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California officials urge Trump to increase federal aid to fight homelessness

FILE - In this Monday, July 1, 2019 file photo, homeless people move their belongings from a street along side of Los Angeles City Hall as crews prepared to clean the area. Members of the Trump administration visited Los Angeles last week to get a firsthand look at the city's sprawling homeless encampments. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, file)
FILE - In this Monday, July 1, 2019 file photo, homeless people move their belongings from a street along side of Los Angeles City Hall as crews prepared to clean the area. Members of the Trump administration visited Los Angeles last week to get a firsthand look at the city's sprawling homeless encampments. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, file)
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As President Donald Trump weighs direct intervention in the mounting homelessness crisis that has vexed California officials for years, the state’s governor and a bipartisan coalition of elected officials called Monday for the federal government to increase its investment in housing vouchers and other efforts to address homelessness and housing insecurity.

“We can all agree that homelessness is a national crisis decades in the making that demands action at every level of government – local, state, and federal. In California, state and local governments have ramped up action to lift families out of poverty by investing in behavioral health, affordable housing, and other homeless programs,” Gov. Gavin Newsom and mayors of the state’s 13 largest cities wrote in a letter to Trump. “In contrast, your Administration has proposed significant cuts to public housing and programs like the Community Development Block Grant.”

The officials requested 50,000 more vouchers to provide rental subsidies to low-income Americans, increased value for vouchers to account for rising rents, and a program to incentivize landlords to work with voucher-holders.

The request came as the White House Council of Economic Advisers issued a report blaming “harmful local policies” in California and the Northeast and “decades of misguided federal government policies” for exacerbating homelessness and driving up housing costs.

“Deregulating housing markets would result in major reductions in homelessness in key metropolitan areas,” acting CEA Chairman Tom Philipson told reporters, claiming elimination of onerous regulations would result in more than a 40% drop in homelessness in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

President Trump and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson are expected to appear in San Francisco Tuesday to promote homeless opportunity zones, according to The Washington Post. The White House has said Trump—who is traveling through California for fundraisers this week—has directed aides to develop a range of policy options to deal with the homelessness crisis.

“The administration is dedicated to reversing the failed policies of the past by addressing the root causes of homelessness,” Philipson claimed, but many local officials and homeless advocates remain leery of the president’s stated interest in the issue.

HUD’s 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress found California has the largest homeless population in the country, estimated at 130,000 people, and nearly 70% of them are living unsheltered. The second-largest homeless population was in New York, but only 5% of the homeless there are without shelter.

Despite increased spending at the state and local level to provide assistance and build housing in recent years, those numbers are only getting worse in California. Los Angeles County estimated this year its homeless population has increased by 12% over 2018, and homelessness in the city of Los Angeles is up by 16%. As more people crowd into tents and makeshift encampments along sidewalks and under overpasses, concerns have grown about the threat these living conditions pose to public safety and public health.

While the White House blames “liberal policies” and some Republicans point fingers at career Democratic politicians like Newsom, experts say the underlying causes of homelessness in California and urban areas across the country are more complicated.

“Part of the problem is homeless is a complex issue and is more complex sometimes than people recognize... There’s no one-size-fits-all solution,” said Elizabeth Bowen, a professor at the University at Buffalo School of Social Work and the school’s liaison to the National Homelessness Social Work Initiative.

Mental health, substance abuse, and health care are all factors, but even in a relatively strong economy, the cost of housing has grown far faster than wages or disability payments.

“There are fewer and fewer places people can go and house themselves on the income they have,” Bowen said.

Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, likened the situation to a game of musical chairs where those with disabilities, mental illness, and young children are too often the ones left without seats.

“It’s a problem that’s been a long time in the making, particularly driven by the lack of affordable housing... It’s not something you can just turn around very quickly,” she said.

In many ways, this is just the latest battle in an ongoing war between the Trump administration and California, which has filed about 50 lawsuits challenging various Trump policies. Even as Newsom’s office expressed openness to dialogue with the White House about “serious solutions,” the governor was taunting Trump on Twitter about the economy, the environment, and border wall funding.

President Trump appeared to reference the homelessness problem during remarks at a House Republican retreat in Baltimore Thursday, complaining about “what’s going on” in Los Angeles and San Francisco and promising action “in the not-too-distant future.”

“In fact, we gave them a notice a today: Clean it up,” he claimed. “You got to do something. You can't have it. These are our great American cities and they're an embarrassment, what the Democrats have let happen.”

Various Trump administration officials visited California last week on what the White House described as a “fact-finding” mission, meeting with state and local government representatives and advocates who run shelters and clinics treating the homeless.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti sent Trump a letter Tuesday expressing gratitude for the administration’s interest but subtly directing blame back at the White House. “We must put politics aside when it comes to responding to this heartbreaking humanitarian crisis,” Garcetti wrote, urging Trump to support legislation creating new housing grants and mental health programs, increase his budget request for HUD housing safety net programs, and rescind proposed HUD rules that disadvantage mixed-status immigrant families and transgender homeless people.

A Garcetti aide was more blunt about the fact-finding mission, stating at a Politico event, “They’re just not thoughtful, and quite frankly not smart enough, to know what we’re doing.”

