When Robert Marbut Jr. — a self-described “homelessness consultant” — was named by President Trump to head the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) in mid-December, homeless activists and their supporters shuddered, and for good reason. Marbut believes that providing people with shelter without first tackling mental or physical health challenges amounts to coddling.
He has a similar opinion about providing food to people experiencing homelessness and has urged localities to stop “enabling” the homeless by providing free meals on city streets. Furthermore, he supports making it illegal to sleep in public spaces, from parks to streets. Instead, Marbut has urged a focus on policing to address homelessness.
Marbut is wasting no time in promoting this punitive agenda. On the day of his appointment he issued a statement that made clear that as head of USICH, he will encourage homeless outreach teams “that pair a law enforcement officer with a social worker to engage individuals experiencing homelessness into recovery and treatment programs.”
This has been Marbut’s modus operandi since at least 2006. As the founding president of a San Antonio, Texas, shelter called Haven for Hope, a 22-acre facility that serves approximately 1,700 people a day, Marbut instituted a policy in which undomiciled individuals had to earn the right to sleep indoors. Those who failed drug tests or broke a rule had to sleep in an exposed courtyard, regardless of weather. He later advocated this policy as a consultant to social service agencies in Daytona and St. Petersburg, Florida; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Fresno, California.
Now, as head of the Interagency Council, a 33-year-old federal body created to coordinate the spending and policy decisions of 19 government departments including Commerce, Education, Labor and Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Marbut will oversee all federal efforts to address homelessness. He is further poised to do Trump’s bidding. The goal? Breaking up urban homeless encampments and providing additional funding to law enforcement agencies.
Homeless activists and their allies fear that this will criminalize those who live on the streets and make their lives immeasurably harder. Their worries are well founded.
Still, it is important to recognize that even before Marbut took the helm of USICH, criminalizing the homeless had become a trend. For example, local police in Boston, Massachusetts, launched Operation Clean Sweep in August 2019, and confiscated and destroyed the wheelchairs of individuals who were both disabled and homeless. Other cities — including Baton Rouge, Chicago, Greensboro, New York, Portland, Reno, Salt Lake City and Seattle — have instituted policies to make panhandling in parking garages, parking lots or public spaces a criminal offense. Likewise, impeding a sidewalk or other walkway has led to police harassment of homeless people — and sometimes physical brutality — as well as arrest in virtually every corner of the country.
Activists Fight Back
Advocates charge that criminalizing the homeless is both cruel and misguided. They further note that ramping up law enforcement will do nothing to stem poverty, resolve the affordable housing crisis, or meet the needs of millions of homeless individuals. What’s more, the policy completely sidesteps the needs of homeless families and unaccompanied minors who are presently couch-surfing, living doubled or tripled-up, or sleeping in cars, subways, or storage units.
Activists also argue that in its focus on “cleaning up city streets” by removing the homeless — people Trump considers a “disgusting” threat to public safety and health — the federal government is revealing a profound misunderstanding of what it means for people to live without a stable home.
“The homelessness industry assumes that being out in the elements is the worst thing that can happen to a person, but in reality the worst thing that can happen often happens in a place where you have a roof over your head, but are preyed on by someone or abused in another way,” Barbara Duffield, executive director of School House Connection, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that helps homeless kids complete school, told Truthout.
Families who leave a home because of domestic violence or sexual abuse are often left scrambling but, Duffield continues, their needs are typically ignored by federal agencies. This is because HUD has, for decades, undercounted homeless families and unaccompanied minors, people who exist in the shadows, avoiding both the streets and the shelter system.
Families Pitted Against Single Adults
Under current policy, HUD does what is called a “point in time” survey, going out once each January to calculate the number of people living outdoors or in shelters. Those in motels or hotels, on the floors or couches of friends or family, or living in vehicles, subways or storage facilities are not included in the tally. This means that their homelessness is rendered invisible.
