Member only
Episode
266

What’s Happening In San Francisco?

May 27, 2022
Politics
-
19
minutes

It is one of the most influential cities in the United States but has recently been accused of falling into disrepair, with rising homelessness and open drug dealing.

In this episode, we'll look at what is happening in San Francisco, what has caused this, who and what is thought to be responsible, and what is being done to change it.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about San Francisco.

[00:00:28] It’s one of the most influential cities in the United States, it produced bands like Jefferson Airplane, actors like Bruce Lee and entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs. 

[00:00:40] It was traditionally a sanctuary for artists, musicians, poets and hippies, a city of free love, tolerance, equality and opportunity. 

[00:00:51] But San Francisco in 2022 stands accused of being a very different place, a city with house prices so high that residents can’t live there any more, with a drug problem so severe that people are dying on the streets every day, and politicians without a coherent plan to do anything about it.

[00:01:13] So, in this episode we are going to look at what is happening in San Francisco. 

[00:01:19] We’ll start by looking at a brief history of the city, how technology companies have changed the fabric of San Francisco society, we’ll look at how its more liberal city administration has addressed the city’s problems, and ask ourselves what comes next for the city that was once called the Paris of the West.

[00:01:40] OK then, San Francisco.

[00:01:44] In April of 2022, if you were to drive around the city of San Francisco and look up, you might see billboards, large advertising boards, offering all kinds of different services. 

[00:01:58] Productivity software, McDonalds, Burger King, the latest show on Netflix.

[00:02:05] You might even have seen some adverts with beautiful pictures of some iconic San Francisco landmarks: the steep hills, Alcatraz Prison, or the famous Golden Gate bridge.

[00:02:18] If you looked more closely and read the words on billboard, the message on it might have surprised you.

[00:02:26] It read: “Unfortunately, we’re just as famous for our dirt-cheap fentanyl”. 

[00:02:34] Fentanyl, by the way, is a highly addictive drug, an opiate. Our last members-only episode was a deep dive on fentanyl, so if you are interested in that then I’d definitely recommend checking that out.

[00:02:47] This campaign cost $25,000 and was paid for by a mothers support group called Mothers Against Drug Deaths, a not-for-profit group run by mothers who have lost children to drug overdoses.

[00:03:02] The billboards were in protest at San Francisco’s liberal policies towards drug use, which have, according to critics, turned entire areas of one of the wealthiest cities in the country, and even in the world, into an open-air drug market.

[00:03:21] As there was increasing press coverage of this campaign, journalists descended on the city to report back what they had seen. Cable 

[00:03:31] TV was filled with images of drug dealers and drug addicts lining the streets, images of tents blocking the pavements, squares, and public spaces, and a clear message of a city that was out of control.

[00:03:47] There were interviews with local business owners who complained that people didn’t come to their shops any more, people who have owned restaurants and cafes in downtown San Francisco who have been forced to close up and leave, and interviews with paramedics and medical professionals who recounted how many drug overdoses they deal with on a daily basis.

[00:04:10] And of course, there were painful interviews with people suffering from drug addiction and homelessness themselves, people who had fallen on bad times or made poor life choices, and were now living on the streets, in many cases struggling with mental health problems and often resorting to petty crime to feed their addiction.

[00:04:33] The question you might be asking yourself is, how did it get to this?

[00:04:39] To answer this question, we need to first take a quick look at the history of San Francisco. 

[00:04:45] It was founded in 1776, and the Gold Rush of the mid 19th century brought hundreds of thousands of people to the city, turning it into the largest city on America’s west coast.

[00:04:59] For years it welcomed immigrants from all over the world, especially from East Asia and Latin America. In the post-war period it became a city of freedom and liberal attitudes, a hippy paradise, immortalised by the lyrics of the 1962 song by Scott McKenzie, “If you're going to San Francisco / Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair“.

[00:05:24] In an increasingly conservative America, San Francisco was a place where freedom and individuality flourished, homosexuality was tolerated, and there was an increasing counterculture movement.

[00:05:38] This counterculture is thought to have helped lay the groundwork for some of America, and the world’s, most creative companies.

[00:05:48] San Francisco is just 50km north, a short drive north, from Silicon Valley, an area that would become the global centre for technology and entrepreneurship.

[00:06:01] As technology companies started to boom in the early 2010s, an increasing number of tech companies and their workers were drawn to the city. 

[00:06:11] Tech salaries have always been higher than average, and as competition increased for the best and brightest engineers, salaries were pushed up and up. 

[00:06:23] The San Francisco Bay Area is now home to companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook, all companies that are able to pay vast sums of money to attract workers, and now pay hundreds of thousands of dollars just for a recent graduate.

[00:06:39] These tech workers tended to prefer living in the city, in San Francisco, rather than in sleepy Silicon Valley, and the impact of this has been to push up house prices to eye-watering levels.