The Trump administration has provided little official information on what the president is considering doing about homelessness in California, but media reports indicate officials have discussed razing existing encampments and placing the homeless in temporary federal facilities. Officials toured an unused Federal Aviation Administration building as a potential shelter site, but a senior administration official told The Washington Post “rounding people up” and forcing them into facilities was not under consideration.

Still, the notion of the federal government cracking down on the homeless drew a swift rebuke from some advocacy groups working with vulnerable populations. The National Low Income Housing Coalition called proposals the Trump administration is reportedly debating “abhorrent and unconscionable.”

“Federal attention to solving the crisis is long overdue, but President Trump and his administration are clearly not acting in good faith to end homelessness. Instead, the president and HUD Secretary Carson have taken actions – time and time again – that would worsen homelessness in our country,” the organization said in a statement, urging Trump to invest more in affordable housing instead of “demonizing those with low incomes.”

Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, cited a Zillow study that found every $100 increase in rent results in a 15% increase in homelessness in urban areas and up to a 50% increase in rural areas.

“Instead of the counter-productive and punitive ideas the Trump administration is floating, California—and the nation—needs a huge infusion of federal dollars to start creating the affordable housing we need to scale,” Erlenbusch said via email Monday.

Roman said talk of freeing up more unused federal land for shelters is encouraging, and the administration has the authority to dedicate surplus federal property to affordable housing or incentivize states to reduce barriers to building more. However, stepping up law enforcement efforts against the homeless has been tried and failed many times before, and a criminal record just makes it harder to rent an apartment or find a job.

“Federal assistance could definitely be helpful,” she said. “We know what works to end homelessness, which is essentially to get people back into housing quickly.”

The president’s newfound zeal for addressing the homelessness crisis has been met with a mix of cautious optimism and deep suspicion by California officials unsure if the White House is genuinely interested in solving a growing problem or just trying to orchestrate a political stunt.

“Homelessness is our most serious problem and deserves a serious response. I am wary of any such offer from an administration that consistently demonizes vulnerable people,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, co-chair of Newsom’s homelessness task force, last week. “And yet, if the federal government wants to offer resources to help bring people indoors and to offer federal facilities to shelter and house people, we should readily listen. We cannot afford to politicize an issue which needs real thought and real commitment.”

The task force’s other co-chair, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, expressed similarly mixed feelings.

“If President Trump really wants to help, he should declare this what it is – a state of emergency. He should bring to bear an arsenal of resources – fiscal support, relief from regulatory burdens, and the reversal of discriminatory policies that his administration has sponsored – so we can immediately build a larger safety net and help people get off the streets immediately,” Ridley-Thomas said in a statement.

Some critics have dismissed Trump’s desire to get the homeless off California’s streets as a pre-election ploy to appeal to his base’s disdain for coastal liberalism with Fox News talking points. Liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America calculated Fox has aired at least 53 segments on homelessness in the state since May, often laying blame on Democrats.

“The president has no interest in hearing from actual policy experts. He’s just playing to his base,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., who represents much of Silicon Valley.

Solutions floated by Trump aides could face legal and logistical hurdles. A federal court ruled last year that cities cannot arrest homeless people for sleeping in public spaces if they do not provide sufficient, accessible shelters as an alternative. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that finding, but the case has been appealed to the Supreme Court.

“Simply razing encampments without ensuring adequate alternatives is not only inhumane, costly, and counterproductive, it would also violate fundamental constitutional rights,” said Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

Some advocates have grown frustrated with the state’s failure to alleviate the rising numbers of people living on the streets and the public health risks they pose. Promised new affordable housing developments are costing more and taking longer to build than expected, new taxes and bond initiatives have failed to make a noticeable dent in the homeless population, and Newsom recently backed off a plan to appoint a homelessness czar.

Rev. Andy Bales, head of the Union Rescue Mission, has called for the federal government to assist in erecting membrane tents throughout Los Angeles as temporary shelters and helping overcome state regulatory hurdles.

"They could bring in the National Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers, who I'm certain know how to put these up and we wouldn't be depending on one contractor,” Bales told NBC Los Angeles.

One reason for skepticism of Trump’s motives is his own past comments on the issue of homelessness, which he suggested in a July interview was “a phenomenon that started two years ago.” Speaking to Fox News host Tucker Carlson, Trump said he was “looking very seriously” at interceding and blamed the problem on “the liberal establishment” and sanctuary cities.

Trump also claimed without evidence in that interview to have “very quickly” ended homelessness in Washington, D.C. after taking office. He insisted it was necessary to act because “when you have leaders of the world coming in to see the president of the United States and they’re riding down a highway, they can’t be looking at that.”

He also complained about homelessness in California at a campaign rally in Ohio in August, saying, “What they are doing to our beautiful California is a disgrace to our country. It’s a shame.”

Some now worry this president getting involved will only make a bad situation worse.

“We don't need internment camps for people experiencing homeless,” Erlenbusch said. “We need a leader who will address the systemic causes of the crisis.”

However, given the potential for the federal government to provide funding and facilities for affordable housing and shelters, Roman is not as willing to completely write off Trump’s interest in the issue until she sees what he intends to do about it.

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“We certainly hope the administration is serious about wanting to help,” she said, “and I think it does have resources to apply to the problem Until we hear otherwise, we’ll just hope that’s the case.”

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