Cara Baldari, vice president of Family Economics, Housing and Homelessness at First Focus, told Truthout that this “reflects a lack of awareness about the lived realities of low-income and homeless families with children. The people who develop federal policy don’t work on the ground and don’t understand the fluid nature of family homelessness.”
If they were better informed, she continues, they’d know that the count ignores the fact that shelters are often full or are perceived to be unsafe, the absolute last resort of thousands upon thousands of homeless families. And, she adds, not every community even has a shelter; small towns, rural communities and suburban enclaves often have no temporary domiciles whatsoever.
Other fears also exist: Undocumented immigrants may worry about losing custody of their kids if they seek assistance, while many communities of color are leery of contact with child welfare or law enforcement personnel.
Nonetheless, whether counted by HUD or not, millions of families do not have stable, permanent housing, a reality that has hit public education extremely hard.
In fact, public school staff throughout the country report a skyrocketing enrollment of homeless students at every level, pre-K to 12th grade. The Head Start program alone noted that the number of homeless children nearly doubled between 2007 and 2016.
Other investigations have corroborated this. A 2017 study by researchers employed by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago found that approximately 4.2 million unaccompanied young people experienced homelessness over a 12-month period. This, they wrote, is far more than the 1.5 million school-aged children acknowledged in HUD’s annual Homelessness Assessment Report.
But let’s forget numbers for a while and concentrate on the consequences of homelessness for children and families.
Carol Hornbeck, a family therapist in Minneapolis, told Truthout that “many homeless kids have already had at least one adverse childhood experience such as chronic food insecurity, divorce, or physical or sexual abuse. Traumatic stress makes it hard for them to advocate for themselves, to reach out and ask for help, especially if they are already struggling with anxiety or poor self-esteem.” Compounding this, she adds, is the way that the current administration stigmatizes homelessness. “When kids hear government representatives discuss measures to criminalize homelessness,” Hornbeck says, “feelings of shame, despair and hopelessness tend to ramp up.”
Trish Tereskiewicz knows these feelings well. Tereskiewicz spent three weeks living in her car after a physical altercation with a roommate forced her to flee her Wheaton, Maryland, apartment. Although she was able to find a relatively affordable basement flat fairly quickly, she says that hearing Trump and Marbut describe people experiencing homelessness as “disgusting” and “disgraceful” has been triggering. “It makes you feel worthless, like a nobody,” she says. “It also makes you angry because you know who you are, who you were, and know that no one chooses to be homeless.”
Children, teenagers and young adults are similarly impacted. Some homeless kids act out and are sent to detention or are suspended or expelled from school, all too often entering the school-to-prison pipeline. Others have trouble concentrating, completing assignments and fitting in with peers. The end result is that homeless kids have dropout rates in excess of the average as well as higher rates of substance abuse and chronic mental and physical health problems.
Hearing Trump and other elected officials talk about the homeless in demeaning terms, as if their inability to afford a home is a criminal act, adds to the stress they experience.
Duffield explains that kids know when stigma increases. “When homeless youth hear Trump call them disgusting, their self-esteem plummets and many go into hiding. This is psychological trauma.”
And it is impacting an ever-increasing number of students.
According to American Public Media, between 2009 and 2019, there was a 70 percent increase in the number of homeless kids attending public schools. Most are already behind by the time they enroll in kindergarten and are subjected to bullying at rates higher than adequately housed students.
McKinney-Vento Funding is Insufficient
The McKinney-Vento Act, which has been in effect since 1987, was supposed to ameliorate this by providing a federal funding stream to every public school with homeless students. The average allocation for each homeless kid is $70. Just one example will suffice to illustrate the inadequacy of this provision. In 2018, Washington state received a $1.1 million McKinney-Vento grant but spent about $32 million transporting students to and from school — which meant having to find excess tax dollars or private donors to make up the shortfall. Add in money needed for counseling, tutoring, and other support services and the financial toll becomes clear.