[00:06:54] Indeed, the median family home price in San Francisco in 2021 was $1.6 million, and the median rent for a family home was around $4,000. Just for a roof over your head.

[00:07:11] The result of this has been, as you might imagine, that people who are not on a tech company salary are often priced out of the market, the rent is just too high.

[00:07:23] The high property prices and rent costs are thought to have contributed pushing people towards homeless, sending the homeless population skyrocketing.

[00:07:35] San Francisco now has a homeless population of around 8,000 people, at least according to the official City Hall numbers, but if you ask public health experts they’ll say that the number is around 18,000, more than double the official estimate.

[00:07:53] Given that the population of San Francisco is 875,000, that means 1% of the population is homeless, if you were to take the lower number, and 2% if you were to take the more credible number.

[00:08:09] Put another way, the rate of homelessness in San Francisco is the same as in Chad, the war-torn central-African country with a per capita income of $62 per month.

[00:08:23] As the city’s homeless population grew, so did the problems that are so often associated with homelessness: drug and substance addiction, crimes committed to pay for drugs, people living on the pavements in tents, not having adequate toilets, bathrooms and so on.

[00:08:41] At the same time, the city had voted in politicians and city officials with a more liberal attitude towards the prosecution of petty crime, of low level crime.

[00:08:53] In December of 2019 the city voted to elect a man called Chesa Boudin as the District Attorney, the person who is responsible for prosecuting crimes committed in the city.

[00:09:06] Boudin wasn’t from San Francisco, he was from New York, but he came from a family with a long history of left-wing politics. His parents were both members of a left-wing militant organisation called Weather Underground, his grandfather was a lawyer who represented Fidel Castro, and Boudin himself had spent time working in Venezuela under Hugo Chavez.

[00:09:32] He had also experienced firsthand the impact that sending people to prison can have on their nearest and dearest, on their family: when Boudin was only 14 months old his parents were sent to prison for murder in an armed robbery that went wrong. 

[00:09:50] His mother was sentenced to 20 years in prison and his father 75. Boudin was raised by adoptive parents. 

[00:10:00] He ran for office on a platform of creating a more fair and equitable justice system, of trying to give people help and assistance rather than send them to prison.

[00:10:12] For Boudin, drug addicts were victims of an unjust society, and his oft-repeated slogan is that he wants to “make it easier to get help than to get high”.

[00:10:24] Even before the election of Boudin at the end of 2019, California, the state San Francisco is in, had put into place some quite liberal laws surrounding petty crime

[00:10:37] Specifically, something called Proposition 47: The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, which, amongst other things, reclassified the theft of certain goods from a shop as a misdemeanour, not a federal crime.

[00:10:52] What this meant in practical terms was that you could steal anything up to a value of $950 and the police would not be required to intervene.

[00:11:04] What this has led to is scenes that you may have seen on TV or social media, of people simply walking into shops and taking goods, knowing full well that they will not be arrested for it, and then simply going around the corner and selling them.

[00:11:21] It has got so bad in some areas of the city that some supermarkets and pharmacies have had to lock up every single product, so simply to buy a tube of toothpaste you have to go and ask a store attendant to unlock the case and give it to you.

[00:11:39] Now, there are very different perspectives on what are the root causes of this increase in homelessness and crime, and what the solutions are, so let’s just address some of these individually.

[00:11:53] For Boudin and his supporters, it is a social justice issue. Rich tech companies and their workers have come into the city and pushed residents out, forcing them into homelessness and drug addiction. They are victims of their situation, and the focus should be on doing everything that can be done in helping them get back on their feet.

[00:12:17] For others, it’s predominantly a drug issue. Cheap fentanyl, an incredibly powerful opiate, has flooded the streets, destroying already fragile lives, forcing people to turn to crime and locking them further into a cycle of destruction. Drug dealers know that they can sell their product openly on the streets without fear of prosecution, which has led to the city being flooded with cheap drugs. This is certainly the perspective of the mothers' action group that put up the billboard I mentioned at the start of the episode.

[00:12:53] For others, it’s a housing issue. San Francisco has very strict laws about the construction of new houses. If more houses could be built, not only would house prices go down but the homeless people could be given rooms to live in. 

[00:13:10] For others, politicians are to blame. The city administration has become so large and bloated, so the argument goes, that it is incapable of solving these difficult problems. At the moment the city spends over a billion dollars on homeless services, which is anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 per homeless person, depending on whether you take the official or the unofficial number. 

[00:13:37] In any case, it’s a lot, so the argument goes, and the fact that the homeless population is growing suggests that the money isn’t doing an effective job at helping people get off the streets and get their lives together.

[00:13:52] And it isn’t like San Francisco doesn’t have enough money. California has some of the highest taxes in the country, and the San Francisco budget is $13 billion, more per capita than any other city in the country. 

