Crime, Culture Wars, Feminism, Interview, Recommended

Buying Fentanyl on the Streets of San Francisco—An Interview with Heather Mac Donald

Heather Mac Donald has written one of the most important essays on homelessness in recent memory for City Journal. In it, she argues that we’ve misunderstood the homelessness problem as a problem of poverty when it is, in reality, a problem of family breakdown and the erosion of social norms. While I don’t agree with all of what she’s written, I admire her fieldwork. She interviewed homeless people in San Francisco and even bought fentanyl, the synthetic opiate that resulted in over 17,000 drug overdose deaths in the United States last year, to investigate how easy it was. Such fieldwork is rarer than it should be among journalists and advocates alike. I thought her contribution to the growing debate over homelessness, particularly in California but nationally and globally as well, was so important, I requested a telephone interview for Quillette. It has been edited for length.

Heather Mac Donald, Manhattan Institute

Quillette: What’s a nice lady like you doing buying fentanyl from drug dealers on the streets of San Francisco?

Heather Mac Donald: I wanted to test how easy it would be. Very easy, it turns out.

You weren’t worried about being hurt?

It’s a possibility. But I figure that my value-added as a writer is on the ground reporting.

It cracked me up that you offered just $8 for fentanyl. Was that because you were worried they would think you were a cop?

I really didn’t want to overpay! Literally, I had no idea what the going rate was for fentanyl. I’ve never used drugs in my life. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be outed. I just didn’t want to be a patsy.

What’s your background?

I had aspired to be a professor of comparative literature. I regard the teaching of the humanities as one of the greatest privileges. But I gave up on that hope as the field became so politicized. Since then, I’ve written a lot on crime and policing. Doing that work entails going into housing projects and talking with drug dealers and gang members.

What do you think makes the homelessness crisis so important?

Cities are one of the great accomplishments of human civilization. They are places that should be forums for humans to interact peacefully to exchange ideas and goods and to work on creating things of value and beauty. Their functioning and livability depend on human beings within them following a certain code of civility.

Have we changed how we respond to homelessness?

Nothing changes. It’s the same false narratives about this being a housing problem and not a drug addiction and mental illness problem. The advocates are in the business of enabling the street vagrant lifestyle. The victims include small business owners who are made to work around people who colonize their front stoops and leave feces and discarded needles.

It’s extraordinary that often immigrant entrepreneurs—at least on Los Angeles’s Skid Row—must bear the brunt of this and that the advocates champion only the interests of the drug users, drug dealers, and people who are flouting the law.

What is your basic argument?

On homelessness my argument is simple: You just don’t allow this behavior. That’s the starting point. It’s not compatible with the long-term life of cities. Once you establish that — something that was uncontroversial 50 years ago when the police would move people along, and there was unanimity that if you were in public you would have to meet basic norms of public behavior — then you don’t let people colonize the sidewalks.

Why is any given city where someone ends up on the street morally obligated to provide housing to that person? Nobody’s ever explained why that is. Say somebody comes from Seattle or Iowa to be homeless in San Francisco. When did San Francisco taxpayers become obligated to provide housing for him?

So is this just about enforcing norms?

Once you establish that this behavior is not acceptable, then you have to answer the question of where to put people. And so for the sake of argument, let’s assume that cities are obligated to provide housing for everyone who ends up on their streets.

If that’s the case, there is still no entitlement to be housed in the most expensive housing market in the country. Politicians should be far more careful stewards of taxpayer dollars. We can get far more addiction and mental health services from building clean and sober facilities in abandoned industrial or rural areas than spending $800,000 for a single unit in San Francisco.

Is there also an argument that shelters in the city keep people surrounded by drugs?

I interviewed an ex-felon (now officially referred to as a “justice-involved” person in San Francisco) who had been in every prison in California. There are plenty of homeless services in the city, he reported. What’s tough, he said, is that when you get out of prison, to access those services and shelter you’re back among the drug markets. It’s asking a lot of a person to summon the willpower to go clean when drug deals are going down all around him.

