this guy took. It was at the back of his house. There was one guy camped back there and he couldn't really do anything about it. The police wouldn't come. They wouldn't do anything about it.
So he occasionally would go back there. Sometime later, there was like three tents back there. Then at some point after that, there was like 50 tents back there. He's back there every day, doing a one-off panning around his backyard over his fence line.
Gradually, they became extremely aggressive towards him because they could tell he's videotaping them and they don't want to be videotaped. He tried to get the cops involved at that point and his life is getting threatened pretty regularly.
Eventually, he goes back there, and it's completely gone. But it's not because the police came and evicted them all. It's because behind his house, there's a creek. It suddenly started raining and it just wiped out this encampment. It completely gone. Everything flowed down the river.
Part of this video, he was just showing what the ground looked like. It was completely covered with feces and needles and trash in general, absolutely covered, like not an inch of actual ground left. That is all in our waterways now. Those are some very serious drugs, needles. Maybe the viruses die on them after they get exposed to rainwater or something, let's hope, but still, these are dangerous things that are floating down river. And God knows what weapons and other things might be in there.
It's a huge problem.
That seems like such an enormous issue that I don't think anyone is even talking about the environmental aspects of what this does to it. Because this ends up being in a lot of waterways, as you said, a lot of runoff areas where that just happens to be a good enough place to camp temporarily until the flood comes.
That's right. As I said before, Austin has for a long time put itself out there as being one of the more environmentally responsible cities in the country. I remember when I was growing up; Save Our Springs, those groups fought development, fought malls being built, fought for endangered species, et cetera.
I've seen the video you're talking about and lots of other videos too. If you look at Town Lake, I was living downtown for a while and I was running on Town Lake to get exercise most days. I mean, you could go down the Congress Avenue Bridge and see literally a couch coming through that waterway.
It's beyond belief that there's such little regard for these resources that we have that we're all supposed to share and we're all supposed to care about it. I don't know why the Texas Council Environmental Quality has gotten involved. I don't know why the EPA hasn't gotten involved.
It just seems like I wouldn't even want to swim in these waters.
Of course, not. I don't know if it's related, but we've had some very serious problems, some algae problems where dogs are dying and getting the water in some different parts of our city. It would seem to me that would be a reasonable potential explanation. Maybe there are other explanations. I don't know. I'm not an expert in that area.
On that basis alone, on the environmental basis alone, you could make almost no other arguments. And if you have a progressive government, they should be able to conclude, "You're right. We can't let the environment get destroyed in our city. This is not working, we have to try something else."
I mean, this is a shared resource that I don't think anyone can complain about. We really do not want more random things in our water supply.
That's right. And I'll tell you, the single most creative idea — and I don't remember how it came to be. It wasn't my idea, but it came from talking to someone else. It might have been a deputy constable or somebody else — that I've heard is a creative solution.
Look, you have this population that's growing. You're not going to be able to get enough shelter space for some period of time. You need a bridge. Even if we did have a Haven For Hope here. If you went and raised $100 million to do it, you've got to build it, you got to find the land. You're talking about a long period of time.
What you could do is you have hundreds of acres across the city that the city has purchased for future parkland. You could take all the homeless individuals around our city and say, "The only place you're allowed to camp from now on is future parkland. In addition to that, you're going to work that land we're going to pay you. You're going to beautify it and make it an appropriate park space for future families to utilize. Then when that's done, you can move to another place where maybe by then we have enough shelter space."
That is such a simple, easy solution. One of the things you have to ask yourself is if there's a problem in a major city or in any part of your life, if the government is not addressing the problem, it's because they want the problem to be there. You have to ask why that is.
So health and safety in general, COVID was an interesting one. We did all this work to shelter in place, and yet, the homeless were just doing whatever the homeless do. They're getting drugs and engaging in prostitution. I saw some stat that syphilis went up during the pandemic. Why are we even bothering with this whole shelter-in-place thing because there's a huge population that is engaging in whatever and taking it home to their spouses and it just keeps going?
I think public safety in terms of viruses, or general access to things that are unsavory that the general, society in general probably does not like whatever these things are. Do you have any sense for viral outbreaks or diseases or how that all plays out? Because Syphilis is one of the ones I know the CDC does actually track.
What's interesting about that is the city specifically exempted the homeless population from the COVID procedures they were requiring the rest of us to follow. Not just shelter at home, but masking, all of it. And if you think about it, for all the reasons we've described, in some ways, it's actually the population that's the most at risk — most likely to contract the virus, most likely to transmit it.
They have a lot of comorbidities.
They're not in a position to isolate or to get good care. It's amazing. I talked to a number of people who worked in hospitals, particularly during that time frame we're talking about. There were times when half of the people coming with COVID were homeless.
If you're talking about 10,000 people in a city of a million people, and even for a short period of time, half of them or even a third have COVID, you can do the math on how much more prevalent it is there. In terms of other public health challenges, I don't have stats.
That's an interesting stat in and of itself because if that's true, that means there are definitely more than 3,000 homeless in Austin if 5,000 or so ended up in a hospital.
I don't know the number that was in the hospital. It would depend on the hospital itself.
You're just throwing out rough numbers.
Yeah, exactly. That was one of the dirty little secrets during that whole time frame was that the homeless were a pretty large percentage of people who were contracting and going into hospitals. Of course, that's uncompensated care, they don't have insurance. That affects hospitals and affects the state budget.
Every one of these problems is not an isolated problem. It doesn't just exist in its own world without any other consequences for other people or other industries or taxpayers or families or schools or whatever. All these problems we talked about have spokes that connect to all other parts of life.
Speaking of, let's talk about the police. I think the police's impact here is probably one of the most critical. They really are our frontline workers despite what anyone says. They're the first when someone gets an overdose. They're the first when someone gets in a fight. They're the first when some neighbor complains about whatever.
I was talking to a friend who's got a very good police officer. We kind of enumerated all the things he'd heard him complain about at some point, which was useful for this podcast. I'm just going to go through them.
First of all, it's just dangerous. They are putting themselves in extreme harm, depending on the situation. These people have lots of diseases, they're very violent. They're often armed and irrational. It's such a dangerous proposition. I'd say that about anybody, whether they're homeless or not. If someone's in that state of mind, that's going to be a dangerous proposition.
Next is it's often involving petty crime. It could be as simple as just sleeping on the bench. They're not necessarily harming anything. The cops really don't want to hassle these people. That's not what they signed up for. They signed up to stop bad guys and not shoot someone down the road.
A lot of it, I think, is purely demoralizing. Like, "Buddy, I know that you don't have anywhere else to go." "Where should I go?" That direction. Just keep walking because I can't see you lay down on this bench again." I think that's going to hurt morale a lot.
Next is that police had approximately a third of their budget taken away. Am I getting admin those numbers right? I don't know.
The police budget was $450 million a year. In 2020, the council voted 11-0 to cut 1/3 of the police budget, $150 million. They took $20 million away immediately. The other $130 million, they allowed themselves to spend on anything they wanted.
I don't know anyone that knows what that number was. I know it's over $70 million. Whether they got all the $130 million, I don't know. They canceled two scheduled Cadet classes. They delayed the graduation of the current Cadet class at that time. And because of all of that, they've created a profound staffing crisis where we're something like 350 police officers down from where we were when that vote occurred.
Because of that, we are in a crisis situation where we don't practice policing anymore. Our motorcycle unit or traffic enforcement unit shut down. The anti-gang unit shut down. Our Lake patrol shut down. Park Police are shut down. We doubled our all-time homicide record last year and we're on track to probably beat it this year. We'll see.
So you're right. The police, I'm very sensitive to the position that our city has put them in. We don't have enough police to handle the aspects of the job that they want to handle. They want to investigate crime. They want to prevent crime. They want to put criminals behind bars. They want to have safe cities, safe neighborhoods, and safe businesses.