[00:14:09] For better or worse, San Francisco is a place where it is easier than most other US cities to live on the streets. There are plenty of other people in a similar position, plenty of services to help you, and for those people who are in a cycle of addiction, there are widely available drugs.

[00:14:28] On the one hand, great, society should give homeless people all the tools and services they need to live a dignified life, and every opportunity to change their lives if they want to and when they are ready to.

[00:14:43] On the other hand, no, this is a city that has made it too easy to be homeless and do drugs, and with everything that is provided in terms of services and easy access to drugs, combined with the fact that you are very unlikely to be sent to prison even for committing a crime, there is little incentive to get your life together.

[00:15:05] Of course, this is a simplistic and binary way of looking at it, but these are the broad arguments.

[00:15:12] Now, while it’s very possible to disagree on the best solution to homelessness and poverty in San Francisco, it's hard to argue with the facts.

[00:15:23] In 2020 and 2021, so throughout the COVID pandemic, more people died of fentanyl overdoses on the streets of San Francisco than of COVID. Two people died every single day.

[00:15:37] The death number is decreasing, but this is primarily because more of something called Narcan is being distributed. Narcan is a medication that can be administered when someone is overdosing on opioids. 

[00:15:52] Indeed, although deaths from overdoses went from 700 to 650 from 2020 to 2021, the number of overdoses that were reversed using Narcan doubled, it went from 4,000 to 8,200. More than double the number of people overdosed, it just so happened that their lives were able to be saved before it was too late.

[00:16:17] So, yes, making sure that drug users have access to this life-saving medication does help save lives, but it certainly doesn’t seem like a sustainable long-term solution to simply provide drug addicts with this medication and hope there is someone around to administer it when they have an overdose.

[00:16:39] So then, what does the future hold for this historically liberal city that Americans on the right have been presenting as an example of what happens when the “radical left” takes control of a city?

[00:16:52] There is growing dissatisfaction, especially among the tech community, with the perceived consequences of the policies of Chesa Boudin, the District Attorney, so much so that there is a campaign to recall him, to remove him from his position. 

[00:17:10] The vote will take place on June 7th, so we will have to wait to see what happens there. To state the obvious, there is no one solution to the problems of San Francisco. It's an inequality problem, it's a housing problem, it’s a drug problem, it’s a mental health problem, it’s a problem of what happens when city budgets swell out of control, it’s a political problem.

[00:17:33] The only question is what to do about it.

[00:17:36] To many San Francisco residents, they still cross their fingers for a return to the city they once knew, that it yet again becomes an affordable, liveable, liberal city where people can do what they want as long as it doesn’t harm others.

[00:17:51] Everyone on all sides of the political spectrum wants this, they want the same thing, for the city to regain its former glory. 

[00:18:00] The only problem is that there are vastly different views on how to get there.

[00:18:07] OK then, that is it for today's episode on San Francisco.

[00:18:12] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new. 

[00:18:15] As a quick reminder, this was a companion episode to episode number 263, a member-only episode where we did a deep dive into fentanyl, the drug that is partly responsible for causing so much death and destruction in San Francisco. 

[00:18:31] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode.

[00:18:35] Have you been to San Francisco recently? 

[00:18:37] What was it like, and if you’ve been there several times, how has it changed over the years? 

[00:18:43] Are there examples of cities in your country that have followed a similar path? 

[00:18:48] What do you think the solution is?

[00:18:50] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started. 

[00:18:54] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:19:02] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:19:07] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about San Francisco.

[00:00:28] It’s one of the most influential cities in the United States, it produced bands like Jefferson Airplane, actors like Bruce Lee and entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs. 

[00:00:40] It was traditionally a sanctuary for artists, musicians, poets and hippies, a city of free love, tolerance, equality and opportunity. 

[00:00:51] But San Francisco in 2022 stands accused of being a very different place, a city with house prices so high that residents can’t live there any more, with a drug problem so severe that people are dying on the streets every day, and politicians without a coherent plan to do anything about it.

[00:01:13] So, in this episode we are going to look at what is happening in San Francisco. 

[00:01:19] We’ll start by looking at a brief history of the city, how technology companies have changed the fabric of San Francisco society, we’ll look at how its more liberal city administration has addressed the city’s problems, and ask ourselves what comes next for the city that was once called the Paris of the West.

[00:01:40] OK then, San Francisco.

[00:01:44] In April of 2022, if you were to drive around the city of San Francisco and look up, you might see billboards, large advertising boards, offering all kinds of different services. 

[00:01:58] Productivity software, McDonalds, Burger King, the latest show on Netflix.

[00:02:05] You might even have seen some adverts with beautiful pictures of some iconic San Francisco landmarks: the steep hills, Alcatraz Prison, or the famous Golden Gate bridge.

[00:02:18] If you looked more closely and read the words on billboard, the message on it might have surprised you.