Would you describe what’s happening as an excess of compassion?

It depends on how you define compassion. A conservative would say tough love is compassionate. But if compassion is making excuses and lowering standards, what Moynihan called “defining deviance down,” then yes, it’s excess compassion.

What else is going on, here?

Alice Baum and Donald Burnes, in their groundbreaking book, A Nation in Denial: The Truth About Homelessness, identified the primary causes of homelessness to be not just addiction and mental illness but also social disaffiliation. The homeless have broken the informal social ties of family and friends that keep people off the streets.

The more you normalize homelessness, and say, “You know, there are all these West Coast cities where you can just come and hang out!,” people have no incentive to keep their behavior and temper in check because there is always that escape valve. If street living is not an option, you ideally change your behavior before it provokes a crisis.

Do nonprofits and government agencies have an interest in maintaining homelessness?

I have spent a lot of time visiting the vast network of barely functional nonprofit organizations scattered in every neighborhood in inner-city New York. They are run by people who refuse to talk about personal responsibility and family breakdown. Self-destructive behaviors like teen child-rearing are normalized through such initiatives as daycares in high school, which send the message that adults viewed teen mothering as an ordinary rite of passage.

The social worker has become the substitute for parents and the more social breakdown there is, the more jobs there are for the nonprofit sector. I’m not a conspiracy theorist and think people are driven more by ideology than such long-term economic calculations. But those ideologies often have economic benefits for those who hold them.

Can family breakdown be addressed?

The Bush administration tried marriage counseling, but I disagree with my policy wonk colleagues who think tweaking the tax code will make a difference

What we need is a revalorization of males and a rebuttal of the feminist bromide that “strong women can do it all.” Certainly, there are heroic single mothers who are beating the odds and raising self-disciplined, law-abiding children. But the odds are against them. It’s asking too much just on a merely economic level — which is the least important drawback of single-parenting. But single mothers have half the kinship and economic resources of married parents to draw upon when things inevitably go wrong.

Ideally, children need their mother and their father. Recognizing that truth means admitting that men and women are different and that fathers, on average, bring different skills to child-rearing. Competition and an appetite for risk are disproportionally but not exclusively male traits and should be re-valorized.

What would you do as mayor or governor?

Mayors need to give their local police the authority to enforce the laws, including immigration laws. Many of the Honduran drug dealers in San Francisco are here illegally. If you want to get a criminal off the streets, it’s far easier to build an immigration case against him than a drug trafficking case. San Francisco law enforcement is betraying the public trust by refusing to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

How did we get here?

Part of it is capitalism’s remarkable affluence that gave adolescents independent spending power. Corporations targeted that new market by creating a mindless consumer culture centered around adolescent rebellion. That’s been an incredibly corrosive force to parental authority.

Another part is the idea that rose in the sixties which held that favored victim groups should not be held to a universal code of conduct. That idea degrades the alleged beneficiaries of those double-standards and allows them to continue a lifestyle that is extremely self-destructive.

Having given up on shared norms of behavior, another 10-year task force on homelessness is not going to make any difference.


Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of The Diversity Delusion. You can follow her on Twitter @HMDatMI

Michael Shellenberger is a Time Magazine “Hero of the Environment,” and president of Environmental Progress, an independent research and policy organization. Follow him on Twitter @ShellenbergerMD

Feature photo by Jonathan Gonzalez on Unsplash


  1. Heather MacDonald, like Theodore Dalrymple, points out the obvious and simple truth: left wing policies create a permanent client underclass that provide income and meaning for low-IQ scions of the compassionistas. What is it with the left, that they cannot accept simple truths and seek to subvert the obvious in a constant seach for power?
    The admiration for idealised bohemianism (that is bohemianism with a good income and middle class lifestyle) is the real problem here. For bohemianism to be any good, it has to be pitted against a strong social conservatism or respectability. The poor in particular need the discipline that respectablity brings.

