Tech Centers

Sacramento is one, ranked 27th of 53, as this story in New Geography notes.

An excerpt.

A growing tech industry is often considered the ultimate sign of a healthy local economy. By that measure, the Bay Area still stands at the top of the heap in the United States, but our survey of the metropolitan areas with the strongest tech job growth turns up some surprising places not usually thought of as tech meccas.

Charlotte, N.C., is more often associated with banks than bots. Yet from 2006 to 2016, tech businesses in the Queen City expanded their job count by 62%, with 18% growth from 2014-16, the fastest clip in the nation. Meanwhile, over the past decade, the metro area logged a 23% increase in the number of workers in STEM occupations (science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related jobs). This rapid job growth and strong recent momentum, driven partly by health care and environmental technology, ranks it second on our list. In the past 10 years, the region has added 7,400 jobs in two key high-tech business services sectors, custom programming and systems design services, along with nearly 700% growth in software publishing employment. To be sure, the share of tech jobs in Charlotte’s economy remains one third that of Silicon Valley, and the tech and STEM workforces are far smaller, but quality of life, lower housing prices, as well as decent plane connections, seem likely to help it to continue to attract tech workers.

To determine the metro areas that are generating the most tech jobs, Mark Schill of Praxis Strategy Group analyzed employment data from the nation’s 53 largest metropolitan statistical areas from 2006 to 2016, with extra weighting for growth from 2014-16 to give credit for current momentum. Half our ranking is based on employment growth at companies in high-technology industries, such as software and engineering services. (This includes all workers at these companies, some of whom, like janitors or receptionists, do not perform tech functions). Half is based on changes in the number of workers classified as having science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related jobs (aka STEM). This captures the many tech workers in industries not primarily associated with technology, such as finance and business services. Data is sourced from EMSI.

Another surprising up and comer is Indianapolis in fifth place. The share of STEM jobs in the local economy, 5%, is close to the national average but STEM employment is up 18% since 2006. Tech employment has grown rapidly, with the job count at tech companies up an impressive 68% since 2006, led by 1,700% growth at Internet-based businesses and 8,100 new jobs in custom programming and systems design.

California-based companies are in the forefront such as Salesforce, which is adding 800 employees to its already 1,600-person office in Indianapolis. Similarly No. 7 Nashville is poaching jobs from the Bay Area with firms such as Lyft but also developing its own roster of defense and health-related tech firms. Since 2006, Nashville added jobs in nearly every tech industry we track, led by 3,700 new jobs in systems design, 1,800 in data processing, and 1,100 in engineering services.

The Bay Area continues to excel in large part as a product of the rapid growth over the past decade of social media and business applications for technology. The San Francisco metro area, which includes tech-heavy suburban San Mateo County, ranks first. The City by the Bay and its environs, a hub for technical service firms like Uber and, has experienced remarkable 90% growth in tech employment and a 36.5% expansion in STEM jobs from 2006 to 2016. Silicon Valley, with a concentration of tech industry workers 75% higher than upstart San Francisco, has also achieved rapid job creation, with tech industry employment up 80% and the number STEM workers increasing 32%, ranking it fourth. STEM employment per capita is roughly twice that of San Francisco.

Other familiar faces make the top 10: No. 3 Austin, No. 6 Raleigh-Durham, No. 8 Seattle and No. 10 Denver. These lower-cost alternatives to the Bay Area have all been attracting people and companies from pricier California. Yet these areas too face rising housing prices, which is a challenge particularly for workers entering their early 30s and looking to settle down.

Easily the biggest surprise on the list is Detroit, which improved its position to ninth, a remarkable 30-place jump from the last edition of this list in 2015. It generated 26% growth in high-tech jobs and boosted its STEM employment by 8.4%. Despite the decline of the central city, the Detroit metro area has never faded as a technical center; due largely to the auto industry its per capita STEM employment has long been above the national average. This is reflected in a post-recession boom in engineering services in the region – some 14,000 new jobs since 2006 – leaving Detroit with a concentration of engineering services more than three times the national average. Its percentage of STEM workers is 50% above the U.S. norm, roughly equivalent to that of Raleigh-Durham, Boston and Denver.