[00:02:26] It read: “Unfortunately, we’re just as famous for our dirt-cheap fentanyl”. 

[00:02:34] Fentanyl, by the way, is a highly addictive drug, an opiate. Our last members-only episode was a deep dive on fentanyl, so if you are interested in that then I’d definitely recommend checking that out.

[00:02:47] This campaign cost $25,000 and was paid for by a mothers support group called Mothers Against Drug Deaths, a not-for-profit group run by mothers who have lost children to drug overdoses.

[00:03:02] The billboards were in protest at San Francisco’s liberal policies towards drug use, which have, according to critics, turned entire areas of one of the wealthiest cities in the country, and even in the world, into an open-air drug market.

[00:03:21] As there was increasing press coverage of this campaign, journalists descended on the city to report back what they had seen. Cable 

[00:03:31] TV was filled with images of drug dealers and drug addicts lining the streets, images of tents blocking the pavements, squares, and public spaces, and a clear message of a city that was out of control.

[00:03:47] There were interviews with local business owners who complained that people didn’t come to their shops any more, people who have owned restaurants and cafes in downtown San Francisco who have been forced to close up and leave, and interviews with paramedics and medical professionals who recounted how many drug overdoses they deal with on a daily basis.

[00:04:10] And of course, there were painful interviews with people suffering from drug addiction and homelessness themselves, people who had fallen on bad times or made poor life choices, and were now living on the streets, in many cases struggling with mental health problems and often resorting to petty crime to feed their addiction.

[00:04:33] The question you might be asking yourself is, how did it get to this?

[00:04:39] To answer this question, we need to first take a quick look at the history of San Francisco. 

[00:04:45] It was founded in 1776, and the Gold Rush of the mid 19th century brought hundreds of thousands of people to the city, turning it into the largest city on America’s west coast.

[00:04:59] For years it welcomed immigrants from all over the world, especially from East Asia and Latin America. In the post-war period it became a city of freedom and liberal attitudes, a hippy paradise, immortalised by the lyrics of the 1962 song by Scott McKenzie, “If you're going to San Francisco / Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair“.

[00:05:24] In an increasingly conservative America, San Francisco was a place where freedom and individuality flourished, homosexuality was tolerated, and there was an increasing counterculture movement.

[00:05:38] This counterculture is thought to have helped lay the groundwork for some of America, and the world’s, most creative companies.

[00:05:48] San Francisco is just 50km north, a short drive north, from Silicon Valley, an area that would become the global centre for technology and entrepreneurship.

[00:06:01] As technology companies started to boom in the early 2010s, an increasing number of tech companies and their workers were drawn to the city. 

[00:06:11] Tech salaries have always been higher than average, and as competition increased for the best and brightest engineers, salaries were pushed up and up. 

[00:06:23] The San Francisco Bay Area is now home to companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook, all companies that are able to pay vast sums of money to attract workers, and now pay hundreds of thousands of dollars just for a recent graduate.

[00:06:39] These tech workers tended to prefer living in the city, in San Francisco, rather than in sleepy Silicon Valley, and the impact of this has been to push up house prices to eye-watering levels.

[00:06:54] Indeed, the median family home price in San Francisco in 2021 was $1.6 million, and the median rent for a family home was around $4,000. Just for a roof over your head.

[00:07:11] The result of this has been, as you might imagine, that people who are not on a tech company salary are often priced out of the market, the rent is just too high.

[00:07:23] The high property prices and rent costs are thought to have contributed pushing people towards homeless, sending the homeless population skyrocketing.

[00:07:35] San Francisco now has a homeless population of around 8,000 people, at least according to the official City Hall numbers, but if you ask public health experts they’ll say that the number is around 18,000, more than double the official estimate.

[00:07:53] Given that the population of San Francisco is 875,000, that means 1% of the population is homeless, if you were to take the lower number, and 2% if you were to take the more credible number.

[00:08:09] Put another way, the rate of homelessness in San Francisco is the same as in Chad, the war-torn central-African country with a per capita income of $62 per month.

[00:08:23] As the city’s homeless population grew, so did the problems that are so often associated with homelessness: drug and substance addiction, crimes committed to pay for drugs, people living on the pavements in tents, not having adequate toilets, bathrooms and so on.

[00:08:41] At the same time, the city had voted in politicians and city officials with a more liberal attitude towards the prosecution of petty crime, of low level crime.

[00:08:53] In December of 2019 the city voted to elect a man called Chesa Boudin as the District Attorney, the person who is responsible for prosecuting crimes committed in the city.

[00:09:06] Boudin wasn’t from San Francisco, he was from New York, but he came from a family with a long history of left-wing politics. His parents were both members of a left-wing militant organisation called Weather Underground, his grandfather was a lawyer who represented Fidel Castro, and Boudin himself had spent time working in Venezuela under Hugo Chavez.