  2. This article has too much common sense for it’s own good. It bears noticing that these homeless refugee cities in the U.S. are among the most Leftist enclaves in the country. They are hell holes of compassion. They are what Leftist have in store for the rest of the country.

  3. What I don’t understand is why they think living with utter vileness is better than a bit of bourgoise discipline?
    The point is that they want to use government to force this on the people, whereas it was social conservatism and not really government that enforced the old norms.
    But welcome to the regressive’s world where you can commit almost any crime (apart from sexual assault) and be forgiven, but lose your whole livelihood if you accidently say something that is ‘‘offensive.’’

  4. Leftist ideology is not in search of solutions. It is in search of problems. The problem exists to fulfill a preordained Leftist solution. The solution must be compassionate, regardless of whether it works or not. The solution will always enable those it was designed to help. “Never let a crisis go to waste”—Rob Emmanuel. Leftist perpetuate problems in order to obtain power. Without an underclass to pander too, Leftist become powerless. The quote, “A Leftist defines a policy success by how many people are helped whereas a conservative defines a policy success by how many people no longer need the help”, remains accurate.

  5. It may be coming to a theater near you. Living in a small town of 60,000, for the last two years we have dealt with increasingly belligerent “homeless” blocking our business front door. Sometimes when one of us arrives early it is just easier to use the back door and avoid the trouble, hoping they leave before we need to unlock the front door. If called, the police will still move the over-nighters on but these estranged folks are becoming less willing to do so. More recently a few tents started appearing on sidewalks only a block away.

    I am aware of my own usage of various euphemisms, identifying people as “homeless” is increasingly inaccurate but using the term vagrant or transient will doom me to be identified as a “deplorable”. We live in a college town and are driven by the associated politics so I don’t expect much understanding to come forthwith from the local public officials. Maybe a solution is to come by in the evening and offer our “guests” rides over to the university administration building, it has a nice covered front entry.

  6. I’d go further and say that a leftist defines policy success of any program on whether it sounds good and whether it provides lots of bureaucracy. The effect on the people it’s supposed to help is of no real imprtance to the leftist at all.

  7. I recently became acquainted with the Buddhist term ‘idiot compassion.’ It’s the kind of compassion that serves the so-called compassionate, more than it serves the objects of their affection. The overweight kid whose mother can’t bear to see him hungry, so allows him to eat whatever he wants. The fearful kid whose mother says he doesn’t have to do what frightens him. The fixation on making people feel better by actually protracting their problems, thus giving the ‘compassionate’ a longer term in serving their so-called needs.

    In other words, the shadow side of matriarchy. The shadow side of tolerance.

    I lived in SF in the late 80’s - early 90’s. Homelessness was part of the city’s fabric. I surmise it became acceptable in the 60’s, during the Haight Ashbury era. At one point the mayor swept away the homeless camp in front of city hall. They appeared later on her lawn. The overwhelming number of panhandlers/homeless (I used to budget for handouts, as I was accosted several times en route to work) was attributed to defunding mental institutions. At this juncture it seems an effect that there are more people ‘choosing’ this ‘lifestyle.’

    As one who followed feminist dictates (I got my no-fault divorce in San Francisco, where I was then condemned to watch my ex spiral out of control) I know all too well the pitfalls of individualism. Why are we promoting doing everything yourself – to the point of living on the edge and eventually falling off? Even with three jobs, for a while (in NYC) I was this close to utter disaster and homelessness. I have seen middle aged women who appear to be of good social standing with all of their belongings, making desperate calls in cafes.

    McDonald is correct – the breakdown of the family and social norms is definitely a factor in this rampant decline. Yet here we are, so worried about being “marginalized” in ways that don’t truly matter, while true marginalization is promoted – be yourself ! Follow your dreams! Screw anyone who doesn’t agree with you! Get the hell out of that relationship --he’s just holding you down! Yes, promoted. You can do it all. Until you can’t.