They want the community to have trust in the work they're doing. They want to feel good about the work they're doing. They want to feel like they're making a difference. These are people who don't make very much money, who don't know if they're coming home after a shift. The spouse doesn't know.
Now, they're under so much pressure that it's almost an impossible job. Austin's made it more unattractive to be a police officer than at any time in the history of our city.
And the DA won't prosecute.
County attorney won't prosecute most misdemeanors, DA is not prosecuting most felonies. And in addition to that, which makes it even worse, the DA is not prosecuting criminals, but he's prosecuting police officers. He's indicted 22 separate police officers based on one incident, which was after the George Floyd protests, there was one night where things got very dangerous and very violent.
They overtook a street bridge right across the police department on Interstate 35 . You won't talk about pedestrians and people in the middle of the road. This is not one person with a squeegee. This was hundreds of people marching down what is maybe the single most congested portion of the single most congested road in Austin.
They were given defective, non-lethal rounds. I do believe the fact that they were defective requires accountability. But you don't prosecute a line officer because they were given defective non-lethal rounds, and then use them for riot control. I don't believe any of those 22 people are going to be convicted. I would put pretty good odds on that.
But it's still demoralizing.
Very demoralizing. Thankfully, the police chose to suspend them with pay. So they are being paid. They're on administrative leave with pay. But they don't know what their future is. They have significant legal bills. They don't know how much that's going to be.
But they're also not prosecuting any petty crimes at the same time.
They've created a number of categories where they're not prosecuting. They're not prosecuting sex work, if you can believe. They're not prosecuting criminal mischief and prosecuting petty theft. I think it's up to $100. There's five or six different things, some types of possession of controlled substances.
And, of course, as we said before, broken windows theory works in this way as well. Generally, someone doesn't become a murderer and they have nothing in their background of ever breaking the law. They probably started stealing a car, or doing something lower-level. They realized they liked it, or it was a way to make money or there was no consequence to it. And then they worked their way up into much more serious, more violent crimes.
That's what we're seeing in Austin. We're seeing gang activity increase. We're seeing violent crime rise. Our ability to ensure a fully-staffed Police Department for the shifts that are scheduled and handle major events....
Major events and special events are a huge problem. I'll tell you the biggest thing that worries me about the police in Austin, there's like 10 things for me. But the thing that worries me the most is we can barely handle one crisis if it happens.
The worst shooting in the history of Austin occurred about a year ago at 6th Street & Trinity. 12 or 13 people were shot. A 25-year-old tourist was killed in a gangland gun battle at 2 AM downtown.
If you've ever been on what we call 36 on a weekend at 2 AM, I wouldn't recommend it. I did when I was in college. It was a different era, a different time. But even that incident was really inadequate, and we had some heroic police officers that were triaging and cauterizing wounds and saving lives. We were very fortunate we didn't have dozens of people die that day.
But imagine a scenario where you have maybe an Austin FC soccer game and UT football game the same night. Or you have an ACL and a UT basketball game or something. You have two major events where you have 1000s of people. Let's say you have a significant criminal event occur at both locations at the same time. We don't have enough police officers to cover two crises at one time.
Any police officer will tell you that, anyone in the police leadership will tell you that. In fact, the night of the shooting that occurred about a year ago, they pulled officers from pretty much everywhere around the city to come in, which they should have. I want to say there are six sectors in the city of Austin. Two of them had only one responding vehicle from like 2 AM to 6 AM.
So if you have a domestic violence incident and a bank robbery in one of those sectors, you have one officer who can respond. And if that person is dealing with that one, it might be hours before another officer can respond.
These are the consequences of what our city has done. Now, if you had the mayor here, they would say, "Number one, we didn't defund the police. But even if you think we did, we put the money back and everything is fine." The problem is that we have not backfilled the officers we've lost.
There's a delay number. It takes three to four months to recruit a cadet class of 100. They start with 100, they graduate 80. You may have 65 or 70 that get through all of it. Three or four months to recruit, eight or nine months of training, and one or two months of fieldwork. Add that up, you're talking about 15 months to go from zero to another 65.
And they canceled a couple of classes.
Correct, but here's the issue. This is really crucial. Not only are we 300 short now, this is another thing that's crazy, you're going to do one cadet class at a time. They don't allow concurrent classes. Houston has concurrent classes, they have night classes. Councilmember Mackenzie Kelly has been trying to get concurrent classes, to get a modified class, you can bring officers in from other police departments, maybe it's only three or four months total. They're not doing any of that.
So it's not just that we're 300 short, it's that in a 12 to 15 month period, we're making 65 or 70 officers. The problem is we're losing 15 officers a month. So the crisis is growing. The delta between the size of the police force, the size of the city, and the crime rate is growing over time. Our current city council have shown virtually no interest in addressing that issue. Hopefully, the new mayor and the new council will starting January.
Certain crimes are also being decriminalized. If you look at California, for instance, they've effectively decriminalized like theft below $900, or something.
Which is an insane limit. I'm against any low limit allowing any of it to happen. If you want to go and take a candy bar from the 7-Eleven, it's not the end of the world, and I can understand why you have limited prosecutorial assets, and limited police assets. You can't have everybody go chase everybody who steals candy bars.
But $900 dollars is insane. I think $100 is insane for businesses that have small narrow margins and that are dealing with people with volume, convenience stores. You can talk to anybody who owns or works in a convenience store. There may be no individual industry in Austin that has been more profoundly affected in a negative way by the camping ordinance than the commuter store industry.
It is unspeakable what happens in those locations.
And they're already dangerous.
They're already dangerous, to begin with, particularly in the middle of the night and late at night, for all the reasons we can imagine. You're asking people getting $11 an hour who's working night 9 PM to 6 AM to become a security officer and to go chase someone or to talk someone down. I mean, it's crazy and it's made that business very difficult.
And that's a very heavily immigrant population, not just in terms of the ownership, but in terms of the workforce.
Let's say all those barriers have been met, and now some police officer decides this guy has got to go to jail. They're probably out the very next day.
Exactly. And this is the chilling effect that we have right now. We've never had a worse relationship between the DA and the police department in the history of the city of Austin. One of the consequences of this chilling effect is that police officers now don't even want to put themselves at risk and go investigate and collect evidence and provide the information to charge criminals in specific areas because they know the DA is not going to prosecute them anyway.
Why would they rush into a situation if that person is going to not be prosecuted for stealing up to $200 worth of goods? That's a rational choice. Now, it's not a choice that's good for public safety but they're not going to be prosecuted anyway.
So you have had an explosion in lower-level crimes. The number of them, the frequency, the areas that they go into, they're becoming more emboldened to do these things. And as we talked about before, if you're doing petty theft today, you may be doing grand larceny and stealing a car a month from now. You're going to graduate up that ladder. That's what makes our city measurably less safe.
Then back to the homeless, specifically, when we put them in jail for let's say, vagrancy, just for camping, now they have a record. Now it is even harder for them in employment and housing.
So from a police officer’s perspective, this is all just talking about the police's incentive here, from the police's perspective, they're going to do something that's dangerous, they're going to do something that no one wants them to do at the council level.
That may have no consequences, and if it does have consequences, it may make it harder to get this person back into society.
So every incentive is broken to actually help people. I'm not advocating for a nanny state, but a lot of these people really do need help. For some reason, and we probably we'll always have to agree, it's probably most of the time going to be drugs, not all the time but very largely, drugs or alcohol. The cops don't want to stand in the way of getting them better, but they also know that they're not going to get better on their own.
So how does a police officer who is the very first frontline, it's not a social worker, it's going to be the cops who are getting called because someone is annoyed at the homeless for good reasons or not, they are the very first one on the scene, they're going to have to do something. It doesn't seem like we're giving them the tools or any incentive at all to do the right thing for society. Assuming we think laws matter.