[00:09:32] He had also experienced firsthand the impact that sending people to prison can have on their nearest and dearest, on their family: when Boudin was only 14 months old his parents were sent to prison for murder in an armed robbery that went wrong. 

[00:09:50] His mother was sentenced to 20 years in prison and his father 75. Boudin was raised by adoptive parents. 

[00:10:00] He ran for office on a platform of creating a more fair and equitable justice system, of trying to give people help and assistance rather than send them to prison.

[00:10:12] For Boudin, drug addicts were victims of an unjust society, and his oft-repeated slogan is that he wants to “make it easier to get help than to get high”.

[00:10:24] Even before the election of Boudin at the end of 2019, California, the state San Francisco is in, had put into place some quite liberal laws surrounding petty crime

[00:10:37] Specifically, something called Proposition 47: The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, which, amongst other things, reclassified the theft of certain goods from a shop as a misdemeanour, not a federal crime.

[00:10:52] What this meant in practical terms was that you could steal anything up to a value of $950 and the police would not be required to intervene.

[00:11:04] What this has led to is scenes that you may have seen on TV or social media, of people simply walking into shops and taking goods, knowing full well that they will not be arrested for it, and then simply going around the corner and selling them.

[00:11:21] It has got so bad in some areas of the city that some supermarkets and pharmacies have had to lock up every single product, so simply to buy a tube of toothpaste you have to go and ask a store attendant to unlock the case and give it to you.

[00:11:39] Now, there are very different perspectives on what are the root causes of this increase in homelessness and crime, and what the solutions are, so let’s just address some of these individually.

[00:11:53] For Boudin and his supporters, it is a social justice issue. Rich tech companies and their workers have come into the city and pushed residents out, forcing them into homelessness and drug addiction. They are victims of their situation, and the focus should be on doing everything that can be done in helping them get back on their feet.

[00:12:17] For others, it’s predominantly a drug issue. Cheap fentanyl, an incredibly powerful opiate, has flooded the streets, destroying already fragile lives, forcing people to turn to crime and locking them further into a cycle of destruction. Drug dealers know that they can sell their product openly on the streets without fear of prosecution, which has led to the city being flooded with cheap drugs. This is certainly the perspective of the mothers' action group that put up the billboard I mentioned at the start of the episode.

[00:12:53] For others, it’s a housing issue. San Francisco has very strict laws about the construction of new houses. If more houses could be built, not only would house prices go down but the homeless people could be given rooms to live in. 

[00:13:10] For others, politicians are to blame. The city administration has become so large and bloated, so the argument goes, that it is incapable of solving these difficult problems. At the moment the city spends over a billion dollars on homeless services, which is anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 per homeless person, depending on whether you take the official or the unofficial number. 

[00:13:37] In any case, it’s a lot, so the argument goes, and the fact that the homeless population is growing suggests that the money isn’t doing an effective job at helping people get off the streets and get their lives together.

[00:13:52] And it isn’t like San Francisco doesn’t have enough money. California has some of the highest taxes in the country, and the San Francisco budget is $13 billion, more per capita than any other city in the country. 

[00:14:09] For better or worse, San Francisco is a place where it is easier than most other US cities to live on the streets. There are plenty of other people in a similar position, plenty of services to help you, and for those people who are in a cycle of addiction, there are widely available drugs.

[00:14:28] On the one hand, great, society should give homeless people all the tools and services they need to live a dignified life, and every opportunity to change their lives if they want to and when they are ready to.

[00:14:43] On the other hand, no, this is a city that has made it too easy to be homeless and do drugs, and with everything that is provided in terms of services and easy access to drugs, combined with the fact that you are very unlikely to be sent to prison even for committing a crime, there is little incentive to get your life together.

[00:15:05] Of course, this is a simplistic and binary way of looking at it, but these are the broad arguments.

[00:15:12] Now, while it’s very possible to disagree on the best solution to homelessness and poverty in San Francisco, it's hard to argue with the facts.

[00:15:23] In 2020 and 2021, so throughout the COVID pandemic, more people died of fentanyl overdoses on the streets of San Francisco than of COVID. Two people died every single day.

[00:15:37] The death number is decreasing, but this is primarily because more of something called Narcan is being distributed. Narcan is a medication that can be administered when someone is overdosing on opioids. 

[00:15:52] Indeed, although deaths from overdoses went from 700 to 650 from 2020 to 2021, the number of overdoses that were reversed using Narcan doubled, it went from 4,000 to 8,200. More than double the number of people overdosed, it just so happened that their lives were able to be saved before it was too late.

[00:16:17] So, yes, making sure that drug users have access to this life-saving medication does help save lives, but it certainly doesn’t seem like a sustainable long-term solution to simply provide drug addicts with this medication and hope there is someone around to administer it when they have an overdose.