  8. It is allowed, the campers have taken possession of land and in some instances refuse to leave. And since there is such an outcry about criminalizing any aspect of homelessness they stay where they are. The concept is called shelter in place and as a doctrine it is not helpful either to the homeless or the community. And MacDonald points out, there is no pressure on them to do better, to make good with with their families to get clean, to find housing. They are encouraged to camp. We have a camp right now under a bridge, it was around 100 people, the city told them they have to leave. Around 70-80 did. There are 20-30 left. The local advocacy group did a poll, NONE could think of other options and they all refused to use the provided shelters. The city was set to remove them and at the last minute in a political stunt, they council voted to not only let them stay until a “comparable and appropriate” location was found, they also prioritized their suffering, and made it that they could not be evicted w/o council approval. Even in the case of imminent harm…that clause was in the motion and was struck from it. Inexplicably.

    It stuns me. Our metro area is around 120K population and we have dozens of camps and easily 1K campers. There are lots of services and they basically operate with no interference or supervision, both on public and private land. Private landowners are responsible for clean up of the sites. There are visible bike chop shops. Nothing is done. So much theft. Nothing. The cops and fire departments are afraid to go into the camps, they do not know the trails, and many are boobytrapped against theft from other homeless. People carry visible weapons. I cannot leave my house without witnessing a person in crisis of some sort, today it was a tweaker who kept up a 20 minute monologue to me? while I waited for the bus. I read my book and told her I could not talk, she still kept up the monologue. I see people writhing on the ground in w/drawal. i see tweakers that suck the air out of a full bus. I see people passing out. Yet this is called class discomfort…it was only in the past year did the debate advance that maybe just maybe drugs were part of the problem…cause you could not talk bad about the homeless by implying they were addicted, even though your eyes clearly tell you…

  9. Great article, so much more to explore on this topic. I have heard that JFK’s personal disdain for insane asylums and decision to close them down is what lead to the massive increase in homeless, as those without families capable of caring for them were left on the streets. Is lack of mandatory, state-sponsored mental health facilities still driving the problem today? The author alludes to a solution I favour: incarceration of the chronically homeless in a distal facility, with no access to illicit drugs or alcohol, and the goal of rendering the homeless functional and employable.

    I had a rosy picture of San Francisco until I actually went there. It was extremely expensive, racial tensions were palatable (particularly between blacks and Asians), and I wandered unwittingly into a giant homeless camp only a couple of blocks from the conference centre. Several disturbed men approached me, some even reaching for me, and if I had been alone I’m sure I would have gotten raped. The biggest conference in my field happens every year in San Francisco, but I will never go to it again so long as it is there. The leftists have ruined San Francisco and California in general and everyone who values their money and safety should stay as far away as possible.

  10. Losing the ability to involuntarily institutionalize people in hindsight was clearly a disaster… the toothpaste you just can’t stuff back in the tube.

    It may have been an abused practice at some point, but the alternative is 20 times as cruel. Allowing medication resistant mentally ill people to “care” for themselves when they are so clearly incapable of it is inhumane.

    It’s a razors edge between getting it right or wrong in some scenarios, but most of the mentally ill homeless people I see…it’s not even close to debatable. What’s better, homelessness, self medicating an illness with street drugs and alcohol, disease, fear, uncertainty? Or mandatory medication in a secure (or more likely) semi secure institution with food, shelter, structure, and services on site?

  11. Homelessness in San Francisco is not a problem for the majority of the people of San Francisco.

    It is, after all, the majority of the people of San Francisco who have elected and reelected the politicians who have made all of this happen.

    If the day ever comes that the majority of the people of San Francisco change their minds, they can elect a different sort of politician who will make the homeless go away. Physically, go away so that they are gone.

    But until they’re ready to do this, I say to hell with the people of San Francisco.

  12. In my near thirty year career in social services I have probably conversed with more homeless people in a week than many have in their lifetime. Contrary to popular perception, the homeless individuals that are lucid and not mentally in a different world are quite honest in their thoughts. Most all have variations of one of our longtime homeless person’s statement: ‘if you give me a dollar, I’ll use it for drugs; if you give me food, I’ll sell it for drugs; if you give me a voucher, I’ll cut a deal with the retailer to get cash for drugs. That’s the way it is.**
    So I agree with the author. Carrot and stick, the homeless persons’ status quo is not an option. Provide real help to the homeless, with the alternative being hell on earth for their lifestyle on the street.