There's a feeling of hopelessness that I'm sure is pervasive throughout the police department for the reasons that you identified. I didn't set out two years ago to create a system where homeless individuals have criminal records and make it harder for them to become self-sufficient. I want them to be self-sufficient. I want them to live lives of productivity and lives of meaning.
I want them to get back on their feet. I want them to deal with whatever challenges they have in their life. I just want it to be done in an efficient way where taxpayer dollars are respected, and where it works for our city.
I think the way that you solve this, and you can never eliminate homelessness entirely. You can mitigate it, you can reduce it, you can take it on, but it's always going to exist at some level. But what I think you do, and I go back to the number I said before about 91%, voluntary compliance with the camping ban. Then the numbers I told you about the UCLA study that found three-quarters had mental health challenges, three-quarters had drug and alcohol abuse challenges.
Here's the good news. The good news is we know how to handle drug and alcohol addiction. We are as advanced in that area, as at any time in human history, for the most part. There's always challenges with new drugs coming on and there are different opinions about things to do.
But for the most part, if you have someone who knows they're addicted and wants to get better, you can get them better. Mental health, same thing; diagnose it properly, get them their prescription, and make sure they take their medicine. Then and then check in on them three months, six months.
Let's say the homeless population, 10,000 people in Austin, and three-quarters of them are in these two categories. Well, let's address those two categories the best way we can, really get those people off the streets, get them the help they need. Then you're only talking about 25% of the population that remains.
So the question is, are those people suddenly homeless, the kind of person you described? Which I absolutely believe exists. If you've had bad decisions or bad luck.
That woman wearing Gucci on the street, whatever happened. She's going to be fine. She's going to get up.
Yeah, that's right. She's been self-sufficient before. She wants to do it again. She remembers what it's like. She wants to get there. I think a lot of them really do want to get there. The biggest challenge in the homeless population and dealing with it from a policy perspective is what do you do with the people who are non-compliant?
There was a percentage, let's call it 10% or 15% of the homeless population that wants to live a vagrant lifestyle that doesn't want responsibilities. It doesn't want to have to work. It wants to be able to abuse drugs and alcohol. It doesn't want to have anyone checking in on them.
And they will tell you that. It's not like this is something you're putting in their mouth. There are actually a lot of videos of them saying those exact words.
That's right. For that population, that's where I think you have to have a carrot and a stick. That's where we have to enforce laws. If they get a ticket for illegally camping and they continue to do it, it's just like speeding tickets. Eventually, you have enough speeding tickets you haven't paid, you're going to jail.
Are we criminalizing driving? Are we criminalizing that? No, we're not. You have to have consequences for behaviors that are not in the public interest.
I don't approach the issue of homelessness with a sense of hopelessness. I know that there are cities in our country that have had success. There's a city in Rhode Island that put into place a mandatory mental health treatment program for the homeless. If you're homeless and you're camping, you're going to jail or you're going to mandatory treatment.
Most of them are going to be mandatory treatment because it's a lot better than jail. Some maybe want to go there and maybe figure it out or whatever.
Or they think there's drugs in jail.
We all know that. We could do three hours on the absolute failure of our prison system. We create criminals, we create drug addicts, and we expand gang membership to a great extent.
There is some good work that happens with prison fellowships and other things. But it's a huge embarrassment to our country the way our prison system works. But if you could address that population that's non-compliant.
There's another city in Utah that's had some success as well, similar to Rhode Island. Mental health reform is a really complicated and challenging issue. Voluntary commitment, we got rid of that. State hospitals are limited. That's a whole other complicated problem.
I think that's the very next thing I want to talk about. We had the idea of sanitariums in the United States. That was a thing. There were as many of them. There was this concept called deinstitutionalization, where basically everyone wanted to push people out of the sanitariums.
Like, we have these new drugs now. We can get them on the street. As long as they take these drugs, they’re effectively seen. We more or less got rid of sanitariums because they thought there was a lot of abuse happening in them. There were bad conditions. People were dying of starvation in the hospital, which obviously makes no sense. The one place you'd expect them to have consistent good care.
I'm not saying that sanitariums as they once were a good idea. There also is a lot of studies around, as you said, there needs to be a social group. And I think this is any type of health issue Irrespective of what we're talking about. It could just be old age. If you don't have a support group, you're definitely going to die more likely than not eventually, earlier than you would have,
Think about Alcoholics Anonymous.
It's a friend group of some sort.
Sure, you're sharing, you're learning from others, you're holding each other accountable, you have a sponsor.
Whether agree with the methods or not, and actually, I don't think they've got great efficacy for other reasons. I think that that's probably the case. But probably the major problem is that we're treating this like a mental health issue exclusively.
Some of it is. I think you're right. But I think some of it is the drugs themselves that are making people truly crazy. If you've ever met somebody who's been very heavily addicted to something and then come off of it. Two things. Number one, they've effectively not aged at all. They're the same age as when they started.
Their brain has not progressed at all. So if they started when they're a teenager, they still act like a teenager, which is a very odd, off-putting thing if you're looking at a 60-year-old man to be acting like a 15-year-old boy. The second is, they are on the edge of being fully crazy at all times. They're having to really fight not getting in fights, having a normal conversation and not getting up and doing something sporadic.
That isn't a mental health thing, initially, but ends up becoming one. How do we tackle the mental health aspect of it? Is that something that we can even do in a vacuum? Or is that just absolutely off the table and we have to move to a more comprehensive carrot-and-stick method like you were talking about?
I'll go to Shellenberger on that for a minute. He talks about creating a state network of psychiatric hospitals, where you have mandatory care. This gets into involuntary commitment and whether family members can pull people in. There's all kinds of complicating factors.
The core of the problem you have right now is you have untreated mental illness in the population. If you have a mental illness but you haven't been diagnosed, you don't know you have it, you're not getting treatment, you are not getting a prescription and taking it. They're not seeing if the prescription is working.
You don't just give someone a prescription, and then they stay on it for the rest of their life and nothing changes. Taking that prescription is going to change them. They may need to lessen it or may need to do something different, or maybe the one they gave him didn't work. To me, it's a continuum of care and a case management approach that you have to take.
There's individual family support services, group homes, community and supportive living, foster care, personal care homes, community residences, community mental health services, supported housing, and I'm sure I'm missing a whole bunch of other versions of that same thing.
If you believe that there is a good model, then effectively, all those others are at least not as good as that good model, if not bad. It seems to me like we just haven't found the perfect one. Or if we have, it hasn't reached enough of a crescendo where enough people are noticing how well this has done. All these other methods of treatment are just that's something we used to do. We don't do that anymore because it doesn't work.
As you said earlier, where's the measurement? Where are the KPIs to guarantee that we're putting the dollars in the right place? Because a lot of this comes from the state. The state is sponsoring a huge chunk of these things. Where is the accountability to say, well, these services just don't seem to work?
When we put people in your thing, we see them on the other end in the police station six months after and they're still high. It's not working. What you're doing isn't working. You stop getting funds and we start putting funds where things are working. Why isn't it entirely data-driven?
That's a great question and I'll be really candid. I'm a little bit less studied on the mental health challenges of this. My understanding, having talked to a lot of people about this is it's more an issue of kind of getting people into the system than it is people being in the system and not getting adequate care and then coming out and living productive lives, particularly as it relates to the homeless.
A very common model is you come in, you get cleaned for three months, and then you're out. But that is exactly when the cravings are going to be the most acute after they've come off the initial low. It seems to me like they should be kept in place until a physician says they seem like they're in a good spot. They're ready for release. No just, there's an arbitrary timeline. You're out.
Absolutely. It should be based on the progress they're making.
Some people have a lot of challenges they're going to have to overcome because they've committed a lot of crimes. I've actually spent some time talking with homeless people about this. One example of this that bothers me a lot is your teeth will fall out, for instance.