[00:16:39] So then, what does the future hold for this historically liberal city that Americans on the right have been presenting as an example of what happens when the “radical left” takes control of a city?

[00:16:52] There is growing dissatisfaction, especially among the tech community, with the perceived consequences of the policies of Chesa Boudin, the District Attorney, so much so that there is a campaign to recall him, to remove him from his position. 

[00:17:10] The vote will take place on June 7th, so we will have to wait to see what happens there. To state the obvious, there is no one solution to the problems of San Francisco. It's an inequality problem, it's a housing problem, it’s a drug problem, it’s a mental health problem, it’s a problem of what happens when city budgets swell out of control, it’s a political problem.

[00:17:33] The only question is what to do about it.

[00:17:36] To many San Francisco residents, they still cross their fingers for a return to the city they once knew, that it yet again becomes an affordable, liveable, liberal city where people can do what they want as long as it doesn’t harm others.

[00:17:51] Everyone on all sides of the political spectrum wants this, they want the same thing, for the city to regain its former glory. 

[00:18:00] The only problem is that there are vastly different views on how to get there.

[00:18:07] OK then, that is it for today's episode on San Francisco.

[00:18:12] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new. 

[00:18:15] As a quick reminder, this was a companion episode to episode number 263, a member-only episode where we did a deep dive into fentanyl, the drug that is partly responsible for causing so much death and destruction in San Francisco. 

[00:18:31] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode.

[00:18:35] Have you been to San Francisco recently? 

[00:18:37] What was it like, and if you’ve been there several times, how has it changed over the years? 

[00:18:43] Are there examples of cities in your country that have followed a similar path? 

[00:18:48] What do you think the solution is?

[00:18:50] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started. 

[00:18:54] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:19:02] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:19:07] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about San Francisco.

[00:00:28] It’s one of the most influential cities in the United States, it produced bands like Jefferson Airplane, actors like Bruce Lee and entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs. 

[00:00:40] It was traditionally a sanctuary for artists, musicians, poets and hippies, a city of free love, tolerance, equality and opportunity. 

[00:00:51] But San Francisco in 2022 stands accused of being a very different place, a city with house prices so high that residents can’t live there any more, with a drug problem so severe that people are dying on the streets every day, and politicians without a coherent plan to do anything about it.

[00:01:13] So, in this episode we are going to look at what is happening in San Francisco. 

[00:01:19] We’ll start by looking at a brief history of the city, how technology companies have changed the fabric of San Francisco society, we’ll look at how its more liberal city administration has addressed the city’s problems, and ask ourselves what comes next for the city that was once called the Paris of the West.

[00:01:40] OK then, San Francisco.

[00:01:44] In April of 2022, if you were to drive around the city of San Francisco and look up, you might see billboards, large advertising boards, offering all kinds of different services. 

[00:01:58] Productivity software, McDonalds, Burger King, the latest show on Netflix.

[00:02:05] You might even have seen some adverts with beautiful pictures of some iconic San Francisco landmarks: the steep hills, Alcatraz Prison, or the famous Golden Gate bridge.

[00:02:18] If you looked more closely and read the words on billboard, the message on it might have surprised you.

[00:02:26] It read: “Unfortunately, we’re just as famous for our dirt-cheap fentanyl”. 

[00:02:34] Fentanyl, by the way, is a highly addictive drug, an opiate. Our last members-only episode was a deep dive on fentanyl, so if you are interested in that then I’d definitely recommend checking that out.

[00:02:47] This campaign cost $25,000 and was paid for by a mothers support group called Mothers Against Drug Deaths, a not-for-profit group run by mothers who have lost children to drug overdoses.

[00:03:02] The billboards were in protest at San Francisco’s liberal policies towards drug use, which have, according to critics, turned entire areas of one of the wealthiest cities in the country, and even in the world, into an open-air drug market.

[00:03:21] As there was increasing press coverage of this campaign, journalists descended on the city to report back what they had seen. Cable 

[00:03:31] TV was filled with images of drug dealers and drug addicts lining the streets, images of tents blocking the pavements, squares, and public spaces, and a clear message of a city that was out of control.

[00:03:47] There were interviews with local business owners who complained that people didn’t come to their shops any more, people who have owned restaurants and cafes in downtown San Francisco who have been forced to close up and leave, and interviews with paramedics and medical professionals who recounted how many drug overdoses they deal with on a daily basis.

[00:04:10] And of course, there were painful interviews with people suffering from drug addiction and homelessness themselves, people who had fallen on bad times or made poor life choices, and were now living on the streets, in many cases struggling with mental health problems and often resorting to petty crime to feed their addiction.

[00:04:33] The question you might be asking yourself is, how did it get to this?

[00:04:39] To answer this question, we need to first take a quick look at the history of San Francisco. 