More help could be on the way from a reviving urban core, says Chicago-based analyst Pete Saunders, himself a Detroit native. There is some evidence that the city itself is beginning to attract skilled and better educated workers. Microsoft has set up an outpost downtown for 165 employees and there is a small but evolving start-up scene.

Posted in demographics, Economy, Technology

Wilderness Areas and Outdoor Gear Retailers

A very good point—and one I agree with—is made in this article from PERC.

An excerpt.

Yvon Chouinard, the founder of the outdoor-gear company Patagonia, is arguably the godfather of his industry. So when Mr. Chouinard called for a boycott of the biannual Outdoor Retailer trade shows in Salt Lake City, his peers paid attention. The problem, Mr. Chouinard said, was the state of Utah—specifically its stance on federal land management.

At its core, the argument is over Bears Ears National Monument, which President Obama created in December. The state Legislature has passed a resolution asking President Trump to rescind the designation, which covers 1.35 million acres in southeastern Utah—and also to reduce the size of the 1.9-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, designated by President Clinton in 1996.

Both monuments were created unilaterally, by the stroke of the president’s pen, under the 1906 Antiquities Act. The rules they fall under favor leaving the land wild for recreation while discouraging oil and gas development. But Utah’s leaders think a better balance can be struck between setting aside some areas as wilderness and devoting others to resource development.

This hasn’t made Mr. Chouinard happy. Patagonia sent camera crews to Bears Ears to produce “an interactive film experience” that it is screening throughout March at stores from San Francisco to New York. Activists have also targeted the Outdoor Retailer shows, which have been held in Salt Lake City since 1996 and bring an estimated 45,000 visitors and $40 million every year. Last month the shows’ sponsor announced it would leave Utah next year, saying that the state’s position on federal lands was “bad for our American heritage, and it’s bad for our businesses.” Other states—Montana, Colorado, Oregon—are now trying to woo the event by pledging their love and devotion for federal lands.

In fact, profits from recreation are what drive the politics of federal land management. More wilderness for backpackers means that wealthy, healthy Gen Xers and millennials will buy more backpacks, tents, boots, mountain bikes and high-tech clothing for trekking into the backcountry. To take one example, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, which is calling on the Trump administration to budget more for “intact, working landscapes,” has argued that outdoor recreation generates $646 billion in direct spending while supporting six million jobs.

But the foundation of these profits is an enormous subsidy from the American taxpayer. Every year the federal government spends millions to support recreation, without earning much revenue from those campers, bikers and hikers. For every dollar that the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management spent on recreation from 2009-13, they took in less than 30 cents, according to a 2015 study by the Property and Environment Research Center, where I work. In contrast, for every dollar Washington spent on managing mineral lands, it earned $19.76. In short, companies like Patagonia benefit from taxpayer subsidies for recreation.

To make fiscal matters worse, there is a massive maintenance backlog on federal lands. As of 2014, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service, deferred maintenance for the four main land-management agencies totaled $19 billion. That includes $12 billion for the National Park Service alone.

While the lucrative outdoor industry clamors for the federal government to declare more of the West as wilderness, it does nothing to address the financial challenges of managing the land. Perhaps Washington should take a page out of Mr. Chouinard’s book. In 2002 he started “1% for the Planet,” a program through which businesses, including Patagonia, donate a slice of their sales to environmental groups. A similar approach to help pay for federal land management might be for Washington to levy a 10% excise tax on recreational clothing and equipment.

Similar taxes for specific outdoor sports already exist. Hunters pay the 10% Pittman-Robertson tax on guns and ammunition. Anglers pay the 10% Dingell-Johnson tax on boats, and fishing gear. In March of 2016, Washington distributed $1.1 billion from these taxes to state wildlife agencies.

Why not tax backpacks, tents and hiking boots? Annual sales of outdoor clothing and equipment total about $120 billion. A 10% excise tax could wipe out the maintenance backlog in only a few years.

Posted in Economy

Government & Water

A very interesting article in the Modesto Bee about the addictive intersection between the two.

An excerpt.

If you go to your doctor and ask for prescription pain relievers even after you’re no longer in pain, that probably makes you an addict. Instead of killing pain, you need those pills to feed an addiction. And you will say anything to get those pain pills!

To an uninvolved bystander – or to an expert like your doctor – your need is just a craving.

One of California’s leading environmental agencies, the State Water Resource Control Board, is an addict and its drug of choice is our water.

