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Trump team’s homeless tour of L.A. sparks suspicions, concerns

Skid row
A woman emerges from her tent outside the Union Rescue Mission on skid row in Los Angeles.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

It wasn’t the typical tourist bus filled with celebrity-hungry gawkers tooling around Los Angeles this week.

The Trump administration officials who came to town to study homelessness spent Monday and Tuesday meeting with officials from Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office, checking out the Jordan Downs public housing in Watts and touring the long-entrenched epicenter of the crisis, skid row. There was even a trek to Pomona.

An administration official said the purpose was to gather information so that President Trump could begin to develop a plan to address the “tragedy.”

RELATED: Trump is going to solve L.A.'s homeless crisis just like Hurricane Dorian hit Alabama

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“The president has taken notice of the homelessness crisis, particularly in cities and states where the liberal policies of overregulation, excessive taxation, and poor public service delivery are combining to dramatically increase poverty and public health risks,” Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere said.

Local and state officials were skeptical. The offices of Garcetti and Gov. Gavin Newsom put out statements listing steps they said the administration could take right away if it truly intended to help solve the crisis.

As he pursues reelection, Trump has used homelessness to bash leaders in California, where he remains deeply unpopular.

“You take a look at what’s going on with San Francisco, it’s terrible. So we’re looking at it very seriously. We may intercede. We may do something to get that whole thing cleaned up. It’s inappropriate,” Trump told Fox News in early July.

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This week, a group showed up to tour Los Angeles County led by Ben Hobbs, White House special assistant for domestic policy. It included officials from the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Rev. Andy Bales, chief executive of the Union Rescue Mission, said he was heartened after leading them on a skid row tour Monday.

Bales said the officials took particular interest in mobile bathrooms that have been set up and spoke with attendants who manage them.

Bales said the group asked him about “sprung structures,” massive, rigid tents that can be set up quickly to provide shelter. They can be heated and air-conditioned, and the Union Rescue Mission has one in the works in its parking lot for 120 women.

“It really is an immediate answer,” Bales said. “They are here to bring resources to assist the city and county and state in addressing homelessness. I believe they were sincere individuals.”

Developer Kevin Hirai said he met Tuesday morning for an hour with a delegation of about 25 people in South L.A. at the site of one of his company’s residential buildings for homeless people.

“People were friendly, there was a genuine interest,” said Hirai, chief operating officer of nonprofit developer Flyaway Homes. “Part of the conversation was, `'What’s going on? How can we help?’ ”

Still, elected officials and advocates from the governor on down scoffed at the tour as nothing more than window dressing on a more systemic problem that requires massive spending to solve.

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“If the president is willing to put serious solutions — with real investment — on the table, California stands ready to talk,” Nathan Click, a spokesman for Gov. Gavin Newsom, said in a statement. “He could start by ending his plans to cut food stamps, gut healthcare for low-income people, and scare immigrant families from accessing government services.”

Members of Garcetti’s staff learned about the visit only recently.

The federal officials did not meet with Garcetti — who had previously invited the president to meet with him after he criticized the city’s homeless crisis response — but they did stop at the city’s Unified Homelessness Response Center downtown.

On Tuesday afternoon, Garcetti released a letter to the president saying he appreciated that his staff had visited, but urged Trump to commit to concrete steps.

“We must put politics aside when it comes to responding to this heartbreaking humanitarian crisis,” Garcetti said. “I hope you will provide the federal assistance that is needed to help cities stop homelessness in America and help our veterans and most vulnerable of citizens.”

City Councilman Gil Cedillo said that he doesn’t trust President Trump and suggested the delegation’s visit was a publicity stunt.

“We’re interested in building housing, and finding shelter and transitioning people who are going through really difficult times,” said Cedillo, who heads a City Hall committee focused on housing. “And it requires more than a token appearance.”

Also Tuesday, group members met with heads of the unions that represent rank-and-file Los Angeles police officers and county sheriff’s deputies.

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A wide range of issues was discussed, including the use of federal lands to create triage-style areas where homeless people could receive showers, possibly meet with social workers or other crisis outreach personnel and store their belongings, according to a person with knowledge of the meeting who requested anonymity in order to share details about the conversation candidly.

The Department of Justice representative also discussed possible “workarounds” to deal with court settlements and lawsuits that have limited the way the LAPD can carry out enforcement efforts at encampments, the person said.

The use of federal resources to target drug trafficking in areas heavily populated by the homeless, similar to an operation enacted by federal law enforcement agents in San Francisco’s run-down Tenderloin neighborhood earlier this year, was also discussed, the person said.

“Our meeting was an indication that our growing homelessness crisis is a topic of national importance and we will work with any entity on solutions to this crisis,” said Ron Hernandez, president of the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs.

At an event in Beverly Hills hosted by Politico on Monday, a Garcetti official explained that the mayor welcomed this dialogue with the administration on a pressing issue.

“They don’t know the work that we’re doing,” said Breelyn Pete, chief of state and federal affairs for Garcetti.

“They’re just not thoughtful — and, quite frankly, not smart enough to know what we’re doing.” She added: “I hope that doesn’t get me in trouble.”

Times staff writers Chris Megerian, Gale Holland, Phil Willon and Emily Alpert Reyes contributed to this report.


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