[00:04:45] It was founded in 1776, and the Gold Rush of the mid 19th century brought hundreds of thousands of people to the city, turning it into the largest city on America’s west coast.

[00:04:59] For years it welcomed immigrants from all over the world, especially from East Asia and Latin America. In the post-war period it became a city of freedom and liberal attitudes, a hippy paradise, immortalised by the lyrics of the 1962 song by Scott McKenzie, “If you're going to San Francisco / Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair“.

[00:05:24] In an increasingly conservative America, San Francisco was a place where freedom and individuality flourished, homosexuality was tolerated, and there was an increasing counterculture movement.

[00:05:38] This counterculture is thought to have helped lay the groundwork for some of America, and the world’s, most creative companies.

[00:05:48] San Francisco is just 50km north, a short drive north, from Silicon Valley, an area that would become the global centre for technology and entrepreneurship.

[00:06:01] As technology companies started to boom in the early 2010s, an increasing number of tech companies and their workers were drawn to the city. 

[00:06:11] Tech salaries have always been higher than average, and as competition increased for the best and brightest engineers, salaries were pushed up and up. 

[00:06:23] The San Francisco Bay Area is now home to companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook, all companies that are able to pay vast sums of money to attract workers, and now pay hundreds of thousands of dollars just for a recent graduate.

[00:06:39] These tech workers tended to prefer living in the city, in San Francisco, rather than in sleepy Silicon Valley, and the impact of this has been to push up house prices to eye-watering levels.

[00:06:54] Indeed, the median family home price in San Francisco in 2021 was $1.6 million, and the median rent for a family home was around $4,000. Just for a roof over your head.

[00:07:11] The result of this has been, as you might imagine, that people who are not on a tech company salary are often priced out of the market, the rent is just too high.

[00:07:23] The high property prices and rent costs are thought to have contributed pushing people towards homeless, sending the homeless population skyrocketing.

[00:07:35] San Francisco now has a homeless population of around 8,000 people, at least according to the official City Hall numbers, but if you ask public health experts they’ll say that the number is around 18,000, more than double the official estimate.

[00:07:53] Given that the population of San Francisco is 875,000, that means 1% of the population is homeless, if you were to take the lower number, and 2% if you were to take the more credible number.

[00:08:09] Put another way, the rate of homelessness in San Francisco is the same as in Chad, the war-torn central-African country with a per capita income of $62 per month.

[00:08:23] As the city’s homeless population grew, so did the problems that are so often associated with homelessness: drug and substance addiction, crimes committed to pay for drugs, people living on the pavements in tents, not having adequate toilets, bathrooms and so on.

[00:08:41] At the same time, the city had voted in politicians and city officials with a more liberal attitude towards the prosecution of petty crime, of low level crime.

[00:08:53] In December of 2019 the city voted to elect a man called Chesa Boudin as the District Attorney, the person who is responsible for prosecuting crimes committed in the city.

[00:09:06] Boudin wasn’t from San Francisco, he was from New York, but he came from a family with a long history of left-wing politics. His parents were both members of a left-wing militant organisation called Weather Underground, his grandfather was a lawyer who represented Fidel Castro, and Boudin himself had spent time working in Venezuela under Hugo Chavez.

[00:09:32] He had also experienced firsthand the impact that sending people to prison can have on their nearest and dearest, on their family: when Boudin was only 14 months old his parents were sent to prison for murder in an armed robbery that went wrong. 

[00:09:50] His mother was sentenced to 20 years in prison and his father 75. Boudin was raised by adoptive parents. 

[00:10:00] He ran for office on a platform of creating a more fair and equitable justice system, of trying to give people help and assistance rather than send them to prison.

[00:10:12] For Boudin, drug addicts were victims of an unjust society, and his oft-repeated slogan is that he wants to “make it easier to get help than to get high”.

[00:10:24] Even before the election of Boudin at the end of 2019, California, the state San Francisco is in, had put into place some quite liberal laws surrounding petty crime

[00:10:37] Specifically, something called Proposition 47: The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, which, amongst other things, reclassified the theft of certain goods from a shop as a misdemeanour, not a federal crime.

[00:10:52] What this meant in practical terms was that you could steal anything up to a value of $950 and the police would not be required to intervene.

[00:11:04] What this has led to is scenes that you may have seen on TV or social media, of people simply walking into shops and taking goods, knowing full well that they will not be arrested for it, and then simply going around the corner and selling them.

[00:11:21] It has got so bad in some areas of the city that some supermarkets and pharmacies have had to lock up every single product, so simply to buy a tube of toothpaste you have to go and ask a store attendant to unlock the case and give it to you.

[00:11:39] Now, there are very different perspectives on what are the root causes of this increase in homelessness and crime, and what the solutions are, so let’s just address some of these individually.

[00:11:53] For Boudin and his supporters, it is a social justice issue. Rich tech companies and their workers have come into the city and pushed residents out, forcing them into homelessness and drug addiction. They are victims of their situation, and the focus should be on doing everything that can be done in helping them get back on their feet.

