Trump officials look to fix California homeless problem, state officials say back off
SAN FRANCISCO — Trump administration officials confirmed Tuesday they are on the ground in California looking at ways to intervene in the state’s mounting homelessness issue, which President Donald Trump has criticized as “disgusting” and a “disgrace to our country.”
But many elected officials and homelessness experts in the Golden State said any White House assistance would be disingenuous given federal housing cuts have helped exacerbate the problem. Some also accused Trump of using the homelessness issue to win over conservative supporters ahead of the 2020 election.
“We need federal support and resources to build more housing for people living on the streets,” San Francisco Mayor London Breed said in a statement. “But simply cracking down on homelessness without providing the housing people need is not a real solution.”
Nathan Click, chief spokesman for California Gov. Gavin Newsom, also in part blamed the president for the state’s poverty woes. “If the president is willing to put serious solutions, with real investment, on the table, California stands ready to talk. He could start by ending his plans to cut food stamps, gut health care for low-income people and scare immigrant families from accessing government services,” he said.
State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) was even more blunt.
“Trump needs to back off and focus on his own mess of an administration,” Wiener said. “Rounding up homeless people into federal facilities won’t solve the problem. We need to get people the help they need, including shelter, housing, and other services.”
Trump plans still unclear
Trump officials have not specified what kinds of actions or solutions they would implement in California.
A senior administration official speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations confirmed to USA TODAY that a team of federal officials was on the ground in California assessing local homeless camps. The official said the team was conducting a fact-finding mission to learn more about the crisis.
The news was first reported by The Washington Post, which cited unnamed officials describing a coming crackdown, particularly in cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, which have some of the nation’s largest homeless populations.
The report did not specify what actions officials planned to take, but suggested that camps could be razed with homeless individuals moved into either new facilities or refurbished buildings.
According to last year’s survey by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, some 130,000 Californians were homeless, or nearly a quarter of the national total.
Officials said Los Angeles’ “Skid Row” was a particular priority. The area has seen a growing number of homeless as housing prices there and in most California cities continue to skyrocket. Los Angeles County saw nearly 59,000 homeless residents during a June count, up from approximately 55,000 people in 2017.
Late Tuesday, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti released a letter written to Trump that outlined a number of things his administration could do to help the homelessness issue in Los Angeles, which with some 79,000 homeless residents, trails only New York City.
Garcetti, who recently led administration officials on a tour of a range of homeless shelters and housing complexes, said that although “this crisis is decades in the making,” solutions could include protecting existing fair-housing laws, rescinding proposed HUD rules to evict mixed-status immigrant families from assisted housing, and supporting measures that would expand the housing safety net for veterans and the poor.
No where in Garcetti’s letter did he address the prospect of L.A. homeless encampments being razed and its population’s moved to federal housing projects.
White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement Tuesday that “like many Americans, 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.”
Deere added that Trump has “directed his team to go further and develop a range of policy options for consideration to deal with this tragedy.”
First reaction: ‘Internment camps’
But critics are far from eager for the president’s help.
Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, fretted that president was looking to round homeless people up.
“My first reaction is that it felt like internment camps for people experiencing homelessness,” he said. “The president doesn’t seem to have any grasp of the homeless crisis not only in California but around the country.”
Some, however, welcomed the possibility of federal intervention.
When asked about whether razing homeless camps could be seen as a violation homeless peoples’ civil rights, U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale) said Democrats across the state might be overreacting.
“Civil rights based on people squatting on land that isn’t theirs, that is a bit of a reach there,” he said.
A meeting held this earlier this year on homelessness in California seemed to presage the administration’s interest in potentially stepping in.
Jonathan Anderson, executive director of the Redding-based Good News Rescue Mission, the only homeless shelter in Shasta County in northern California, said that during a national homelessness conference in April, officials from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development asked to meet with the 30 executive directors of rescue missions from California, Washington and Oregon about possible future partnerships.
The discussions touched on “how could these faith-based nonprofits co-locate and partner and bring the government agencies into sharing the workload that we’re doing. That was very encouraging. No decisions were made. It was just very open dialogue,” he said.