Since Gov. Jerry Brown granted the board the highest emergency authority over the state’s water with his declaration of the drought emergency in January 2014, the board has thrived on the pain of crisis to demand more water.

Like any drug addict, the board has lots of excuses for wanting more. It says there isn’t enough water to keep protected species, rivers and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta healthy – even as cities go dry, thousands of acres of farmland are fallowed, and millions of Californians are paying more to use less water.

Since February 2014, through the deepest pain of our Mega-Drought, the state water board ordered 66 percent of all water entering the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to flow unimpaired to the sea. Just under 23 percent was allowed to flow to the two-thirds of the people of California – some 22 million in cities and on farms – who depend on it.

Farmers, deprived of water, suffered $9.6 billion in losses in 2015. Suburban citizens saw their lawns go brown, state and urban water districts paid out landscape-replacement rebates totaling more than a half-billion dollars, and those same water districts – saddled with fixed costs and lower deliveries – required ratepayers to pay higher bills. All was a result of so little water being available, and that was due to the state water board’s addiction.

Entering 2017, the board’s “water high” is wearing off. The board needs a hit. But how can it ask for more water when it already has taken 66 percent of flows over the past 33 months?

Maybe a second opinion would help.

Enter Jonathan Rosenfield of the Bay Institute – with funding from the San Francisco Estuary Partnership, a coalition of non-profits and public agencies, including a regional water quality board directly controlled by the SWRCB – who produced a new, yet familiar prescription.

Rosenfield provided a report insisting the state water board should take more water due to the devastating effects of withholding less than a quarter of the Delta’s freshwater from the Pacific Ocean. He said the water board must cut off water deliveries to families and farms in Southern California, Silicon Valley and much of the Central Valley. He and another Bay Institute staffer even filed a complaint with the water board based on inadequate flows on the San Joaquin River at a checkpoint near Vernalis in early 2016, when it was still unclear whether our drought was subsiding.

Like an addict reaching for a fix, the water board proposed a new rule that demands 40 percent more water – water protected by century-old rights for use by the people of California – to flow unimpaired and untouched to the sea. This water would have to come from the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, Merced and San Joaquin Rivers. The water board even started discussing plans for a rule to require similar diversions from the Sacramento River (which, according to Rosenfield and another Bay Institute scientist, became too warm for salmon earlier this year).

This is science made to order. So long as our state is still in water pain, and Brown’s emergency drought declaration stands, the state water board can imperiously demand its drug of choice – more water – to cure any craving.

Posted in Government, Shasta Auburn Dam, Water

Suburbs Rule Locally, Even with Millennials

As reported by Comstock’s Magazine.

An excerpt.

Until the summer of 2015, Aaron and Jamie Duke, 37 and 27, were happy to be the picture of the urban millennial couple traveling light. They had an 800-square-foot apartment at Capitol Towers at 7th and N streets. That was less than three blocks from Jamie’s job at the State Board of Equalization, and they could walk to bars and restaurants. They had cars but would go days without driving. Most of their friends lived downtown too.

But then their daughter was born. They got a second dog. And pretty soon they were down to one aisle through their living room. Suddenly more room and a yard were pulling ahead of Jamie’s 5-minute walk to work on their priority list.

The Dukes were priced out of East Sacramento, where they first looked — $600,000 or so for the space they wanted. So instead, last June, they closed on a house in Roseville — 2,050 square feet, four bedrooms, three baths, and a garage and pool on a quarter-acre — for just over $400,000. Many of their peers are still downtown, but summer barbecues at the pool entice their friends into weekend party-commuting to their house. Now Jamie has a 1-hour drive in traffic to work. (Aaron manages the U.S. branch of a European company and was able to relocate their office to Roseville.) But they’re happy they made the move.

Millennials — people born between the early ‘80s and mid-’90s — have a deserved reputation for wanting to live in cities, own nothing, live in a tiny footprint, and bike and walk everywhere. But that track record may be situational. Now that they’re older and starting to have kids, the economics of schools and space are driving many of them to the suburbs, just as it did their parents.

The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far

Reports of millennials’ real estate behavior have largely focused on how different they are from their parents. A 2014 Nielsen report noted their heavy concentration within city limits in places like San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. Others have focused on their low homeownership rates.