They’re suddenly now clean. They've gone through the process of getting themselves clean. They're looking in the mirror and they start remembering all these crimes they've committed against their friends, or their family, or all this other stuff. There's a huge amount of healing that has to happen, and self-discovery. And to tell me that you can get all that done in three months, I have to call BS. There's just no way.
That's right. The other thing we haven't talked about in mental health is if you are dealing with untreated mental illness, not only are you not making good life decisions, which you need to start making if you're going to get yourself out of the homeless situation but you're also going to be more susceptible to drug and alcohol abuse. So these issues can be connected.
Another version of that connectivity. If you have been incarcerated at any point, you're now 13 times more likely to become homeless.
That's right. And part of the reason for that is once you become incarcerated, number one, we're making hardened criminals in jail. But number two, it can be hard to get housing, hard to get employment, hard to keep employment, hard to get the kind of employment you want, or that you think you're qualified for, the kind of jobs you want to do.
Maybe you're qualified to do minimum wage type work, but obviously, people don't want to do that, for the most part. Honestly, I hope this can be more of a state-driven effort rather than a city-driven effort. In an ideal world, you'd have everyone work together.
Sometimes that can be too much to ask for in today's political environment. We need a comprehensive look and analysis of our mental health system in our state; what works, what doesn't, how are we measuring success? KPIs entirely.
You double down on what works. You try some things that have worked and other places. You stop doing things that don't work. You stop wasting money. Just because somebody somewhere likes a program doesn't mean it should continue forever.
Yeah, pet programs are a danger, especially in this because people's lives are at risk. You're going to end up killing these people if you don't take care of them.
Particularly if you're talking about let's try something different that's been proven somewhere else that it can have much more effective outcomes versus something that we know is not working. If it's one or the other, the distance between something that's ineffective and something that's effective when the stakes are so high is pretty significant.
Back to drugs for a minute. I think this is worth spending a few minutes on. I think that a huge chunk of this has to come with the direct effect of the dropping prices of different drugs. For instance, heroin came down very significantly after Vietnam.
Then came the crack epidemic, then meth, then we had opioids, in general. There was a whole class of new pills that people could take. Then fentanyl started getting cut into things and that dropped the price significantly on all of those things.
Now we have designer drugs like Krokodil, which is like a synthetic opioid (desomorphine), Flakka is stimulant (alpha-PVP), Bath Salts is the common name for that. K2, which is a psychoactive, synthetic cannabinoid. People think they're smoking something that is more or less like marijuana, except it makes you literally completely insane.
It's extremely dangerous.
Not just laying on the couch. Absolutely one of the most dangerous drugs out there that makes people run in traffic and see aliens and jump through windows and all kinds of crazy stuff.
All of these things are incredibly cheap now. You can get high for $2 now very easily, maybe $5 max. There's an open air drug market where somehow the drug industry in the United States is making something like $120 billion off of $2 and $5 buys. That is an enormous amount of drugs being pumped into this population.
It seems like people are just sort of looking the other way when it comes to the drug dealers. It's like, well, they exist, they're around. If the homeless don't get it, they're just going to get it somewhere else. But that's not true.
Ultimately, someone has to give these people drugs. You just have to follow the homeless for just a day or two, and they're going to find the drugs, and then you arrest the next person. And it becomes extremely easy. I don't get why we are letting that fly.
Why does civil society allow that to occur? If we're trying to get these people off drugs and off the street, it seems like the very first thing you're going to do is attack all the people who are enabling them to do the bad thing.
Drug Control Policy is complicated. The federal government has a role, the state to a lesser extent. I-35, which runs from Austin to Minneapolis right to the middle of the country, is a massive magnet for criminal enterprise, human trafficking, sex trafficking and all kinds of trafficking.
So Austin is kind of a victim of circumstance or geographic positioning as much as anything else. There's absolutely no doubt that our city has not done anything that I'm aware of to take on this industry. It would seem to me that if they decided to make it a priority, and you had a specialized, proactive policing unit that was taking that on, you could literally create task forces with the feds with significant resources to make a real difference in that regard.
I don't necessarily think we should be focusing on putting one person in jail because they have one pill at a time. It's about the pushers that are committing the felonies, that are propagating this human misery in our community. And the crime. That's absolutely a key point.
If it was simply smoking a joint somewhere in the middle of nowhere, harming no one and falling asleep, that's one thing. Violent crime surrounds serious drug use. It is an inherently violent industry to be in. There's a lot of money. It's a serious crime so it attracts violent criminals, to begin with. That turf war is serious enough that that violence comes with it.
One of the real tragedies of this is that there may be differing opinions from policymakers about where to draw the line on which drugs are okay, which ones aren't, and how much we should focus. Everyone should agree that violent crime has to be addressed, minimized. We have to have a real plan for it, that we focus on it, that we measure it, and that we improve it over time.
Dallas and Houston, although I think they spiked up this year, the last couple of years, Dallas, in particular, was doing a really good job. They have an outstanding mayor. They have a serious police chief. They have a solid police department. They've increased the size of their police department.
They didn't defund their police. They don't have a camping ordinance. They've been very serious and they've had improvements. Those cities have gang problems that are probably bigger than Austin's. But for whatever reason, Austin hasn't taken this seriously.
So even if different people can set the line in different places as it relates to which drugs should be illegal and how much of an individual drug should be illegal, we should all focus on the scourge of violent crime. And it goes hand in hand with drug use and drug pushers.
Another thing that popped up, I was talking with a friend of mine. He was saying you should take a look at New York, specifically with regard to the housing of the poor. This is the sheltered yet homeless.
There is a very large industry in housing the homeless. Very large. And this is 10s of billions of dollars being made just by one or two of these companies alone. Maybe even hundreds of millions of dollars off of housing the homeless. And they make it about $3,000 or $4,000 a month at a time per bed.
New York had a shelter-first sort of initiative. Like you have to have a bed. I think they even had it set up so that the main czar of homelessness was personally accountable if there weren't enough beds or something. So it was a real mandate. They were going to take it very seriously.
But what ended up happening is you made a cottage industry of the extremely rundown awful places that should have been condemned, that were condemned in some cases, and turned them into housing for the homeless, which effectively makes these incredibly dangerous places to be. There's literally rot in there.
They were not much better than just being on the street. In fact, in some cases, it might be much worse. And the density of homeless is extremely high in those places because they're filled with addicts effectively.
That does not seem like a recipe for improving. I understand that they're not being rained on. But in every other way, their life is now worse. They are now in even tighter conditions, in some cases, than they were if they just camped in a park.
That's exactly right. That's one of the byproducts of the camping ordinance that the city passed. Which was that for a significant number of homeless individuals in shelters, they decided that living in a park or living under a highway overpass is preferable to living in one of these shelters. And that's because the shelters are miserable. In many cases, they are miserable. Some of them are better than others.
One crazy stat I saw was that New York cleared 239 homeless camps and exactly five people moved into a shelter. That should tell you right there that it is not working.
Clearly. And let me be fair to the mayor for one second here in Austin. His view, at the beginning of this, was he was tired of having police expend resources moving people around from one piece of concrete to another piece of concrete. In a sense, I understand that point of view.
There's no measurable value in saying you can't be here, and then they go 10 feet down the street. And then two days later, somebody says you got to move again. But if the reputation of the shelters is so negative in the homeless community, that they refuse to go there, they refuse to stay there, they'd rather risk everything out on the streets, obviously, something's not working.
Now, do we want these things to be like Ritz Carlton-level hotels? Of course not. That would be far too expensive. But there should be places where it's safe, where they don't allow visitors unless it's family, where you keep track of whether people are taking their medication, whether there's drugs and alcohol.
And they do not allow drugs and alcohol.
They shouldn't allow them. That should be a very strict policy. We should study why that's failing and what models have worked. Let's not fund the things that fail and fund the things that work.