“They did say,” Anderson added, “that no matter what happens, the majority of this is going to be focused around the L.A. region.”
Trump has had a long running feud not only with California’s governor, but also with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who represents San Francisco. California has filed roughly 50 lawsuits against the Trump administration in the past two years over matters ranging from immigration to the U.S. Census.
The president has not hesitated to blast the largely liberal state, whose importance in the 2020 election has grown since its primary was moved to March.
“Nearly half of all the homeless people living in the streets in America happen to live in the state of California,” Trump said during a rally in Ohio last month. “What they are doing to our beautiful California is a disgrace to our country. It’s a shame.”
Newsom ran for governor on a range of liberal platforms, including addressing homelessness, which in Newsom’s hometown of San Francisco has led to needles and feces being strewn along main business and tourist thoroughfares such as Market Street.
The governor has pledged $1 billion from his budget to tackling homelessness, including allocating $650 million to local governments to deal with emergency homelessness aid and shelter, and $265 million for mental health support.
It’s unclear how much authority a federal entity might have in trying to implement anti-homelessness measures in California.
“If you’re not doing anything illegal, authorities can’t just pick you up to tell you where to go,” says Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy with the National Alliance to End Homelessness in Washington, D.C., a non-profit that works with communities to tackle homelessness.
“Having people at all levels pay attention to this issue is good,” he says. “But only if you’re approaching it in a solution-oriented way.”
Feds can help — with money
David Garcia, policy director at the University of California, Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation, said he was skeptical about the Trump administration’s aims.
“Any strategy that focuses on removing homeless camps and displacing the homeless lacks compassion at best, and at worst exacerbates the challenges,” says Garcia. “Based on this administration’s rhetoric, they don’t seem to be focused on really solving the homelessness crisis.”
Garcia notes that the administration’s increasing pressure on immigrant populations within the U.S. has only added to the growing legions of homeless, as federal assistance continues to dry up and immigrants fear applying for aid.
“If the federal government is interested in helping, that’s great,” says Margot Kushel, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco and director of the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative, a research center founded by a donation from Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and his wife Lynne.
“What they can start with is dramatically increasing their financial support for affordable housing,” says Kushel.
Since Trump entered office, the White House budget has proposed slashing funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development in each year’s budget. The White House’s 2020 budget proposes slashing the department’s funding by $9.6 billion.
Amid these cutbacks, the Trump administration has expanded grant programs for local agencies working to help individuals experiencing homelessness. The 2020 budget proposed increasing funding for services for people experiencing homelessness by 9% to $2.6 billion.
Despite widespread skepticism over the Trump administration’s potential plans for homeless people in California, some officials acknowledged that the problem may well now be beyond the scope of local and even state officials.
San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a Republican, has been critical of the Trump administration and said he didn’t vote for the president in 2016. But like Trump, the San Diego Mayor also says California politicians have largely failed to address the state’s homelessness crisis. In 2018, the homeless population in San Diego dropped to 8,576 people, down by 600 people from the year before.
“San Diego has taken significant action over the last few years to reduce homelessness, but cities can’t do it alone,” said Faulconer, who has funded shelters and storage facilities for individuals experiencing homelessness and implemented policies to curb tent encampments and people sleeping in their cars. “We welcome additional federal resources to help us move more individuals off the streets and into housing.”
In nearby Palm Springs, City Councilwoman Christy Holstege said the president was likely attacking state lawmakers for political gain as the 2020 election creeps closer.
“He’s using talking points to rally his base,” said Holstege. “That’s what he’s doing here, trying to shame California about our homelessness crisis.”
The number of individuals experiencing homelessness in Palm Springs has skyrocketed in recent years, growing to 196 homeless people earlier this year. On Monday, state lawmakers earmarked $10 million to be used to fund homelessness services and infrastructure in the city.
“My question to the president would be if he’s going to raze camps, then where will those people go,” Holstege said. “The reason there are tent camps is because there isn’t sufficient housing.”
Contributing: Samuel Metz, Palm Springs Desert Sun
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