Trump on homelessness problem in California cities: 'Clean it up'

As he makes it a campaign issue, administration officials visit Los Angeles.

September 14, 2019, 5:44 PM

Officials from the Trump administration have met with local agencies and advocates in Los Angeles about the federal government getting more involved in assisting with the homelessness crisis in the state.

President Donald Trump said on Thursday his administration has warned officials in Los Angeles and other cities in California to "clean it up."

President Donald Trump speaks to the media prior to departing for Baltimore on Marine One from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Sept. 12, 2019.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Speaking at a GOP lawmaker retreat in Baltimore -- a city he said earlier this summer was "rat and rodent infested" -- Trump claimed businesses are leaving Democratic-controlled cities.

"We're going to fight for the future of cities like Baltimore that have been destroyed by decades of failed and corrupt rule," the president said. "These are our great American cities, and they're an embarrassment."

Trump has made it a campaign issue, saying in August at a Make America Great Again rally in Ohio: "Nearly half of all the homeless people living in the streets in America happen to live in the state of California. What they are doing to our beautiful California is a disgrace to our country. It's a shame the world is looking at it. Look at Los Angeles with the tents and the horrible, horrible disgusting conditions. Look at San Francisco. Look at some of your other cities."

A White House official confirmed there was an administration team on the ground in California this week on a fact-finding mission about the homelessness crisis but didn’t elaborate on specific options being discussed.

"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," White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement. "In June, the President took action and signed an Executive Order to confront the regulatory barriers to affordable housing development, a leading cause of homelessness. President Trump has directed his team to go further and develop a range of policy options for consideration to deal with this tragedy."

This Thursday, June 27, 2019, file photo shows a man holding a bicycle tire outside of a tent along a street in San Francisco.
Jeff Chiu/AP, FILE

"The spike in homelessness we are seeing in places like Los Angeles and San Francisco is alarming," A HUD spokesperson said in a statement. "While there are many state and local issues at play here, we’re looking at a range of options available to us at HUD -- as well as other agencies -- for possible federal action, if and where appropriate."

The Washington Post first reported Tuesday that Trump ordered aides to launch a "sweeping effort" to combat homelessness in California cities, which could include plans to force people out of tents and camps and direct them into unused government facilities.

The Los Angeles Times also reported officials met with law enforcement unions in the city a discussed a range of issues including options to increase law enforcement involvement.

Belongings of the homeless crowd a downtown Los Angeles sidewalk in Skid Row on May 30, 2019.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images, FILE

The White House statement seems to shift partial blame for the problem on local policies. In a letter to Trump, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said he welcomes increased attention to the issue of homelessness but that a lack of resources and support on the federal level is also part of the problem.

"It is clear that no local government, including ours, can address homelessness on our own," Garcetti said in the letter. "For many years, the federal government has woefully underfunded our housing safety net, contributing to homelessness. The federal government cut HUD funding for the production of new housing and preservation by 31% for the 2016-2018 time period, and according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, only one in four low-income families who qualify for housing assistance actually receive it. This pressure is acutely felt here in Los Angeles, where 36,000 people experience homelessness on any given night."

Travis Stanley, who said he has been homeless for three months and is a U.S. Navy veteran, reads on donated bedding where he normally sleeps beneath an overpass on June 5, 2019, in Los Angeles.
Mario Tama/Getty Images, FILE

Affordable housing and homelessness advocacy groups like the National Low Income Housing Coalition said the most significant step the administration could take would be to fund existing programs focused on ending homelessness and stop proposing cuts to the budget for those programs at HUD and the Interagency Council on Homelessness.

"The solution to homelessness is affordable homes -- not criminalization, not punishing poor people for being poor, not sweeping homeless people into increasingly unsafe areas, and not warehousing people in untenable and unsustainable conditions," NLIHC president and CEO Diane Yentel said in a statement.

"Homelessness in California is a crisis, as it is in many other areas of the country," she added, "and it demands action from federal, state and local government. But Trump and his administration are not acting in good faith to solve for it -- they’ve worked time and again over the last two years to worsen the housing and homelessness crisis and this latest effort looks to be no different."

Advocates also have said that uncertainty around federal grant programs during shutdowns and the federal budget process also can make the private housing sector less willing to work with nonprofits on affordable housing, creating additional challenges.

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