But advocates for homeless people are cautiously optimistic about the effect federal intervention could have on curbing a worsening crisis.
“I’ve been praying for federal intervention and assistance because of what I see as a crisis and disaster,” Rev. Andy Bales, chief executive of Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles, told HuffPost on Thursday. “This is a FEMA-like disaster that needs urgent attention, and although local authorities are doing more than they’ve ever done, it’s not at the urgent pace needed to rescue people from the streets.”
Officials from the White House, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Domestic Policy Council toured the city’s skid row and several shelters as part of a fact-finding mission to explore a federal response to California’s homelessness.
Bales helped lead the group’s tour and said he came away “very hopeful.”
“They saw the conditions. They saw the human waste, the people living in tents,” Bales said. The government officials “assured they were only here to help people. I took them at their word.”
Nearly a quarter of the nation’s homeless residents live in California, with homelessness on the rise throughout the state. Los Angeles saw a 12% increase in homeless residents from 2018 to 2019, according to a recent count. The number of homeless people in San Francisco went up 17% and in Alameda County (which includes Oakland) up 43% since 2017.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) noted in July that the Trump administration has been “decreasing the social safety net to address the reasons people are on streets and sidewalks in the first place.” The president’s 2020 budget proposal released earlier this year called for sweeping cuts to affordable housing programs.
“Finding solutions to homelessness should not be partisan,” said Sherilyn Adams, the executive director of Larkin Street Youth Services in San Francisco. “However, as this country’s affordability crisis has skyrocketed, President Trump has proposed slashing billions of dollars in affordable housing programs that support our most vulnerable residents.”
“I am hopeful that President Trump means business and commits significant federal dollars to augment local efforts to solve homelessness across California,” Adams told HuffPost.
Among the options the Trump administration was considering was a plan to clear street encampments in Los Angeles and other cities and move homeless people into government-run facilities, according to a report by The Washington Post.
The White House did not confirm the Post’s report and framed the visit as a fact-finding mission. But even the suggestion of such sweeps raised alarm among advocates.
Heather Freinkel, the managing attorney at the Homeless Action Center in Oakland, said encampment evictions can “dramatically undermine residents’ efforts to secure housing, employment and medical care.”
“During sweeps, residents’ documents, cellphones, medications and survival supplies are often destroyed,” Freinkel told HuffPost. “Residents are reluctant to leave their tents to engage in services because they fear that everything they own will be taken. When this does happen, it is devastating.”
“For these reasons, forcibly evicting encampment residents should never be part of any plan,” she said.
The administration has not yet indicated how it intends to move forward, but advocates offered some suggestions.
Bales said he suggested to the visiting officials that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers be enlisted to build structures for homeless individuals.
“I will continue to remind people that you can’t sweep the encampments away until you provide a healthy, safe place for people to go,” he said.
Freinkel suggested the government begin by further investing in and improving access to existing programs like food stamps, Supplemental Security Income and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
Whatever Trump decides, Freinkel said, “efforts to address homelessness should be led by homeless people and those with expertise working in the field. When someone doesn’t have enough money to afford California’s skyrocketing rents, they should not lose the right to autonomy over the conditions of their life.”