Census data shows that nearly twice as many people ages 20 to 34 moved from cities to suburbs between 2015 and 2016 as did the opposite.

But recent data show that picture changing as they age. In a January 2016 survey by online housing database Zillow, of more than 10,000 households, nine out of 10 millennials said they want to buy a home sometime, and two-thirds expect to do so within the next five years. In 2015, a slight majority of millennial home buyers bought in the suburbs, according to a National Association of Realtors report released last March. Only 17 percent bought in an urban area, down from 21 percent the previous year. In a 2015 National Association of Home Builders survey of about 1,500 millennials, two of every three said they want to live in the suburbs — only one of four said they want to live in cities.

And Census data shows that nearly twice as many people ages 20 to 34 moved from cities to suburbs between 2015 and 2016 as did the opposite.

Posted in demographics

Suburbs Rule Globally but Behind Down Under

That is the conclusion in this great article about global suburbanization from New Geography.

An excerpt.

We are living in a global suburban age… While statistics demonstrate that the amount of the world population in metropolitan areas is rapidly increasing, rarely is it understood that the bulk of this growth occurs in the suburbanized peripheries of cities. Domestically, over 69% of all U.S. residents live in suburban areas; internationally, many other developed countries are predominately suburban, while many developing countries are rapidly suburbanizing as well.”

That’s not some anti-urban crackpot statement (as some inner urban elites might think) but from the introduction to a biennial theme of the MIT Center for Advanced Urbanism (USA). They understand that suburban and regional centres are not irrelevant for the future economy but highly important.  MIT are a pretty credible lot – hardly likely to pursue fringe urban planning or economic theories.

In Australia, however, that message is not getting through. From the Prime Minister, down, there is a sense of irrational exuberance that the jobs of the future will mostly be concentrated in our CBDs and inner cities. Urban planning which supports increased concentration of employment through generous infrastructure allocations to inner urban areas is the manifestation of this inner urban obsession.  And while CBDs and inner urban areas are lavished with costly projects designed mainly to benefit the minority of people who work there, suburban and regional centres – where the majority live, work and play – have been largely left to fend for themselves.

This process started in the late 1990s and early 2000s, notions about the “creative class” — many of which are being re-examined by author Richard Florida in a new book —   was a cause celebre amongst planning and government circles. It was widely argued that to attract the creative class of worker (synonymous with high skills and the new economy) cities needed to invest heavily in the quality of life in their downtowns. This was a precursor to the inner urban hipster, and, when real estate prices, rose their successors, the rise of the inner-city latte set.

This thinking fit in well with two other trendy theories, New Urbanism and ‘Smart Growth’ (which redefined suburban progress as urban sprawl). The collective wisdom moved from supporting a growing suburban realm to one that disparaged it: the burbs were for bogans, the home of sprawl, “McMansions” full of low wage earning, culturally deficient and poorly educated masses, eating fast food diets and slurping sugar drinks. Inner cities by contrast were for educated, cultured and knowledgeable people – who had little need for suburban spaces or suburban habits but greater need for inner city waterfront cycle ways, museums, theatres and quality restaurants run by notable chefs. And, of course, lots of baristas.

Urban planning shifted quickly to a highly-regulated approach which promoted much higher densities of inner urban housing (and limits on outward expansion) because, after all, the inner city is where everyone in the future will want to live, right? The promises of these regional planning policies bordered on messianic. Take this example from the “Draft Metropolitan Strategy for Sydney to 2031” from the early 2000s:

“A home I can afford. Great transport connections. More jobs closer to where I live. Shorter commutes. The right type of home for my family. A park for the kids. Local schools, shops and hospitals. Liveable neighbourhoods.”

And what have we got thus? Some of the worst housing affordability in the world. Worsening congestion. Longer commutes. Limited housing choice, much of it not ideal for raising families.

The ongoing policy focus and infrastructure obsession with centralisation is utterly at odds with economic and community signals. New economy industries in technical, scientific or professional services, or health and social care, have little interest in centralisation. Digital technology has broken that tyranny of distance. Undeterred though, we continue to watch as political and industry leaders promote costly infrastructure projects that enhance and support further centralised employment and a concentration of amenity in inner urban cores enjoyed by a privileged, mostly childless minority.

