WASHINGTON ― The head of federal homelessness policy appointed by President Donald Trump earlier this month says he’s at work on a new strategy to address the problem. But he won’t reveal anything about it.
“We’re going to be coming up with new ways to look at and address homelessness,” Robert Marbut, director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, told HuffPost this week.
There’s not a lot of optimism among advocates for the homeless that it will be a good plan. They worry that Trump wants to push cities to round up homeless people.
The president has called homeless encampments “disgusting” and dispatched federal officials to scout out empty facilities across the country to be used as shelters. And Marbut has spent the past few years advising cities on how to corral homeless people into large shelters that offer social services but also function as casual jails.
The White House Council of Economic Advisers said in a September paper that the “tolerability of sleeping on the street” is an important factor in the prevalence of homelessness in a given town, a factor that could be affected by “the policing of street activities.”
Marbut is a San Antonio-based community college professor who for the past decade has had a side career advising cities on how to deal with homeless people. He has recommended cutting “goodies,” such as public feeding by religious groups, in favor of shelter facilities that offer social services. He has advised that so long as enough shelter beds are available, courts will allow cities to crack down on panhandling and camping.
He wouldn’t say whether the Trump administration will encourage cities to round up homeless people and convey them to shelters.
“I just got started,” Marbut told HuffPost. “You’re asking questions I don’t have accurate information on.”
On Monday, Ben Carson, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development ― his agency is a key member of the Interagency Council on Homelessness ― toured a large Houston shelter. Administration officials have previously examined an empty federal building in California and an unused jail in Oregon.
CityLab reported this week that the White House may be readying an executive order that would strip funds from cities tolerating homeless encampments and direct money toward cities that use police to bust them up. Asked about the report, Marbut said, “We’re looking at all options.” He declined to say whether he had spoken to the president.
A spokesman for the White House did not respond to a request for comment.
The strategies Marbut previously advocated run counter to the expert consensus on the best way to deal with chronic homelessness. Since the George W. Bush administration, the federal government has promoted an approach known as “Housing First,” which aims to give people stable housing without first insisting that they handle any mental health or substance abuse disorders they have.
Experts partially credit Housing First with a 26% drop in chronic homelessness since 2007. Housing First’s advocates argue that it’s more effective and more compassionate and that it saves money, since people are less likely to be in and out of hospitals and jails if they have a place to stay.
But Marbut thinks Housing First is a little ridiculous. “It’s the equivalent of going to a hospital without doctors and nurses,” he said. “Four walls and a roof doesn’t fix the problem. You have to have treatment and recovery.”
Congressional Democrats were outraged that Trump nominated Marbut earlier this month, calling him “unqualified, unprepared, and disdainful of the mission of the critically important federal agency which he has been appointed to lead” in a letter to the president.
“His work as a consultant has been to encourage local governments to warehouse people experiencing homelessness on campus-type facilities with a host of required ‘24-7 programming,’” the letter said, citing Marbut’s description of the social services and rules he recommends.
On Marbut’s advice, the city of St. Petersburg, Florida, created a new shelter inside an old jail building in 2011. Instead of taking people to jail, police can bring low-level offenders to Safe Harbor, where they may avail themselves of services like Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and life skills classes. But residents who break the rules may have to sleep outside in a fenced parking lot.
Advocates for the homeless don’t hate shelters, but they don’t want them to be part of a strategy that puts the homeless in handcuffs instead of housing.
“We had an approach for several decades that was largely about services first and aggressive public space management, and homelessness went up,” Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said in an interview.
“It wasn’t until we started taking a Housing First approach that the numbers started going down,” she said, “so I don’t know why we would want to go back to something that doesn’t work.”