Apparently, they were buying these properties from these rental agencies. This was a big scandal at one point. I think it was De Blasio buying them up at three times what their value was. So now that's an even better industry. Now all these properties that were worth nothing are suddenly worth a lot.
And they get to charge the companies to basically run them. So the people who have been very bad at running these things today are now in charge of running the things for the state. So they make a bunch of money, and then they make more money.
That's right. When I get asked the question; what explains why they're so committed to this failed policy, whether it's in Austin or other cities? The most obvious explanation is financial motivation.
If you're making money on the homeless, you've picked the wrong profession, I think.
It's about as bad as it gets. We don't want people to not be able to make a living in that industry. And I think very few people who work in day-to-day jobs in homeless service organizations, or homeless nonprofits are wealthy. Very few of them are. Maybe the people that own these companies or the people that own the buildings.
We've had that happen in Austin. They've been overpaying for these hotels. It wouldn't surprise me if there were kickbacks and commissions and other things feathering people's nests. But we don't have 30 hotels that we can purchase. We certainly don't have 100 which is what we do if it's 100 per hotel and there's 10,000 people.
And they're not going to stay there anyway.
Then the other thing we haven't even talked about is nobody wants a homeless shelter near where they live or where they work. If you look at The ARCH downtown, which is the single most dangerous one-block area in downtown Austin...
There's a great bar there too, which I will not visit. Seven Grand, it's a wonderful bar.
I remember when I was in college, there were two or three bars right there that as college kids you'd go to. You would never do that. Now, the ARCH is a real blight on our city and it needs to move to the east side or somewhere else. It shouldn't be in the middle of tourism, hotel, residential downtown economic engine.
You have day laborers that are there all the time. You talked about pedestrians. There's no part in our city that has more people walking in the middle of the street and the ARCH. and I don't deny that the ARCH probably does some good work. And I know that people who work there care a lot about this.
I don't doubt their sincerity. What you have to question is whether what they're doing is working. How do you measure success? What's the data that we're using? What are we learning? How are we improving?
It shouldn't be too much to ask that we care about taxpayer dollars, that we operate efficiently, and that we double down on models that are successful, and that we stop models that are failing.
One thing that comes up often is the Portugal model. I've read a lot on this in both dimensions. The common misnomer is that they've made all drugs legal, and anybody can do anything. And suddenly, there's a lot less crime and homelessness has dropped.
That is not what happened at all. It's very weird to me. I don't know if these people don't understand that that's not what happened or if they're intentionally lying about what happened. I don't know.
What actually happened is they just said, "We're not going to go after it a crime by itself. However, if there's any other thing to arrest you for, we're also going to arrest you for these drugs." Then when you're in, you're forced to go through detox. And if you don't do that, you just go to jail.
Everyone wants to avoid jail. Jail is horrible. That's the carrot and stick. I think that's what you're referring to. I hate the idea of being a nanny state. I think people should take care of themselves.
But if these people can't take care of themselves, and they are draining the society, like they've ended up in the hospital multiple times, and this is clearly somebody who's committed crimes, it's time to take their agency away from them just in the same way we would with any criminal.
And instead of just throwing them into the prison system and calling it a day, how about you get them some help before that all happens?
It's an interesting model. Shellenberger has written about Portugal. He's written about the Netherlands. He's traveled to both places. He's been there and he's studied it. And you're exactly right, it has intentional-
I hope not because why would you lie about that?
-false narrative being told about what the policy actually is and how it works. I don't necessarily think we want a society where we say, "Use drugs anywhere, anytime, anyplace. As long as you don't commit another crime, no one will bother you."
First of all, it's going to lead to more crimes because people who are using hard drugs are going to be around violent people, are going to become more desperate, and are going to eventually get into other areas of committing crime. But it's possible that the system in Portugal may work because it effectively disincentives people from committing other crimes.
All crimes, not just drug abuse.
So if you think about it, one of the reasons that you have violent crime around illegal drugs, and I'm not saying you legalize drugs, but in this case, maybe you're decriminalizing or de-emphasizing them. You're using limited police and prosecutorial resources on things that are going to decrease violent crime.
Decreasing violent crime should be the number one priority of any city government. Again, if you haven't read Giuliani's book on Leadership, again, I know people have different opinions about what he's been doing over the last few years. But his book on Leadership is really worth checking out.
He goes through exactly what happened in New York, what they did, how they did it, and how we partnered with the police chief. They were monomaniacal about violent crime, and really about crime at all levels. But using data. That was one of the first police departments in the country that was using big data.
Of course, now big data is a trillion times bigger than it was then probably. So the tools, the technology that's out there now is far more sophisticated. Why are we not using it here?
I agree. On the flip side, I try to look at both sides of every issue just to make sure I'm understanding what's happening. One of the things I thought that was an interesting, true thing I could actually see as opposed to just complete fad was, if you have a camping ban in place, you're effectively losing control of these people.
Once upon a time, they were all congregated in a couple of places because it's okay for them to camp in these couple of places. Like, on Cesar Chavez, there's this line of homeless people a couple of years ago. You didn't have to go far. You knew exactly where they were.
And suddenly, with a camping ban in place, they dispersed. And they're in the woods, they're all over the place. Not knowing where they are and not being able to count them and not being able to check in on them and make sure they're okay and also monitor their drug usage and go after the drug pushers, there is something to be said about losing that telemetry. I don't think that that's a big enough reason to allow it. But I did want to highlight it as one of the things.
Have you heard any other reasonable complaints about this that aren't just completely fad? I did look quite a bit and I didn't see anything that really stood out to me.
I think that's one. The other is, I think the advocates of putting the ordinance in place and taking the camping ban away felt like homelessness was kind of an under-the-radar problem, that people didn't understand what it was, and that only if it became visible would the community rally and commit to solve it or address it.
It would be one thing if the policy led to them being more visible, but didn't have all the other negative second and third-order effects we've talked about. If it didn't harm public safety, if it didn't farm public health, if it didn't harm tourism, and our intersections and our parks and our schools and small businesses and women and the list goes on and on. If it did none of those things and all it was is it made the population more visible, that, at least, would be an argument and a baby worth having.
That's a very good point. It's a very good point that you do lose this visibility. Because before this, I don't think I'd heard anyone talking about the homeless in Austin. All of a sudden, when the camping ban was lifted, it was definitely a front-and-center issue on everyone's mind.
Literally, every single one of my friends brought it up. Like, "I won't walk there. " Or, "I won't walk there without a gun." These are people who normally would completely stay away from guns, and they're like, "Nope, I've got to have one if I'm going to walk down there because it's very unsafe, or I'll just avoid it entirely."
I know a number of women who wouldn't walk outside at all. They went straight to their car and drove wherever, . No pedestrian activity at all for over a year.
Two examples of that on a related note. Number one, for a long time, if you were ever traveling, and somebody said, "Where are you from?" And you say, "Austin." Invariably, a person would say one of two things back to you. "I've heard Austin's a great town, I can't wait to visit." And you start talking about what you like about it and when you might want to come. And don't come in July and August, it's 100 degrees.
Or they'll say, "I've been to Austin. Austin's a great town." You would literally never hear anything other than those two things.
After the county ordinance passed, that started to change. Honestly, the convention Bureau talked about the fact that they were losing business. I talked to hotel owners, hotel workers; the consequences there were profound.
The second thing is downtown. This connects to that police issue we talked about earlier. Homelessness and the police issue both made downtown unsafe. I still believe downtown is unsafe. It depends on where you are and what time. It's a bit of a risk. It's always a risk anytime you go out.
But in terms of evaluating the risk, the risk has to be 10 times or 100 times worse today than it was three years ago. So you have a lot of people in our city that say, "I will not go downtown."
I know a Greenbrae who I used to live downtown and he's like, "Nope, never mind, I'm not going to come visit you." And once he found out where I lived, he's like, "Nope, we're going to have to meet up north somewhere."