For the record, the proportion of metropolitan wide jobs in the inner cities of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane was 11%, 13% and 12% respectively at the last census.  The reality remains that in our metropolitan centres, most people both live and work outside inner city bubbles of privilege.

The penny is finally dropping in some minds. Former Victorian Planning Minister, Matthew Guy (now Opposition Leader) once extolled the virtues of high density inner urban development. Looks like he has had a Damascus moment, commenting in The Australian (March 1, 2017) that: “Victoria is becoming a great, heaving, unsustainable mess. The whole of Victoria is just becoming an offshoot of Melbourne.”


Posted in demographics

Downtown’s Homeless

The abundance of homeless downtown is a large reason few, who don’t have to, venture there, as this article from the Sacramento Bee, makes clear.

An excerpt.

Good intentions can come at a cost, such as having to smell urine or see human feces on a daily basis.

Good intentions can scare away customers and damage livelihoods. They can bring vandalism and theft to businesses run by hardworking people who nevertheless feel compassion for those committing crimes against them.

The city of Sacramento, led by its new mayor, Darrell Steinberg, has made homeless services one of its biggest priorities – if not the biggest. A champion of the poor and those suffering from mental illness, Steinberg is driven by good intentions.

“This is a moral issue,” Steinberg has said more than once of his motivations to do more for homeless people.

Steinberg’s mission to help those living on the streets took on even more urgency after the deaths of two homeless men outside City Hall in January. Both had sought shelter there in violation of the city’s anti-camping ordinance. One man, identified as Michael Nunes, 50, had been hospitalized after falling and hitting his head the day before he died, according to other homeless people who knew him.

The mayor described himself as “heartbroken” by the deaths. “I have been and continue to be hellbent on making this situation much better,” Steinberg said in January.

After the deaths, Steinberg pushed to open another emergency warming center, one that houses 40 people overnight, in a city building at 904 11th Street. It’s a block from council chambers, where city officials have been berated for more than a year by homeless advocates exhorting those in elected office to do more. It’s also a block from Cesar Chavez Plaza, which should be the front porch of downtown Sacramento but isn’t.

Instead, Cesar Chavez Plaza is ground zero for the societal malady Steinberg is making the cornerstone of his political life. Created in the classic tradition of the city plaza and bordered on one side by City Hall and the stately Citizen Hotel on the other, Cesar Chavez Plaza has become the de facto staging ground for the warming center.

Don’t believe me? Visit it for yourself. You’ll see people essentially camping there during the daytime. You’ll see a lot of pit bulls. You’ll see pouches of discarded personal belongings of inmates released from the nearby county jail. You’ll see people sitting at tables or napping on the ground until it’s time to walk a block to line up for the shelter, which will remain open until the end of March.

Cesar Chavez Plaza long has had its share of homeless people, but some downtown residents say that population has increased since the warming center opened. “The sheer amount of people that congregate and hang out downtown has gotten worse,” said Liezet Arnold, who owns a floral shop near the Citizen Hotel. “I have to step over human feces every day. I have to step over people to get into my business. It’s not a good feeling.”

Arnold has been in business downtown for nearly 20 years. She said downtown is as challenged as she’s ever seen it with its homeless population.

It’s not just the compassionate policies of Steinberg and his council colleagues causing the erosion of Cesar Chavez Plaza and the sanitary challenges of surrounding streets and alleys. Record rainfall and flooding have pushed homeless people off the rivers and into downtown. Some wonder how much Prop. 47, the statewide initiative that reduced some drug felonies to misdemeanors so that prisoners could be paroled and ease California’s overcrowded prisons, is affecting communities.

Posted in Homelessness

Homelessness in Portland: A Case Study

In a city very similar to Sacramento policy wise, the issue is explored in some depth in this excellent article/podcast from City Journal.

An excerpt.

Brian Anderson: The Pacific Northwest has long been a magnet for street people, and nowhere is that truer than in Portland, Oregon.  But today the city is experimenting with unusual reforms to ease its problem.  Joining me today to discuss what is going on in the city is Portland native Michael Totten.  He is a contributing editor to City Journal and author of six books, including Tower of the Sun and Where the West Ends.  Michael’s latest City Journal article, “Portland’s Homeless Challenge,” which is available on our website and in our Winter 2016 issue will be the starting point of today’s discussion.  Welcome, Michael.