But that’s not to say that schools are throwing up their hands and doing nothing. Diane Nilan, executive director of HEAR US, a 15-year-old Illinois-headquartered group that creates films and videos about youth and family homelessness, stresses that many school liaisons are going above and beyond to meet the needs of homeless students.
“When someone responds to a child’s basic human needs, it makes them feel worthwhile,” Nilan said. “Providing materials that a family can’t afford — a winter coat, hat and gloves; toiletries; a towel, soap and shampoo; a pair of soccer shoes so a child can be part of a team — make a huge difference, and helps families feel seen and understood” even if it does not fix their situation or provide them with an affordable place to live.
Teachers’ unions are also doing what they can. Both United Teachers Los Angeles and the Chicago Teachers Union Local 1 have made increased support for homeless students and their families a bargaining item, noting that the lack of affordable housing impedes both teaching and learning.
Karen Alford is vice president of elementary schools and the point person for the United Federation of Teachers’ United Community Schools (UCS) initiative in New York City. UCS, Alford told Truthout, has brought an additional staff person into 31 community schools throughout the City to help support the academic achievement of homeless kids.
“For many homeless children, school becomes the stable place, the sanctuary,” Alford said. “It may be the only stable thing in their lives, a constant in a world of upheaval.”
UCS’s work varies depending on student needs. AT PS 1 in Manhattan’s Chinatown, for example, the UCS staff person formed a Girl’s Group for peer-to-peer support. At PS 52 in Queens, a school where the student population includes kids from 10 different shelters, they raised funds for school uniforms so that every kid wears the same thing to school, regardless of their family’s income or living situation. In other schools they’ve established food pantries, installed washers and dryers so that clothing can be kept clean, and created meditation rooms to help homeless students find relief from stress.
They’ve also worked to sensitize school staff. “Kids in the shelter system usually can’t stay late because they need to get on a bus to return to the shelter, so teachers are encouraged to get to important activities a bit earlier to ensure that everyone can participate. We’ve also made sure that shelters have copies of the books students are using in class to make homework completion easier.”
These important efforts, however significant, amount to little more than a drop in the bucket, something that both union activists and advocates acknowledge. What’s needed is federal aid, something that is unlikely to come from an administration that seems hell-bent on criminalizing the homeless and encouraging police agencies to arrest them for minor offenses.
Nonetheless, until a change in administration takes place, First Focus’s Baldari stresses that there are several interim measures that can make a difference. The first, she says, is the 2020 Census. “In 2010, 2 million kids were missed,” she reports. “This happened for a variety of reasons. Some people were wary of including a child they were not biologically related to. Others were afraid to include people who were not on their lease. Households with joint child custody agreements were often confused about who could claim the child.”
This had real consequences. In Florida alone, The Orlando Sentinel reports that the state lost approximately $67.5 million a year. All told, 36 states collectively lose $550 million in funding for Medicaid, Child Health Insurance, foster care and adoption assistance in a single year. The stakes, Baldari adds, are enormous since hundreds of programs rely on Census data for funding and when there’s an undercount they are underfunded.
First Focus is also continuing to press for a wider pro-child, pro-family agenda which is why they’ve pulled together a U.S. Child Poverty Action Group. The End Child Poverty-U.S. campaign includes dozens of organizations, among them the Child Welfare League of America, the American Academy of Pediatrics, HEAR US and School House Connection.
The aim is to reduce domestic child poverty by at least 50 percent by 2030.
“HUD has ignored family and youth homelessness for decades,” Diane Nilan says. “Studies show that children who are homeless become adults who are homeless. But when families or youth are around people who care, it acts as a balm for the pain they’re going through. Trump and Marbut both have a mentality of hatred. The only antidote will be a groundswell of effort to short circuit their policies and rhetoric.”
Note: This article has been updated to correct a transcription error in a quote from Barbara Duffield.