[00:12:17] For others, it’s predominantly a drug issue. Cheap fentanyl, an incredibly powerful opiate, has flooded the streets, destroying already fragile lives, forcing people to turn to crime and locking them further into a cycle of destruction. Drug dealers know that they can sell their product openly on the streets without fear of prosecution, which has led to the city being flooded with cheap drugs. This is certainly the perspective of the mothers' action group that put up the billboard I mentioned at the start of the episode.

[00:12:53] For others, it’s a housing issue. San Francisco has very strict laws about the construction of new houses. If more houses could be built, not only would house prices go down but the homeless people could be given rooms to live in. 

[00:13:10] For others, politicians are to blame. The city administration has become so large and bloated, so the argument goes, that it is incapable of solving these difficult problems. At the moment the city spends over a billion dollars on homeless services, which is anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 per homeless person, depending on whether you take the official or the unofficial number. 

[00:13:37] In any case, it’s a lot, so the argument goes, and the fact that the homeless population is growing suggests that the money isn’t doing an effective job at helping people get off the streets and get their lives together.

[00:13:52] And it isn’t like San Francisco doesn’t have enough money. California has some of the highest taxes in the country, and the San Francisco budget is $13 billion, more per capita than any other city in the country. 

[00:14:09] For better or worse, San Francisco is a place where it is easier than most other US cities to live on the streets. There are plenty of other people in a similar position, plenty of services to help you, and for those people who are in a cycle of addiction, there are widely available drugs.

[00:14:28] On the one hand, great, society should give homeless people all the tools and services they need to live a dignified life, and every opportunity to change their lives if they want to and when they are ready to.

[00:14:43] On the other hand, no, this is a city that has made it too easy to be homeless and do drugs, and with everything that is provided in terms of services and easy access to drugs, combined with the fact that you are very unlikely to be sent to prison even for committing a crime, there is little incentive to get your life together.

[00:15:05] Of course, this is a simplistic and binary way of looking at it, but these are the broad arguments.

[00:15:12] Now, while it’s very possible to disagree on the best solution to homelessness and poverty in San Francisco, it's hard to argue with the facts.

[00:15:23] In 2020 and 2021, so throughout the COVID pandemic, more people died of fentanyl overdoses on the streets of San Francisco than of COVID. Two people died every single day.

[00:15:37] The death number is decreasing, but this is primarily because more of something called Narcan is being distributed. Narcan is a medication that can be administered when someone is overdosing on opioids. 

[00:15:52] Indeed, although deaths from overdoses went from 700 to 650 from 2020 to 2021, the number of overdoses that were reversed using Narcan doubled, it went from 4,000 to 8,200. More than double the number of people overdosed, it just so happened that their lives were able to be saved before it was too late.

[00:16:17] So, yes, making sure that drug users have access to this life-saving medication does help save lives, but it certainly doesn’t seem like a sustainable long-term solution to simply provide drug addicts with this medication and hope there is someone around to administer it when they have an overdose.

[00:16:39] So then, what does the future hold for this historically liberal city that Americans on the right have been presenting as an example of what happens when the “radical left” takes control of a city?

[00:16:52] There is growing dissatisfaction, especially among the tech community, with the perceived consequences of the policies of Chesa Boudin, the District Attorney, so much so that there is a campaign to recall him, to remove him from his position. 

[00:17:10] The vote will take place on June 7th, so we will have to wait to see what happens there. To state the obvious, there is no one solution to the problems of San Francisco. It's an inequality problem, it's a housing problem, it’s a drug problem, it’s a mental health problem, it’s a problem of what happens when city budgets swell out of control, it’s a political problem.

[00:17:33] The only question is what to do about it.

[00:17:36] To many San Francisco residents, they still cross their fingers for a return to the city they once knew, that it yet again becomes an affordable, liveable, liberal city where people can do what they want as long as it doesn’t harm others.

[00:17:51] Everyone on all sides of the political spectrum wants this, they want the same thing, for the city to regain its former glory. 

[00:18:00] The only problem is that there are vastly different views on how to get there.

[00:18:07] OK then, that is it for today's episode on San Francisco.

[00:18:12] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new. 

[00:18:15] As a quick reminder, this was a companion episode to episode number 263, a member-only episode where we did a deep dive into fentanyl, the drug that is partly responsible for causing so much death and destruction in San Francisco. 

[00:18:31] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode.

[00:18:35] Have you been to San Francisco recently? 

[00:18:37] What was it like, and if you’ve been there several times, how has it changed over the years? 

[00:18:43] Are there examples of cities in your country that have followed a similar path? 

[00:18:48] What do you think the solution is?

[00:18:50] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started. 

[00:18:54] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:19:02] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:19:07] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]