Michael Totten: Thanks, Brian.

Brian Anderson: How bad is Portland’s homelessness problem and what’s behind it?

Michael Totten: It’s pretty bad.  Right now it actually looks worse than it is, but it’s bad in a way.  We have in – Portland’s got four, there’s four counties in the metro area, Multnomah County is the biggest one.  It is the one that includes most – all of the City Center and most of the city proper.  About 600,000 people in Multnomah County and almost 2,000 of them are homeless.  And we see in and around the downtown area there are homeless camps under bridges that have got – I don’t remember how many bridges we have in the city, we have a lot, we have almost twenty – and there are homeless camps underneath most of them.  And if you go downtown early in the morning before the workday starts, like 6:00 in the morning, you’ll see people sleeping in doorways throughout the City Center.  They are gone by 8:00 in the morning but they’re there all night, and Portland is not a third-world city by any means.  It is a prosperous, high-tech, Pacific Rim city, but it has a little bit of a third-world about it sometimes.

Brian Anderson: And how big a problem is this perceived to be by the city’s leaders?

Michael Totten: It’s perceived to be a major problem and actually our mayor just declared a housing emergency about two months ago because of this problem.  And it’s actually, it looks worse as of two months ago because there’s a temporary – they are temporarily not enforcing the ban on having tents erected during the day, so for the last two months if you drive around downtown you see actually homeless camps with the kind of tents that you would go camping in the mountains, they are all over the place.  And normally the police force them to take these tents down during the day and I’m not sure why that law is no longer being enforced, but as of two months ago it’s no longer being enforced.  And that was the mayor’s unilateral decision.  He says it is temporary and it most certainly is, because he is getting an extraordinary amount of grief over this because…

Brian Anderson: From who?

Michael Totten: …all of a sudden it looks like the homeless problem is five times worse than it was, even though it’s the same.  It just suddenly looks absolutely appalling, even compared to before.

Brian Anderson: So this hurts the city’s tourism industry.  There’s a perception, I guess, of things getting a little out of control.

Michael Totten: Yeah, I mean we don’t have a huge tourism industry, it’s not like San Francisco, but we do have one.  And everybody notices it.  I mean I get friends who come visit me from other parts of the country and every single one of them asks me what on Earth is going on with homeless people, and it’s been like that for years.

Brian Anderson: Well one reason San Francisco has got such an extensive homeless population is that there are very generous benefits in place that some people say are attracting street people to San Francisco…

Michael Totten: Yes, I believe that’s true…

Brian Anderson: …and is…

Michael Totten: …and we have a similar sort of thing.

Brian Anderson: …is that true in Portland as well?

Michael Totten: Yes, but they are not getting any benefits from the government.  They are getting it from nonprofit social service agencies.  But what they do get here from the government that they don’t get in most places in the United States is an extremely lenient law enforcement attitude.  And partly that’s because of the Supreme Court.  The state’s Supreme Court.  The city council, Portland City Council, and even the state of Oregon have tried repeatedly to pass laws regulating homelessness.  And the Supreme Court repeatedly throws the laws out and makes it almost impossible for the government to move homeless people along.  I mean right now, as of two months ago, our mayor is temporarily not even bothering to try.  But he has been trying previously and will again, surely.  So the problem is more visible.  It makes it look worse than it really is and it also makes life just a little bit easier for homeless people because they’re not constantly being rousted by the police.

Brian Anderson: A significant portion of this homeless population, I imagine, are people suffering from various forms of mental illness.

Michael Totten: Yeah, about 50% have mental health problems, and 75% have substance abuse problems.  What 100% of them have in common is they have either a poor or nonexistent social support structure.  They either don’t have any friends, or they don’t have any family, or oftentimes they’ve burned their bridges with their friends and their family.  They couch-surfed for too long or you know, they stole from their friends and family in order to feed the drug habit, and their friends and family just said enough.  We’re not going to put up with this anymore.

Brian Anderson: Several people that you interview in the article cite the 1960s-era deinstitutionalization of the mental hospitals as a major cause of the rise in street homelessness, not just in Portland but across the nation.  What was the reasoning behind that movement for our listeners?

