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Trump’s Solution to the Homelessness Crisis: Deregulation and Criminalization

Trump’s proposals would expand law enforcement in lieu of social interventions and investments to help homeless people.

Tents line the street in Skid Row in Los Angeles, California, on September 17, 2019.

Donald Trump went to California this week and took out his wrecking ball against the country’s most populous state.

First, he ordered an end to the 49-year-old Clean Air Act waiver allowing California to set higher fuel efficiency and tailpipe emissions standards than the federal government. Then he used California’s appalling housing crisis as a way to further bash the city and state governments out west.

On the eve of the visit, Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers issued a blistering report, largely blaming California’s strict environmental and labor regulations for the state’s housing shortage. The council also claimed that cities around the country that opened up large shelters for homeless people – whether in Los Angeles as it tries to grapple with a surging homelessness crisis, or in New York, where residents of the Big Apple now have a legal right to shelter – were encouraging homelessness.

Trump followed up with a barrage of aggressive public comments and tweets. He said that homeless people in Los Angeles were scaring away businesses and tourists, that the city was destroying itself by tolerating homelessness, and that the “prestige” of major cities and desirable neighborhoods was being undermined by the presence of tent encampments. By Thursday, he was threatening to sic the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – the same EPA that’s hell-bent on – onto San Francisco for tolerating the “tremendous pollution” that accompanies homelessness. Although his solutions were vague, in addition to deregulating housing markets Trump seemed to suggest he would support rounding up homeless people en masse and placing them in federal “facilities,” but made it unclear as to the nature of these “facilities” or whether he’d impose work conditions

These, of course, aren’t solutions; they are blatantly extralegal, authoritarian soundbite proposals that would place in harm’s way yet another vulnerable group of people, and would further expand the Trump era’s burgeoning set of government-run incarceration centers.

Trump has spent years demonizing and seeking to dehumanize immigrants. Now he is doing the same, for partisan political gain, against California’s homeless population. In Trump’s telling, homeless people, concentrated in L.A.’s Skid Row and in other encampments throughout the state, are nothing but a disease-carrying, crime-committing, tourist-scaring, business-hurting eyesore. Nowhere in his shriveled narrative is there any sense of empathy for the men, women and children without homes themselves.

“I know how tough it is once you get to the bottom,” says Frank Ybarra, a formerly homeless resident of Los Angeles who now works as an advocate for the Corporation for Supportive Housing. Ybarra, who had been a successful businessman, became homeless in the late 1980s after suffering two brain aneurisms, and subsequently developing a slew of other physical and mental health issues. Ybarra says such rhetoric ignores the high rates of addiction and mental illness among homeless people.

“If you went to a children’s hospital with kids with asthma, you’d never say that,” Ybarra told Truthout. “When I hear Trump, it really offends me when he’s blaming everyone for the problem. He’s pointing his finger: ‘The homeless are disgusting.’ They’re people who need help. You don’t talk about ill people like that.”

According to Trump, the real estate mogul, if California simply deregulated its (already expensive) housing market it could make an instant dent in its homeless problem. And if it also unleashed police and other law enforcement agencies even more forcefully than it already does against homeless people, and if the feds were to step in with massive sweeps designed to destroy encampments and to herd homeless people into government-run “facilities,” then California’s homeless problem could be largely solved overnight.

“I literally laughed when I was reading their dumbass report,” says Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of San Francisco’s Coalition for the Homeless. “The homelessness crisis has been growing for decades.”

Of course, in reality, there is nothing simple about solving a problem that has been allowed to grow and fester for decades. Federal underinvestment in public and subsidized housing systems dates back at least to the Reagan administration: Reagan cut the budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) by more than 50 percent, and the process continued under subsequent administrations, resulting in hundreds of thousands of public housing units across the country being lost.

The crisis that is playing out on the streets of California’s cities is a complex product of too-expensive housing; of not enough new residences being built; of wildfires depleting the state’s housing stock; of over-policing and a lack of accessible resources for people with addiction and mental health issues.

Friedenbach worries that Trump’s proposals would essentially greenlight the creation of 21st century workhouses or poorhouses, using the heavy hand of law enforcement in lieu of meaningful social interventions and investments to help homeless people. She is concerned that his intervention will take an already horrendous problem and end up “somewhere much worse.”

Trump, as he does so often, is attacking a straw man here. For no one in a position of authority in California politics thinks having more than 100,000 people sleeping on the streets is anything other than a humanitarian catastrophe. No one thinks the burgeoning encampments, and the health crises and human misery accompanying them, represent good developments. The question is what to do about it. Gov. Gavin Newsom has put much of his political capital on the line these past months, setting in place new policies, investments and commissions to tackle the growing crisis. He has pushed cities to build more houses – and to create high density housing near transit hubs. The state is finally embracing rent controls. Cities like Sacramento are investing tens of millions of dollars in building new shelters and supportive housing units.

But all of this will take time. And it will involve not just talking about the homeless, but also with them, to understand the full panoply of concerns people have. It can’t simply involve knee jerk faux-“solutions.” As Friedenbach notes, one doesn’t solve a complex problem like this by demonizing homeless people and proposing blatantly illegal, authoritarian responses such as sweeping people into federally run camps.

Newsom has responded to Trump’s newfound concern for California’s homeless population by requesting that the feds free up 50,000 additional housing vouchers for use in the state. Don’t hold your breath on this one. There’s no way in hell that this administration, which has made a hobby out of hurting the poor and the marginalized, will suddenly develop a fondness for properly funding housing assistance for the poor.

Trump has slashed and burned housing programs, as well as an array of other anti-poverty programs and safety-net systems, from the first day he took office. He has, in recent months, proposed utterly draconian cuts to public housing and other affordable housing funds over the coming years. And, just this summer, HUD proposed a rule change that would result in more than 100,000 members of mixed-status families, including over 50,000 U.S.-citizen children being evicted from public housing and from Section 8 housing. More than 11,000 of these people live in Los Angeles alone.

There is a rank hypocrisy to Trump’s comments on homelessness in California. This isn’t even remotely about empathy for those who are suffering economic insecurity and are living on the streets. Whatever one thinks of his record on housing, Obama at least had the humanity feed the homeless at soup kitchens, or turn up at food banks to help bag food for the hungry; it’s simply impossible to imagine Trump, the most self-absorbed and amoral of men, doing such a thing. No, this is about siding with those who view the homeless as an “inconvenience” or an “eyesore,” who simply want them removed and don’t care how. This is about Trump betting the house that he can gin up conservative support from those secure in their homes and their economic status by highlighting poverty in liberal states and by deliberately picking a fight with California’s leadership on issue after issue.

“The president is literally mocking what he sees downtown,” says Ybarra. “He’s come out here to campaign and to fundraise. He’s using the homeless down here to basically cash in.”

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