The Trump administration’s threat to crack down on homelessness in California has prompted skepticism and fear from advocates, who said the federal government should provide funding for services and housing – or stay away.
It’s unclear how the federal government could legally attempt to target people on the streets. But given the administration’s continuing efforts to slash funding for low-income housing programs and social services, and the president’s repeated derogatory attacks on California cities, some advocates for the homeless said they were not confident that the White House would provide any useful support.
“The federal government should behave with compassion. We don’t need Trump’s tough talk to compound the trauma people are dealing with,” said Stephen “Cue” Jn-Marie, a Los Angeles pastor who works with people living at Skid Row, the epicenter of the crisis. “Anyone who comes to Skid Row to ‘crack down’ and not actually deal with the root causes … we’re not listening. I really don’t want to hear what the president has to say.”
The president, who has made insulting California a consistent campaign theme, told Fox News this summer that he wanted to “intercede” on homelessness, citing San Francisco streets and saying: “We may do something to get that whole thing cleaned up. It’s inappropriate.” He also called the city “disgusting”.
A White House spokesman said on Tuesday that the president had taken notice of the 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”. The president was exploring the subject as a way to highlight the failures of Democratic leaders, according to reports in the Washington Post and New York Times.
Trump is blaming them for a situation he is creatingJennifer Friedenbach, Coalition on Homelessness
The Rev Andy Bales, CEO of Union Rescue Mission, a Los Angeles homeless organization, met with some of the Trump officials this week and said he was optimistic. Bales said he would like to see the federal government provide support for building a new shelter and more bathrooms and that the administration leaders he took on a tour of Skid Row seemed focused on offering resources.
“They said, ‘We are just here to help people in any way we can,’ and I take them at their word.”
San Francisco, Los Angeles, Oakland and other California cities all have worsening housing emergencies, with expanding income inequality and the rising costs of housing forcing people to live in their cars, makeshift sheds and growing tent encampments.
“President Trump could address the homelessness crisis as the chief executive of the federal government, which is the same entity that caused the homelessness crisis,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, the executive director for the Coalition on Homelessness, in San Francisco. “He has been slashing programs … and people are out there are suffering that he is responsible for. He is blaming them for a situation he is creating.”
The president has pushed major budget cuts for public housing and low-income assistance programs and has fought to curb access to food stamps and other services that can help people avoid displacement.
“We need the restoration of public housing,” said Adam Rice, an organizer with Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA Can), who works at Skid Row and was previously homeless. “Let’s actually have a discussion about homelessness on a national stage.”
Rice and other advocates pointed out that city leaders in LA have repeatedly put resources into sweeps and policing with policies that echo the rhetoric of the president. LA politicians are considering new rules that would further restrict where people can sleep in the city.
Friedenbach said she would be concerned about any federal efforts that would attempt to forcibly remove people off the streets, adding: “That doesn’t do anything to address homelessness.”
Jn-Marie said it was difficult to know whether to take the president seriously but added: “It’s not past Trump to use people as his political pawns.”
Bales, who met with the administration, said the officials from across a number of federal agencies did not talk about sweeps: “I don’t know about people’s motivations. All I care about is resources coming our way. We are in such a desperate situation. We should accept any help.”
If the Trump administration were genuinely interested in tackling the problem, it could restore budgets and help provide public land for affordable housing for the neediest people, said Pete White, LA Can’s executive director. “If you’re going to come to town, actually be helpful and not harmful.”
White said he was not optimistic: “I think it’s a political play he is making. All of this is a setup for 2020.”
Trump’s anti-homeless rhetoric can have real consequences, White added, noting recent reports of violence and attacks against people in encampments. In the LA region, there have also been growing concerns about “vigilante” Facebook groups where residents harass and shame homeless people, posting bullying and hateful comments.
Paul Read, another local advocate, said it would be powerful if Trump and leaders across California “stand together and speak in unity and say, ‘We need to resolve this and get it done’”. But, he added, “I don’t know if that’s going to happen”.