Michael Totten: Well, there were three separate things going on behind that movement.  And this is, for listeners more mature, this is closing the state psychiatric hospitals.  It started in the 60s and it went through the 80s.  So there were three ideas that came together more or less simultaneously.  One was on the political Left, it was related to the civil rights movement, and they had a genuine case to make against the state psychiatric hospital system because these hospitals were you know, this is back when we called them insane asylums, and they were really pretty awful places.  And a lot of people didn’t really need to be there.  They did not need to be locked up against their will indefinitely and a lot of them weren’t getting better, and so there was this notion that they should be basically freed from the system.  And what was also going on, on the political Right, was this movement to cut state government costs, and there was a third thing that had nothing to do with politics at all, which was the rise of psychiatric medication to help people manage these problems.  So all three of these things came together at the same time and the hospitals were shut down.  We actually now, in the United States, have fewer psychiatric beds per capita than we had in 1850.  And you can look at deinstitutionalization and say it was a success in some ways, and in some ways it was.  Because a lot of people who were basically locked up in a hospital prison aren’t anymore, and they are doing okay, they are doing better, and others aren’t doing better and they are sleeping on the street because they cannot take care of themselves and there’s really nowhere for them to go.  And it’s hard to say how much of an effect that had numerically.  Did it double the homeless population?  Nobody is really sure.  It is really hard to say.  Because about half of our homeless are mentally ill, but it’s not obvious how many of them would be locked up in some kind of institution if we still had it.  It’s not obvious.

Brian Anderson: Right.

Michael Totten: But it definitely made the problem much worse.  And I didn’t grow up in Portland.  I grew up 45 minutes south of here, but I’ve been familiar with the city my whole life and I’ve lived here for 20 years, and it’s definitely worse than it used to be.

Brian Anderson: One of the things you do in the article is describe the work of various nonprofit homeless centers in the city.  Could you describe for the listeners what was most striking about these centers?

Michael Totten: Yeah, there were two things that were most striking.  So we’ve got various organizations helping the homeless in different ways.  All of them provide food for the homeless and one of the things that really struck me was that there is an unlimited amount of free food for homeless people in this city.  None of them are going hungry, ever.  None of them are eating out of garbage cans, ever.  And none of them need money from strangers to pay for food.  Which doesn’t mean that they don’t.  If they panhandle money for food, it doesn’t mean that they don’t use that money for food if they want to go into a restaurant, or a grocery store of their choice, but there is an unlimited amount of free food options for them, three meals a day, 365 days a year.

Brian Anderson: Provided by these nonprofits.

Michael Totten: Provided by nonprofits, yes.  What they don’t get from the nonprofits, because they just don’t have the ability to provide enough help for everybody, is a place to spend the night off the street.  There are a couple hundred beds that are awarded by a lottery each night.  And when the weather is bad, if it is below freezing – it doesn’t happen all that often here, but it does sometimes – they will temporarily, a lot of these places will temporarily increase the number of beds.  They will put cots in the lobby and let people spend the night in there so they don’t freeze to death on the sidewalk.  And here’s the other thing that was really striking.  One of these organizations, the Union Gospel Mission, it’s been around for oh, off the top of my head I don’t remember, roughly a hundred years or so I think, it’s part of this movement in the United States and Canada a hundred years ago to help homeless people.  And a few decades ago they changed their mission.  They were no longer going to give homeless people a place to spend the night and give them food.  What they wanted you to do instead was treat the root cause of homelessness in most cases, which is drug and alcohol addiction.  So they have this building downtown.  It’s about eight stories.  And it’s sort of like a college dorm in there.  They’ve got these rooms where homeless people can live.  And they can live there for two years if they are willing to go through their drug and alcohol treatment plan, which also includes work therapy.  So that by the time they get – first they detox, they get clean and sober, they learn better living habits and then they learn some job skills, and they help them get work.  And it works fairly well for people who are willing to work the program.  And I was given a tour of the place and it was really quite nice.  It was much nicer than my college dorm, certainly better than sleeping under a bridge.  And I asked how long the waiting list is to get in there.  And there is no waiting list.  They always have open space, because a lot of homeless people do not want to get clean and sober.  They want to live inside for free, the way they’ve been living outside.  And that just absolutely amazed me, that somebody would rather sleep under the bridge in the cold of winter than get clean and sober.  And what do you do with these people?  I mean if they don’t want to get better they’re not going to get better.  And we can’t make them.

Posted in Homelessness