Is the sole measurement of whether our city is succeeding or whether people can go downtown? No, it's not the sole determinant. But it is the city center. It's where the state capitol is. It's where the city hall is. It's where the largest hotels are. It's where our major entertainment districts are.
There's the domain and a couple of others, but downtown is the economic engine of our city, in particular, Austin. And part of the reason for that is that density is allowed downtown. We have massive buildings being built and major employers taking those buildings over. Whether you like that or not, you have to protect the economic engine of our city, the investment that's been made, all the employment that's occurring there, all the commerce that supports employment there, and the value of the tourists that come in.
I got to go through Leadership Austin in 2016. I did the essential class. I don't know if you're familiar with it all. But you go through a yearlong class with a number of up-and-coming young professionals. They do it one day a month and they go through different policy areas. They bring experts in and you learn a lot about the city; how city departments work, how nonprofits work.
One of the things I learned through Leadership Austin, which is fascinating is the hotel occupancy tax, a significant portion of that goes to funding the arts. That's not just true of our major institutions. It's true of small things and individual artists and all kinds of things, which is one of the great things about Austin. The artist community and live music and all that.
So if you create a situation where no one wants to get married or have weddings downtown, or bachelor/bachelorette parties, it's not just affecting a big hotel, or a bar, or a restaurant, which is bad enough, it's affecting even those artists who are relying on that money.
Absolutely. It's funny, you mentioned that. I catch myself saying random things sometimes without even thinking about it. I was on a phone call with somebody and they're like, "Austin is so great. I heard so much about it. What's it like?" This is a year or so back. I'm like, "We have COVID, riots, and homelessness." I didn't mean to say that succinctly. But that was what was on my mind at that moment.
At that time of the year, that's basically what Austin was.
I realized every city was more or less shut down in the United States. So that's not that unique. The riots were in bigger cities only probably, but the homeless were just so bad. Even if I could leave my house, would I really want to walk out on the public trail? Because there's homeless everywhere. It seemed very dangerous.
I think that perception has changed. There's this thing I found on the internet. This is all satire, obviously, but I wanted to read it to you.
Transportation of persons and property from the right of way to campus should be provided free of charge. So basically taking people from the homeless camps and putting them on campuses, like UT campus in particular, this policy might lead to some disruptions on campus. But it'd be no worse than the disruptions faced by lower income Austinites who find such camps popping up near their homes and places of work.
And certainly faculty at UT are the pinnacle of the social elite in Austin and among the strongest supporters of the repeal of the ban. They would benefit the most, and they should pay the costs.
Obviously, that's satire. But how much credence do you put to there being a sort of caste system of training people to believe that things like camping ban ordinance being lifted is actually good somehow for Austin? Is this really coming from, let's say, college campuses? This is really a couple of professors on UT campus doing this? Is these politicians doing this?
If you were to name like five people or something? Would they all fit a similar demographic? Or is this a confluence of hundreds of small issues?
I don't think the UT professors or UT establishment or leadership administration was really involved in this policy much at all, or if at all. In fact, UT was one of the real victims of all this in the sense that it was affecting the campus. It was affecting the off-campus housing areas.
College students are actually pretty attractive victims in some of these situations. West Campus, in particular, is one of the more unsafe areas in our city. It's very dense with people partying, etc.
I don't even think it was "Democrats". I would describe it as really the hard left. It's groups that get funding from hard left-wing sources that were committed to a housing-first approach that I think had a financial incentive. I'm talking about Homes Not Handcuffs, the Austin Justice Coalition, some of these kinds of socialists of Austin, these kinds of groups.
These groups are as powerful in Austin politically as any other group.
Are they PACs or organizations?
So some of them have PACs, some of them don't. They're all politically involved. They all recruit candidates, all endorse people. They'll have volunteers. What they really do is they pressure the council to enact a far-left agenda, an agenda that I think is bad for families, bad for small businesses, and bad for public safety.
But somehow, they get the upside.
I think part of it is they pay their activists to engage. On the other side, you have people that work for a living or people that are raising families that simply cannot, in the middle of the week, show up at a council meeting at 10 AM, sit there until they're called, and testify for three minutes.
The first time I testified was in August of 2018, I testified for three minutes at 1:30 in the morning, and I got there at 10 AM. I have a pretty high pain threshold so I would have been there until 1:30 today if that was required. But most people can't do that.
Luckily, I had my laptop and I had Wi-Fi so I was working most of it. It was actually a pretty productive day and it was unpleasant. That's part of it. The council, I think, feels pressure only from the far-left.
So if you take the far-right to the center-left, what you might call the 30-yard line all the way to the 70 yards of the football field. You don't play games, you don't do social issues, you don't do extreme stuff. But you just focus on standard of living issues, which is what Save Austin Now has been about from the beginning.
Standard living issues, families, taxpayers, public safety, affordability, transportation, these issues. You just focus on solutions, on mainstream things, what's worked in other places, not doing things that haven't worked in other big cities. That's what it's going to take.
We're going to have to have that coalition rise up and demand that the council act in that fashion. Otherwise, we're going to continue to have far left-wing groups continue to drive the agenda.
I do think it's going to start to change with the new council. We're going to have a better mayor and I'm hoping we're going to have some new members of the council who are more mainstream, and we're going to work on that.
Former New Jersey governor Richard Codey went undercover. This is a theme here. And what he found is that he was trying to get housing. And it turns out, it's not particularly difficult to get housing if you're willing to go through a couple of steps in New Jersey. Those couple of steps are just registering with the state and saying, "I want this type of assistance. I'm this person and I'm registering for assistance."
But he couldn't do that because he's trying to become this undercover person. He obviously doesn't want to say, "I'm the governor." He managed to find a place that would take him with the caveat that if you come into this place, you're going to have to do all the things that all these other places require of you. But you have to do it tomorrow.
The big complaint he had is how hard it was to get housing, it seemed like. Basically, what he proved is, at least in his state, it was actually quite easy as long as you're not somebody who's wanted for some crime where letting the police know where you are would bring them to your doorstep.
That was an interesting anecdote because it seemed like there was something to be learned there. Well, if I'm a criminal and I'm on the run, and I'm going from city to city or state to state or whatever, I probably don't want to alert the authorities to my presence. So I'll probably avoid shelters. So there might be some of that going on. Then there was Aurora, Colorado's Mayor Mike Coffman. He did the same thing.
I've studied what he did.
He basically found that there were two massive groups of homeless. One that do want to go to the shelter and one that do not want to go to the shelter. When he went to the shelter, he felt like things were pretty good. Hot meals and the beds aren't great, but their beds and I feel safe. Nothing was stolen from him and no altercations. Basically, everything was fine.
But when he went to the other group, it was a mess. People were violent. People stole from him. There were a lot of drugs, obviously, but there was no interest at all in becoming that other population. They had effectively decided to opt out of it.
Now, maybe it's because of that issue. Maybe it's because they've committed enough crimes or they're on the run and they don't really want to have another run-in with the police by letting them know. But also, maybe it's a lifestyle thing. Maybe it's just they've decided.
You mentioned Shellenberger a couple of times. I think his videos highlight some of these people with their own words saying, "This is my life, this is what I want. I don't want to go to shelter."
That gets to what we were talking about earlier about the non-compliant. If you're doing the work that you need to do with the 70-80% of the population that you can address; the drug and alcohol addiction, the mental health challenged and untreated, then you can deal with that 20%.
If you took that homeless budget, and you took three-quarters of it, and you spent it efficiently on those populations, and got them the help they needed, and tracked it, and saw they may make progress, you could use carrots with them and sticks with the other group.
Or maybe carrots and sticks with this group and say, "Look, from now on you have a choice in how you're going to live your life. We're going to help you if you play by the rules. If you don't, you're going to have to deal with the consequences of that."