  13. Each time I visit SF, it’s palpably worse. The last time I went, for a wedding, I decided to take the BART from the airport to Berkeley, where the wedding was. During the train ride, a mentally ill homeless man appearing in his 50s boarded, filthy, his pants sagging to expose his naked rear end, and wandering up and down the aisle, crying out, “Mommy! Mommy, help!” It was heartbreaking and frightening. He should have been in a hospital or with his family. As the man passed by us again, the professor who was sitting next to me - I know she was a professor because she told me so, many times, having just returned from a trip to Africa where she was bringing educational pedagogy to the natives, yes, seriously, and “couldn’t wait to go back! the people there are so gentle and kind!” - said to me, “Reagan.” She may as well have spat. “This is because of Reagan. He destroyed all the hospitals for them and now they’re all on the streets, poor things.” Then she started talking to me about an app she was trying to create for the African “villagers.”

    (I thought I couldn’t get more unintentionally satirical until the homeless man left, and a Muslim migrant appeared with her small daughter, demanding money from all the passengers. When a Latino woman refused to give her any, she got very aggressive, getting into the woman’s face and demanding money, then accusing the woman of filming her - she started screaming now, “How dare you!” - then again demanding money.)

    When I got to Berkeley, I was greeted as usual with incredibly overpriced houses (my friend pays $4500/month to rent a bungalow), with all white people with a sprinkling of Asians, all anxiously talking about Trump and how evil he was, and their children and how awesome they were, all in a sort of choral pattern way, where one person spoke tentatively, the others nodded, and echoed, then another person took turns to speak tentatively, all about the same topics, their children or who to vote for in the local election. “I thought I’d vote for X? I mean, I’m not sure, but I’ve done the research and she seems the most progressive to me?” “Yes, she seems the most progressive.” Etc.

    In the car to the wedding, we passed by several huge homeless encampments with garbage, always in a public place like a park, near children and families. The people I was with saw my expression and said, “Yes, we call it ‘Trump Town.’” The tone was wry, expecting me to laugh at the witticism. I said, “Why Trump? What does he have to do with this homeless situation? How could he have caused this?” She paused, hesitated, then said, “Good question!” Then she changed the topic.

    They all seemed to think the entire country had this issue, and that it was just something that was going on generally, due to a misty combination of Reagan and Trump. Those evil conservatives doing their conservativey things! Their own Democrat-voted governances seemed irrelevant, powerless to change in the face of their warped ideology. Homeless people are a very obvious rejoinder to their failed social policies, so they either ignore it, deny it is a result of their policies, or blame a preposterous straw man. This is as they literally have to fear their cars will be smashed, or step over a homeless man lying on the floor in the movie theatre lobby (as I did), with small children around.

    For those who think this is all those silly SF’ers, this is all coming to a theatre near you if their ideology takes hold. It is an ineluctable result of it. It will only get worse, with plagues or epidemics spreading through human defecation on the street (as there is now). Indeed, a friend of mine recently moved out of Washington Heights as it was increasingly filled with illegal ‘migrants’ and homeless people, human feces, drugs, and an influx of MS 13 members openly carrying guns.

    I think the upper class mostly white progressives who generate the ideology causing this will deny the situation, ignore it, blame others, right up until they are shot or mugged or beaten, and maybe even after… My point is their ideology is more important to them than life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

  14. That was kindly done, ClosedRange, but I think you may have meant “palpable.”

  15. For the same reason that the Atlanta Braves are abandoning their signature cheer.

    Because a minority that wields sufficient bully power can overpower a majority.

    We need to stop thinking that getting 51% of the vote is sufficient for winning an issue. That’s only true when everyone plays by the rules of democracy.

    We are surrounded by people who don’t.

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