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Trump’s new homeless czar a ‘real-life horror,’ say housing advocates

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Robert Marbut’s polarizing methodology goes against the “housing first” approach that has worked in many U.S. cities.

A man walks past a homeless encampment of colorful tents beneath the smooth concrete wall of a freeway overpass.
Over 500,000 people experience homelessness on any given night in the U.S., but “housing first” policies have reduced chronic homelessness over the last decade.
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Today’s confirmation of a polarizing private housing consultant as the Trump administration’s federal homelessness czar has advocates worried that years of progress could be undone in what has become a growing crisis for many U.S. cities.

Robert Marbut was appointed last week as director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), a position that collaborates on homelessness policy with 19 key agencies. His appointment was quickly condemned by housing advocates, including the national nonprofit Invisible People, which described Marbut’s past work as “real-life horror.”

Marbut’s confirmation represents a “serious setback in our country’s efforts to end homelessness,” said Diane Yentel, CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, in a statement. “Dr. Marbut espouses dehumanizing and ineffective methods that are based on neither empirical evidence nor best practice.”

Established in 1987, the Council’s purpose is to coordinate homelessness services across a wide range of departments, including housing, veterans’ affairs, and public health. “It is difficult to overstate the Council’s importance, or the immense responsibility to sustain and advance its progress,” said Nan Roman, CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, in a statement. “This work has been neither political nor partisan. Rather, it has been strategic, evidence-based, and informed by the best practices in ending homelessness, including Housing First approaches.”

Marbut’s career has been marked by controversy. Thirteen years ago, after a four-year stint as a San Antonio city councilmember, Marbut oversaw the development of a shelter model for the city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when hundreds of thousands of New Orleans residents fled to Texas cities. The downtown facility named Haven for Hope—which calls itself a “transformational campus,” not a shelter—has been praised by state leaders and now accommodates 1,500 people as well as a wide range of services, 24 hours a day.

However, access to the 1,000 beds must be earned. People entering the shelter must sleep on mats in an outdoor courtyard and can only move inside after participating in services like job training, education, and substance abuse counseling. Breaking rules like missing curfew can mean getting demoted back to the courtyard.

Due to his work in San Antonio, Marbut became a paid consultant for cities across the U.S. attempting to tackle their own homelessness crises—while taking increasingly unorthodox approaches. As described in a 2015 Huffington Post profile, Marbut embedded with the local homeless population in Daytona Beach, Florida, by dressing up in disguise and living on the streets for several days in order to create a series of recommendations for city leaders.

But like the policies at Haven for Hope, the recommendations that Marbut has made go counter to the approach of advocates working in those cities, many of whom have publicly disagreed with his methods.

Marbut does not adhere to the “housing first” philosophy embraced by most U.S. cities, which aim to place people experiencing homelessness into stable, supportive housing before working to address any medical, financial, or substance abuse issues. This method is not only proven to help people stay housed, as it’s easier to tackle other issues once someone has a safe, stable place to sleep, but it also saves cities money by avoiding costly public expenditures for emergency care.

Instead, Marbut has recommended that cities stop giving out food, criminalize sidewalk sleeping, and force homeless residents who want services to move into city-operated facilities in large temporary structures that advocates have equated to jails.

As he told the Huffington Post in 2015, “I believe in Housing Fourth.”

“He believes that people are homeless because they are in some way deficient and need fixing—and he proposes warehousing them with mandatory services until they can prove they are ‘ready’ for housing,” said Yentel, in a lengthy thread on Twitter condemning the pick.

As of the morning of December 10, over 75 members of Congress had signed a letter calling for heads of the 19 agencies to oppose the nomination.

An estimated 552,830 people experience homelessness on any given night in the U.S., according to federal point-in-time data published in December 2018. The Trump administration has not yet released data for 2019.

Although the number of people experiencing homelessness in the U.S. has gone down overall during the past decade, the number has crept up again in the two years Trump has been in office. In particular, sharper increases in homelessness are being observed in large cities, particularly on the West Coast, thanks to stagnant wages and growing wealth inequality, which advocates say calls for a more nuanced approach. In Los Angeles, for example, 53 percent of people who became homeless for the first time cited economic hardship as the reason, including being priced out of increasingly expensive living situations.

After high-profile presidential visits to San Francisco and Los Angeles in September, Trump administration officials confirmed they were planning a major federal homelessness initiative. An anonymous official told the Washington Post that those solutions may include “razing existing tent camps for the homeless, creating new temporary facilities, and refurbishing existing government facilities,” according to the paper.

A report issued by the White House after the visits alarmed homelessness advocates, who criticized it for using data, terminology, and studies that are widely considered to be outdated—and strikingly similar to Marbut’s philosophies.

Marbut’s methodology also mirrors past comments by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, who has said housing for homeless residents should not be “a comfortable setting that would make somebody want to say: ‘I’ll just stay here. They will take care of me.’” Carson has moved to end some federal homelessness programs, including protections for transgender residents.

Last year, a new coalition of U.S. mayors and business leaders, Mayors & CEOs for U.S. Housing Investment, was formed to put homelessness back on the national agenda as vital sources of funding, including certain grants and other subsidies, have vanished under Carson’s leadership.

The coalition is calling on the federal government to create public-private partnerships with developers to incentivize building more affordable housing. Under Marbut’s leadership, however, building housing would not be a priority.

Advocates, as well as state and city legislators, are wary about Marbut’s appointment in light of a looming federal court decision. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to announce this week if it will take on Martin v. City of Boise, one of the key cases addressing the criminalization of homelessness. In April, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the case that homeless residents have the right to sleep on a street or sidewalk if accessible indoor accommodations are not provided by the city.

Last month, Obama-appointed USICH director Matthew Doherty was forced out by Trump officials in what’s being called an attempt to make what has been considered a bipartisan position into a politically aligned role. Doherty has since accepted a role with California as an advisor to Gov. Gavin Newsom on the state’s homelessness response.

“We are concerned... that Doherty’s forced resignation and that Marbut’s appointment is related to recent White House rhetoric that dehumanizes and degrades people experiencing homelessness and that calls for ‘sweeps’ of homeless encampments,” a statement on Marbut’s appointment from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.