That's really the problem right now. There are really no consequences in Austin. For all the reasons we described: the prosecutors, the understaffed Police Department, the fact they're not enforcing Prop B, the fact they don't seem to care about violent crime rising. It's created a toxic cocktail, where all these things are connected.
Each issue makes other issues more complicated, more difficult, more challenging. At times, this whole mess can seem so big that it's a little hard to imagine getting ahead of it, but we have to. I actually believe we can.
One issue that maybe people don't think about is being in the head of a homeless person who has just taken their 500th hit of whatever their drug of choice is. First of all, that is very immediate and very powerful. It's hitting all your dopamine receptors, your serotonin receptors.
That's more satisfying than getting housing three months later.
The idea of even one day away from their drug, literally, their brain is fighting every part of them to make sure that that does not happen. So trying to treat them like rational human beings, I think there is nothing rational about somebody when they're extremely addicted.
That's why mandatory detox has to be part of this.
I think it's got to be.
It's got to be and I'm telling you right now, the city council in Austin opposes mandatory detox. They oppose it with everything. It's core to who they are.
I don't see that as even vaguely cruel.
Or even vaguely controversial, I would argue. Here's the reason why, in my mind, I think it's not controversial. You are asking the public to spend taxpayer dollars to help someone else. We have the right to put some requirements on that funding. To me, that's not unreasonable.
Right now, we don't put a lot of requirements on it. Heads and beds is the only metric. It's wholly insufficient as a measurement of whether we're making progress. Why are we not tracking whether children are in school, whether you're saving money, whether you're working, whether you have transportation?
The kinds of things you would measure whether someone's life is improving, whether they're on a good pathway or not. There's such a stunning disregard for taxpayer dollars and whether taxpayer dollars are being spent efficiently and effectively. And whether we're making the problem bigger or smaller.
I go back to where I started at the very beginning of this on Dr. Phil. I asked the homeless housing first advocates, "Do we want to decrease the size of the homeless population in the country? Is that the measurement of whether we're succeeding or not?" If you agree with that, then you have to conclude we're failing because the homeless population across the country, based on what I've seen, has shown significant growth over the last 5 to 10 years.
Look, COVID is part of that. I don't think it explains all of it. I don't think it explain much of it. Again, it's a complicated problem. There are a lot of explanations, but we can do better than we are. It's going to take new leadership in our city to do that.
But it's got to start with enforcing Prop B. This fantasy that letting people do whatever they want, whenever they want, wherever they want, and open drug markets, the idea that that's good for anyone is really destructive.
As I said, I've been thinking about this for a long time. One of the things I've thought about was, there's this X Prize for sending people to space. I think I misheard somebody explained this to me once. They explained it to me as it was an insurance play. Like, I'll insure against the downside of having to pay the X Prize.
So they paid $1,000 or $10,000 for a $1 million policy. Then they eventually paid out $1 million. But it came from the insurance company who took the bet. I was thinking, I wonder what else you could do with that same sort of model? It turns out, I don't think that is how that whole thing happened but it was an interesting thought experiment.
It got me thinking like, what else can we do with that same kind of X Prize? One of the things I came up with is, what if we could create a shelter, and this shelter had all the amenities? It had a bedroom, a living room, a kitchen with working plumbing, and a bathroom with a door. It had windows. It had central air conditioning because it gets hot in Texas, all the things you would expect in a house.
You could enumerate with that good insulation, and on and on. All the things are up to code. I said that you had to be able to make these things. Any amount that I give you, if I gave you $5,000, you have to be able to make five homes. Because every single home is going to be $1,000, your cost. Not necessarily the end cost. but what your bill of goods is: cost of labor, everything all in.
And you need to be able to rinse and repeat. So if I said I want 10,000 of these, you should be able to print exactly the amount I want on a dime. Obviously, you're going to want some markup for your side. But it should cost you no more at any given time than 1,000 per build.
Then you could say, well, there's an X Prize for developing this thing. There's $1 million or $10 million or whatever it takes to develop this type of house and make it go, which I still think is possibly a very good idea but for another day.
But then I think talked to people about the Housing First initiatives. And while I like the idea of very inexpensive housing, especially for transitory-type housing, I'm also wary of promoting that idea of you just needing more houses. I don't think it's just that.
That might be a component of what we're talking about, and I love the mobile loops and efficient. But I think that's largely the community that's making that work, not just the house itself. It's not just a box that someone sleeps in.
I'm torn because part of me really wants to tackle that problem and create tons of really cheap houses and find donors and figure out ways to make it even more inexpensive. But also, what I don't want is for people to go, "Great, we've got enough housing, shove them in there." I just don't think it's going to work.
By itself, it's not a sufficient solution. It's not going to solve the problem. Homelessness is complicated. We need more shelter space but we also need more case management. We need a better mental health system. We need to be able to deliver drug and alcohol treatment more efficiently, more effectively, and more directly. There are so many aspects to this.
Based on what I've seen, I don't think the issue is, do models exist where you can rapidly produce sufficient housing for homeless populations? There are pods, there are tiny homes, there are different ways to do it. There are a lot of developers out there that want to help, they want to donate supplies, materials, and things like that. I don't necessarily think that's it.
In an ideal world, if you had a scalable solution that was proven, I'm sure it would help. But I don't think that's really the issue. You've got to create an overall system that holds people accountable for their decisions, that has incentives that reward good behavior, and puts people on a pathway to self-sufficiency and success, that addresses the core problems of mental health and drug and alcohol addiction, and then has a really specific program for the non-compliant.
That is the answer. There are different ways to do it. I'm not the world's greatest expert. I've studied this pretty closely for three years now. There are a lot of people who've worked a lot longer with greater study than I have. But generally, I think most people who study this believe the solution is something close to what I just described.
The question is, do you have courageous leaders in cities who are willing to tell the truth? Are they willing to fight the fight to go up against the hard left? To take some of the financial incentives out of this from the housing-first approach and focus on treatment first?
You said something earlier that's really important. If you sat down someone who's drug and alcohol addicted or has an untreated mental illness, and you said, "Here's how it works at our facility. You've got to do this, you've got to sign this. Here's your rent. You've got to work. Here's how you get the bus. Here's how you apply," that person is not equipped to understand everything you're saying to them, to start making good decisions to know the rules are.
That's why mandatory detox is so important. That's why I think it's one of the most critical elements of Haven for Hope and why it succeeds. Mandatory detox for every single person that comes through. Not everybody on the hard left agrees with that. There are some people that think that people should be able to continue to use drugs.
And if that's the compassionate thing to do, it's simply not compassionate for people who either have made poor decisions or have had bad luck or a combination of both, and are in desperate situations for whom you are asking taxpayers to fund their housing for some period of time.
Some of these drugs, back to the scientific aspects of this, look like one thing and they are not that thing at all. You think you're smoking marijuana, and it could easily be laced with something else like fentanyl. And suddenly, you're now extremely addicted to fentanyl. The very first time you do it, your body craves it like nothing it's ever craved before.
That's right. And more than likely, you didn't make a conscious decision to become addicted to fentanyl that day. It happened. That's, again, a situation where you have to have case management. You have to have mandatory detox. You have to be seeing how everyone's doing. You have to also create trust within these communities.
If you start being seen as the enforcer or the man, you're not going to build those relationships. People are not going to care about how much you know until they know how much you care. You have to communicate to that homeless population. It starts with one thing: Do you want your life to improve? Are you satisfied with what your life is today? If you're not satisfied, do you want your life to improve?
If so, I'm here to help you improve your life. You're going to have to do some things to get there. It can be done, others have done it. I've helped other people do it. We're going to get you there, but here's the system. It's really that simple.
I actually think every person who works in the homeless nonprofits would agree with everything I just said, and they probably approach it that way. The problem is that the way that the system works now is not working. It's at the point now where it's hard to even make an argument that what we're doing is working.
