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Opinion

Editorial: Trump’s new homeless guru doesn’t think housing is the key to ending homelessness

Homeless encampment
Ry Thounry takes down her tent on the Main Street overpass above the 101 Freeway in downtown Los Angeles while sanitation crews move in to clean and scrub the homeless encampment.
(Los Angeles Times)

The last thing the federal government needs is a top advisor on homelessness who clings to regressive, outdated ideas about how to fix the problem. Then again, Robert Marbut, the new executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, was appointed by a president who has himself shown retrograde — or even cruel — attitudes about the issue.

Marbut, a Texas-based consultant who replaces Obama administration appointee Matthew Doherty, has worked for a number of cities across the country seeking to reduce homelessness on a local basis. But he’s raised alarm bells among advocates for the homeless and local officials for his methods — which have included urging cities to ban people from sleeping on the street, bar panhandling and put an end to organized food distributions by local organizations and churches.

He’s also set up large centers that concentrated social service providers and homeless people, requiring those seeking shelter to sleep outside until they showed signs of positive behavior such as staying sober or getting a job.

Perhaps the most troubling thing about Marbut’s approach to homelessness is not his widely reported crackdowns on public meal distributions, but his skepticism of the “housing first” approach to getting people off the street. This widely embraced strategy seeks to house homeless people first, before they have started receiving help to tackle mental illness and substance abuse problems. But Marbut told the Huffington Post a couple of years ago that he believes in “housing fourth,” or requiring people to get their personal lives in order before providing them a place to call home.

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That’s a dangerous fantasy. It’s incredibly difficult to treat a psychological problem while living on the street. Numerous studies have shown the effectiveness of the housing first approach, and it is now considered a best practice among social service providers. Even the Department of Veterans Affairs, which once required homeless veterans to be clean and sober before moving into its housing, now embraces housing first.

Up to now, the federal Interagency Council on Homelessness has not only supported housing first but emphasized permanent housing over such alternatives as sanctioned campgrounds, which have gained currency in some circles.

In another online news report, Marbut said, “I’m pretty controversial, because I often say, ‘Having a home is not the problem for the homeless. It’s maintaining a financial stability that allows you to maintain your homestead.’”

It’s hard to tell what influence Marbut, who still must be approved by the council at a meeting next week, will have on cities and counties, including in California, which has been a focus of Trump’s attention. Marbut could recommend changes in the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s priorities for awarding hundreds of millions of dollars in service funds and rental subsidies to cities and counties and service organizations every year. Currently, HUD emphasizes permanent housing projects over shelters and other transitional housing projects. Changing the emphasis would take some time.

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And theoretically, Marbut will coordinate the White House’s strategy on homelessness. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily his philosophy. It could be that he’s simply charged with implementing Trump’s plans on homelessness. One can only worry about Trump’s influence, given his hostility toward safety-net programs and the people who need them.

In September, a group of Trump administration officials came to Los Angeles to study homelessness. As usual, Trump made it clear that his sympathies were not with the needy and the destitute, complaining that there were people living in tents on “our best highways, our best streets, our best entrances to buildings ... where people in those buildings pay tremendous taxes, where they went to those locations because of the prestige.”

Homelessness is a complex challenge that requires a willingness to innovate and continually shift tactics for getting into housing (or shelter) and the services that will help them thrive in that housing. If Marbut or Trump see homeless people as errant campers who have to be cracked down on before they can be housed, that is out of step with the practices that have worked successfully to bring people inside, and ignorant of the data generated by years of efforts to combat this problem.


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