Before anyone thinks that I truly do not care about this problem, I want to round it out with this. I have been some version of homeless twice in my life. One time, I was in college, or just after college rather. I got into a very large argument with my parents as I was leaving college, and more or less, broke up with my girlfriend around the same time. I had nowhere to go.
I had no money. I had no job. I sort of had a job, but nothing paying enough to pay rent. Effectively, I ended up couch surfing for a couple of weeks and eating loquats off of trees. A buddy of mine had a bunch of MREs he gave me and that's what I ate.
I was effectively completely homeless. I was living in the computer lab because I was supposed to be working on computer stuff.
You were sleeping there?
Sometimes, yeah. A lot of students take naps in the middle of it so I didn't stand out. The only reason I think I got out of that is because I hated that situation. It was awful. A couple of my friends took me in, like, "You're really smart, you know a lot about computers. You should just us and become a part of our company." I got out that way.
The second time was through a divorce. That was a much briefer stint and much later in life. Obviously, I had a lot more resources at that point. That was just a matter of me deciding to get out of it. That was entirely up to me.
It wasn't so much that I had no bed to call home that night. It wasn't like that. There was no place in my universe that I could call home, which is a very weird situation to be in. It's funny, I was working on a show with Krista Beck. It was a show called Gray Man. And the idea was this guy was going to be off-grid and have this backpack and he lived out of it, effectively homeless.
Effectively, a really cool idea. Somebody just came out with a show called Gray Man. It's all messed up. It's almost never going to happen. I had actually produced that bag. I make the bag to test it out to see if it would work for the show. It was a fun experiment.
I ended up effectively living out of that bag for a couple of weeks on friends' charity. They let me live in their house for a little while. So I never had a true homeless experience where I was living in a tent and getting beat up or whatever. But I also see how frail modern society is.
A lot of people are living just one paycheck away from total destitution. Maybe they can call up somebody or maybe they can't. A lot of people are in domestic abuse situations where they can't get out of bad situations.
So I am extremely sympathetic to the entry process into homelessness.
Understanding how it can happen.
Yeah, extremely sympathetic. Once homeless, I think people lose their agency to drugs. Once you've lost your agency to something as powerful as fentanyl or Krokodil or Flakka, you're not coming out on your own. It's extremely unlikely.
In fact, when people came back from I think it was Vietnam, there were a lot of people addicted to heroin. I forget who it was, but some very smart general said, "None of these soldiers get to go home until they've spent a certain amount of time in quarantine." Effectively, forcing them to detox before they went back home. And then, of course, everyone did fine, more or less. There was a few people who went back into it.
But that detox was an incredibly important part of that process. Then they're with their family, and then they're back in society and they've cleaned themselves up. They don't have easy access to the drugs anymore because they're not sitting in the battlefield. That, to me, is how it works.
We've seen it work with soldiers coming back. I think that model, if we extrapolate and turn it into a more civil society version of that, I think it has a lot of promise.
You've made a great point about how someone can get stuck in a homeless situation and not see their way out. There's no doubt there's a hopelessness in that community that's profound. It's deeply sad.
When you get hopeless if you're at the bottom of a hole that maybe you started digging yourself and then the hole just got bigger and bigger and you can't even see the light at the top anymore, if you don't have any positive reasons to live, if you don't have hope, if you don't have goals, if you don't feel like you're making progress, it's easier to start making bad decisions to deal with the pain of trying to escape.
You're desperate. You can become more and more desperate. This is one of the reasons why this homeless camping ordinance is such a terrible idea. It takes a population that is inherently desperate and makes it easier for those individuals to be in direct interaction with people who aren't homeless.
It takes desperate people who will put some around other people, call them innocent people, taxpayers, average people in a city. And the more you have interaction between desperate people and average people, you're going to have negative outcomes that come from that.
I don't believe the answer is they should be in the woods and we never want to see them. I've never said that that's my goal. My goal here is to help these people, get them on a pathway, and get them the help that they need. But we have to do it efficiently and effectively.
We have to stop pretending Housing First is working. It's failed everywhere it's ever been tried. San Francisco's moving away from it. Houston is moving away from it.
Housing First also has the exact same death rate as if they just remained homeless.
Which is astounding.
If the exact same number of people are dying is statistically identical, what are we talking about here?
Why would anyone claim that that's a policy that succeeds?
That's a bad KPI right there.
Obviously. Again, this is the kind of thing that would only work in government. The private sector or business could never succeed. Can you double and triple down on a failed policy that's not working? In the private sector, different things have different motivations. But sometimes the talking point of making the government a little bit more like the private sector with more data with KPIs makes a lot of sense.
Look, I'm not hopeless about homelessness in Austin. We are not heading in the right direction. We're suing on Prop B. It absolutely has to be enforced. The city's got to get serious. We've got to stop that Housing First. We need to overhaul our mental health system at the statewide level. We've got to start doing a better job with case management.
We've got to figure out a bridge whether it's Haven for Hope or something else. Then we've got to figure out how we can get these people into safe and sheltered environments and put them back on a path of self-sufficiency. That's the answer. I know it can happen. I know we can do it.
Unfortunately, the current leadership's not going to do it. But they only got a few more months. We've got an important election in November and I would ask anyone who lives in Austin, some of your listeners and viewers, but really, anyone in any major city. And this applies not just to that issue, but to public safety, affordability, transportation, housing, and all these other issues.
If you don't think things are headed in the right direction, it might be time to start electing new people. And I couldn't care what party you're in. Letting data drive decisions. The other part that's so crucial is we have almost no accountability for elected officials at the local level.
State level, federal level, you have elections, you have primaries, you have general elections, you have a lot more media interest. At the local level, there's very little accountability. That's been a huge part of the problem in Austin.
All right, this has been great. How do people get in touch with you? How do they follow you? What's the best way?
I'm a pretty easy guy to find. I'm on Twitter @MattMackowiak. Facebook as well, LinkedIn, you name it. Our organization is called Save Austin Now. So my email is email@example.com. Our website is saveaustinnow.com.
You can find different things we've written. We had a National Review column after we passed Prop B. The Dr. Phil stuff is out there. You can find those segments as well.
The last thing I want to say is part of how we save our cities, and this is something Shellenberger agrees with, you've got to have citizens rise up and create organizations and movements together. People can do that in every major city in America. Not everyone can do it. People have families and businesses and other pressures, but for the good people can step up.
I never thought I'd become a local activist the way that I have. I've invested a lot of time in this over the last few years, just like a lot of the volunteers have. It's been a lot of sacrifices, but I know that we can create citizen movements that demand effective governance. We demand that cities focus on standard of living, on how policies affect families and small businesses. It's not too much to ask.
In fact, we have to demand it. If the people in office will do it. At this point, it's not about friendships or who I like or whether you're conservative or liberal, I could care less. You're either part of the problem or you're part of the solution in Austin, Texas. We're addressing affordability, transportation, availability of housing, public safety, homelessness.
If you're not about data and solutions and effective programs, then you're part of the problem. You're increasing human misery in our city. I have literally zero patience for anybody that's part of the problem at this point.
I want to stay in Austin. I want Austin to be a great city. I think Austin can become one of the great cities in the world. It's not going to do it soon with the leaders that we have at the moment. But once we get better leadership, I think we are right on the precipice of becoming a truly global city with a major league sports team. We can host the Olympics in the next 25 or 30 years.
There's any number of potential scenarios where Austin becomes a really incredible city. We've spent a lot of time not managing growth and we've had really ineffective government for the last few years. We've made some very bad decisions.
It's not too late. We're not Los Angeles. We're not San Francisco. We don't have 100,000 homeless people. But I believe if Prop B had failed, we would have been on a trajectory per capita like Los Angeles was. Thankfully, it passed. We have kind of plateaued, but we've got to get Prop B enforced. We've got to get better people elected so we start taking data seriously and the solution seriously.
Thank you for joining me in the RSnake Show.
My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
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